We’ve Got a Winner! Ellen Burstyn Holds a Dark Mirror Up to the Soul of ‘Requiem for a Dream’

We are fascinated by watching women transform into tragic characters on film. Marlene Dietrich’s third act surprise in Witness for the Prosecution. Nicole Kidman and her fake nose capturing the essence of Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Charlize Theron’s weight gain, and air-brushed sun-damaged complexion in Monster, Marion Cotillard’s waxworks figure of an alcohol and drug-ravaged Edith Piaf in La vie en Rose. Most recently, Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange in Grey Gardens. All of these talented women pushed the boundaries of their craft and worked within the constraints of sometimes oppressive theatrical devices. It is clear that this is the kind of meaty challenge actors dream about; altering one’s body to provide a canvas that another woman can exist upon.

The above-mentioned turns are amongst the more memorable character actress transformations in film history, where the recognized star fully disappears into the role, and the audience is reminded that truly great stars have no vanity. They suppress themselves and their recognized faces in order to give life to the women they play. Furthermore, many of these actresses who radically alter their otherwise gorgeous countenances have been called fiery glamour girls, a character type artist Ellen Burstyn virtually defined in The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971). All you need to do is watch Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974) and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) in a double bill, and you will see with your own eyes that Burstyn is never the same woman onscreen. She constantly transforms.

Though gender would dictate that Sara Goldfarb be included in a group with the women mentioned above, Burstyn’s Requiem for a Dream transformation is more of a cinematic cousin to the great character work of Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff, or perhaps even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, which makes Sara Goldfarb a classically-defined monster in many ways. In Monster Culture (Seven Theses), writer Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “everyone is a monster on Halloween night,” but what connects everyday “monster” Sara to the traditional creature narrative discussed by Cohen is how Burstyn’s body “literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy.” By going so far into the physical (and mental) dimensions of the character, Burstyn holds up a dark mirror to the character’s soul, showcasing a woman who is pathetic, full of ignorant goodwill, who makes mistakes, and who, in the end, provides a revealing, strangely relatable catharsis for viewers. After all, the essential function of any true “monster” is not to scare, but to educate, to warn humans of their own dangerous bodies. Sara’s body, and the body of “the monster”, according to Cohen, is “incoherent, [and] resists any systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous […] demanding a radical rethinking of boundary and normality.” And so is the task of playing of playing Sara Goldfarb, a character we are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by, just as we are by monsters, who in Cohen’s view “call horrid attention to the border that cannot – must not – be crossed.”

Utilizing the gestural, the corporeal, the facial, and the vocal as building blocks for conveying the mood of Requiem for a Dream‘s desperate milieu, Burstyn, by playing Sara, not only proved to the world that actors of her caliber do possess the ability to become completely different people, but that female performers of her generation (she was 66 at the time of filming), should never be discounted because of their age. The star seemingly suppressed herself to occupy a character that would be the biggest challenge of her career, and took her biggest risk, which resulted in perhaps her most successful, adventurous acting performance to date. And speaking of transformation, Burstyn’s unique, layered take on Sara changed popular perceptions of her as a performer at a time when people thought they really knew everything about her as a performer. Speaking directly to the drug culture-savvy Generations X and Y, Aronofsky, acting as an ambassador for the new guard, introduced Burstyn’s old guard school of Actors Studio discipline to many film-goers who likely hadn’t even been born during the height of the actresses’ popularity in the 1970s. Many film critics at the time erroneously labeled Sara to be the actresses’ “comeback”, comparing her partnership with Aronofsky to the popular, successful collaboration between John Travolta and Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction, even though she hadn’t really gone anywhere; she was simply not being offered high profile parts. The role cemented her status as one of the greatest living American actresses, one who had faced tremendous adversity in her public and private lives, and one who maintained tremendous grace and integrity in an industry that sadistically casts women aside as they hit the forties and beyond.

Though the actress worked steadily throughout the 1990s in what she calls, in her autobiography Lessons in Becoming Myself, “gray-haired old lady” roles, when she hit screens in the fall of 2000 in Requiem for a Dream, many writers wondered where she had been hiding. Despite a strong presence in film, ironically it was her stage performance as Morphine-addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night that might have been the one that convinced tyro Aronofsky that she was the woman who could become Sara Goldfarb, the woman who was strong enough to give Sara a believable life force, and a true energy in an unyielding story. Burstyn has spoken about how playing Mary informed her performance as Sara, beyond the obvious drug addiction parallels, and the similarities are ripe for the picking. Both characters were sheltered, suppressed, hidden from the sun just as they were about to fully flower. Their larger than life dreams were put on hold to soothe the desires and needs of the men in their lives, their identities took a back seat to these supposed familial duties (during the intense discussion between Sara and Harry [Jared Leto] at the center of the film, she chokes back tears as she speaks the line “I got no one to care for, what have I got Harry?”). Both had large hearts that were shrunk by the men who forced them into shadowy, oppressively claustrophobic spaces. Both seek a means to numb the pain caused by the void left after the excising of their dreams; rather than feeling just a little of the past’s splendor, they would both rather not feel real at all. But neither Mary nor Sara can forget. Their drugs – whether their memories, their husbands, their sons, or their narcotics – enable these trampled flowers to live within their fantasies of yesteryear, to escape the reality in which it might actually be too late to realize any of the fragile old dreams.

Burstyn brings in classic elements of 19th century theatrical stage acting histrionics (think Eleanora Duse as a manic pill-popper), and silent film pantomime that folds in the use of broad, purposeful gestures (the scene in which Sara’s mental state is rapidly deteriorating, and she dancing with the red dress communicates this style perfectly, and is reminiscent of early Gloria Swanson), as well as the verisimilar style that incorporates realism. It is a delicate balancing act. What made this characterization so potent was that it did in fact capture a specific type of woman, one who exists in Brooklyn, who hasn’t had the life experience to accrue conventional wisdom or be given the benefit of modernism, despite her close proximity to the cultural and intellectual center of the universe across the river in Manhattan. Burstyn said in an interview with Charlie Rose around the time of the film’s release that Sara would have maybe ventured to Manhattan only once or twice during the course of her safe life. The character exists in a fascinating, impenetrable bubble where the rules are etched in stone: women of this generation and place stayed at home, they took care of their families. This was the end all be all of their very existence. It was as though their identity did not matter.

For these reasons, one can see Sara Goldfarb in one’s own grandmother, and nobody wants to see Grandma grinding her teeth and freaking out on amphetamines. That is practically inconceivable in Hollywood film, where this archetype smiles warmly, baby-sits the kids, cooks family meals, and is generally a one-dimensional rock that, despite a lack of presence or persona, holds the family together solidly, magically. Requiem for a Dream carefully deconstructs this ageist stereotype, and if the visually audacious film metaphorically circulates the blood through viewer’s veins, then it is Burstyn’s Sara who is the beating heart which pumps the blood, she is a muscle that novelist Michael Ondaatje romantically calls “an organ of fire” in The English Patient. Though Sara might think she is possessed of a burning lion’s heart, it is her mind and her body that will ultimately be her undoing and this is where Burstyn does the real hard work and heavy lifting that stitch together this lived-in characterization. The performer is the pace-maker that regulates the beating of Sara’s broken heart.

Writer Konstantin Stanislavsky, the father of Method Acting, remarked that “the language of the body is the key that can unlock the soul,” but “the body” is a cage lined with barbed wire and funhouse mirrors for Sara Goldfarb, distorting the reality of the body as it does for many residents of the Aronofsky universe. Just look at Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman in The Fountain, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, and Natalie Portman in Black Swan for further proof of the director’s interest in the twisted, degenerating human shell and the cruel punishments it can endure. Sara’s addiction to food is what leads her to drug addiction. Because of her obsession with television, where the female form, no matter what age, is slim, Sara’s idea of ‘beautiful’ dialectically clashes with her own self-worth being derived from an impossible, glossy aesthetic that she is desperate to be a part of. Sara could be seen as a monster warning of gluttony, or entitlement, and Burstyn doesn’t shy away from playing these unlikable character traits, and she also didn’t shy away from literally pulling her own weight in equipment, despite a lifelong back injury from an accident that happened on the set of The Exorcist. According to legend, during Requiem for a Dream‘s shoot, Burstyn’s physical entry point into the role included having a heavy camera mounted to her for certain sequences, in addition to spending hours every morning being fitted with prosthetics, wearing four different necks (both fat and emaciated), two different fat suits (a 40-pound and 20-pound suit), and nine different wigs. And then, there was the hours-long process of removing Sara‘s body parts from Ellen‘s actual body. This kind of intimate physicality undoubtedly informs the performance of an actor playing a character whose every move is permeated by debilitating body issues.

Getting the look right is one thing, but sounding like the character is an altogether separate Herculean task. Though her thick, old-school Brooklyn accent was both criticized and celebrated in the press at the time of the film’s release, it is Burstyn’s attention to detail, to delivering the prose just as Requiem for a Dream novelist Hubert Selby Jr. dreamt, that is another fascinating technical aspect of the actresses’ performance. It’s all about the delivery, the syncopation, the shading. The actress handles Selby’s writing like hardscrabble, blue-collar Shakespeare. No words are extraneous; each syllable needed proper diction and timing. The actresses’ meticulous vocal work in the extended, centerpiece scene with Sara and Harry is an excellent example of the intrinsic importance of what theorist Andrew Higson sees in playwright Bertold Brecht’s insistence that actors use a gestic manner of speaking rather than their actual speaking voices: “it is important to work on different speech patterns, speeds of delivery and rhythms, on different tones and accents, and on the varying possibilities of conversational speech.”

Burstyn’s delivery of the line “I’m old,” encapsulates an entire life of regret, and is immediately reminiscent of a scene in another Burstyn film, Resurrection, where her character Edna is saying goodbye to her grandmother, played by legendary actress Eva La Galienne. Burstyn has said that when “LeG”, as she was known, said the word “love” in her climactic speech, her vocal register dropped into her heart, and that she did it take after take. It is simply one word, but the emphasis and the tone shade the term and offer the spectator new meanings. Burstyn does the same thing in Requiem with just one word, “old.” All of the fears, all of the hurt, all of the anxieties of Sara Goldfarb are presented in just one second onscreen, and there are few performers who have such a command of their craft that they can convey such innate meaning. LeG was one, and one can only imagine that Burstyn, a lifelong student and teacher, took the veteran’s lesson to heart.

Though Burstyn was nominated for her sixth Academy Award for her performance as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream, it was Hollywood institution and charm factory Julia Roberts who took the top prize for her work as the crusading single mother in Erin Brockovich, a fine, if not entirely transformative performance that relied heavily on Roberts’ personal charisma and tenacity on the awards’ hotly politicized campaign trail. Roberts as Erin might not have much in common with Burstyn’s metamorphosis as Sara on the surface level, but Roberts’ turn owes everything to the groundwork laid out by the elder actress in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which is an obvious forerunner to Erin Brockovich. That voters opted for this kind of soft-focus nostalgia rather than the bleak, daring originality of Burstyn isn’t entirely surprising given their dubious track record in choosing both strange winners and nominees, but her win is definitely one of the biggest mistakes in Oscar history. Despite the fascination with watching female actors become different women from the outside in, when it comes to little gold statues, the voters want to see old-fashioned movie star glamour, flashing pearly whites, and blinding charisma, not a black mirror held up to their soul that reminds them of their own mortality.



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