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The 1970s — Magnificent Obsession: Ellen Burstyn’s Legacy: Awards, Accolades, and Iconicity

Ellen Burstyn is a beloved, iconic American actress. One needs only to glance at a filmography that includes work with Bob Rafaelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972), Martin Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1974), Alain Resnais (Providence, 1977), and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, 2000, 2006) to realize that Burstyn, who is entering an impressive seventh decade as a working artist, has been at the flashpoints of several important filmic movements — from the blunt, burgeoning Cassavetes-inflected American indie scene of the early 1970s, to the popularizing of the serious, literate horror film as a marketable, reputable genre nearly 20 years before The Silence of the Lambs stole that credit like a thief in the night. She is a fearless performer who is unafraid to change.

Despite an overabundance of credibility as an actor by the early part of the seventies, Burstyn was (and is still) rarely credited with being a feminist pioneer in the business, enjoying an unusually successful, industry-approved career as a woman over 40, being considered a great beauty as well as a great talent, and being a popular box office draw. People (rightly) get excited about Meryl Streep becoming a hot commodity in her sixties, but it is uncommon these days for any more seasoned actress to achieve the level of stardom Burstyn did during her break-out years and only to sustain a career well into their seventies and beyond. In her book Lessons in Becoming Myself, Burstyn recalls these years as “the thick of it,” an accurate description of the professional hoopla and triumphs that was unfortunately coupled with a complicated personal life spent with an abusive, mentally-ill husband from whom she was desperately trying to escape, all the while the mother of a young son as well as a hard-working professional.

Knowing the hell of Burstyn’s private life at the time will better inform anyone on her work during this period. Trying on women who are on their own, who are going through unplanned changes, and navigating their newfound independence with surprising strength, it is clear that while Burstyn did become Chris MacNeil or Alice Hyatt. These characters were extremely personal for her. Perhaps this is why we as an audience so fully believe that a little girl could become possessed by an evil entity and that her mother, an actress, can save her. “My performance as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, is due, quite honestly, to the devotion and mesmerizing performance Ellen Burstyn created as the mother, Chris MacNeil in the film,” said Oscar-nominated co-star Linda Blair via email. “Without her performance in The Exorcist, I do not think that anyone would have cared about what happened to Regan MacNeil. It is her pain and anguish, and amazing work, that makes the audience care so deeply for her ‘little girl!’

The Last Picture Show

The lost “little girl” might be another way to broadly link Burstyn’s characters across this decade, as the Women’s Liberation Movement was awakening the fight in Edna Rae Gillooly from Detroit as she finally sprung from a chrysalis to emerge as Ellen Burstyn, film star. While this filmic theme mirrors Burstyn’s real life in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (which was Burstyn’s first Oscar nomination), and also in The Exorcist in a very scary, very literal way, the film that feels like the biggest personal and artistic triumph, defining a generation as well as highlighting her incredible versatility, is Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Directed by a neophyte, hand-picked Martin Scorsese, fresh off the Mean Streets of New York City, transported to the deserts of Arizona, Alice Doesn’t Live Here begins with a surreal, ruby red-saturated fever dream sequence that features Alice as a girl on the farm, alone in the music of her dreams. There is a deliberately theatrical, artificial feel to the mis en scene. This prologue is followed, tongue firmly in cheek, by a pink satin background with aqua Douglas Sirk-inspired lettering for the opening credits sequence, indicating to the viewer that this film is a woman’s picture, a melodrama. Scorsese uses these symbols, these conventions, as a jumping off point for doing something truly new and unique, maverick even, in depicting Alice’s reality, the visual style of which could not be any more opposite the dreamy blush of the opening vignette, but remains just as expressive of the leading lady’s interior nonetheless. As the legend goes, the director admitted to Burstyn that he knew nothing about women, but was eager to learn. Burstyn liked his honesty and, in her capacity as a chief consultant in the film’s production and casting, threw her support behind him immediately. In this film, Scorsese provides a beautiful framework for Burstyn’s magnetic performance, bringing a technical voraciousness to the film that a less hungry or knowledgeable director might have lacked.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

It is the director’s incisive knowledge of cinema history (such as the literal nods to Sirk, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, or The Wizard of Oz), that by the time the film moves into contemporary reality, communicates decades of knowledge to the audience. When we land in Alice’s reality, captured in variously melodramatic, side-splittingly funny, and heartbreakingly true vignettes, it becomes clear that Burstyn isn’t just simply an actress playing another character, but rather a woman truly inhabiting and becoming one, allowing the character to live through her own experiences. In the movie, it is hard to watch the violent-tempered Harvey Keitel, as Alice’s lover Ben, threaten to break her jaw, because the moment was real for Burstyn, who was escaping from this kind of erratic behavior from her real-life husband. Burstyn, in her book, wrote that “a whole lifetime’s worth of tears was coming out. I didn’t have to act.” The role is demanding, and requires Burstyn to sing, play piano, find chemistry in romantic scenes with Kris Kristofferson as David, capture the zeitgeist of the Feminist movement, confront single motherhood and class, and finally, to achieve self-realization for the character, but also perhaps for herself. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore maintains a unique tone throughout that finds both absurd comedy and wrenching drama in Alice’s end-of-the-line narrative, setting the film apart from the traditionally-macho Scorsese oeuvre. Burstyn is a rare female lead in a cannon that is viewed popularly as being uber-masculine.

Alice’s life isn’t all that great. Like many women of the era, she is expected to be the perfect housewife and mother who puts a good dinner on the table every night, and who is expected to look good while doing it – a trope that was becoming a charmless anachronism in the heat of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Alice suppresses her own identity to accommodate the men in her life. Her husband Donald (Billy Green Bush) is a blustery blockhead who takes her for granted, while her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter III) prods and pokes at her already-frayed nerves. When Donald dies unexpectedly, Alice’s voyage to self-recovery begins, connecting with that little girl on the prairie that we glimpsed at the beginning of the film.

In a breathtaking scenes following the funeral, Burstyn sings the song “Where or When” while playing piano, finally alone with her own thoughts after years of oppression and being told that what she wants doesn’t matter. Now, she is free. The day is golden and perfect, and a warm breeze can almost be felt by the audience thanks to Scorsese’s evocative direction of the scene, coupled with Burstyn’s expressive delivery of the music. The actresses’ honesty in this scene, and throughout the film, is a rare and remarkable thing to witness: an actor getting lost in the moment, in character, with no apparent self-consciousness. A pure moment. As the camera pans back through a window and goes outside, we find Tommy, all childish confusion, behind a row of suburban hedges, listening quietly. It is at this moment Alice realizes that she can soar, and the moment that Tommy realizes his mother is not just a meek housewife, but a formidable, talented and surprising woman. The mother-son relationship is central to the film, and highly complex. Burstyn never shies away from scenes where she behaves perhaps unsympathetically towards her bratty kid, and she never attempts to play any discordantly sacrificial notes of Stella Dallas-levels of faux-sainthood.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

There is an attention to Alice’s erotic life that is palpable. And it’s not just about sex, either, but about love. The scene where David is mending the fences while Alice watches is, according to Burstyn’s interview on the extras disc of the DVD, the moment when Alice falls in love with David, touching his beard, looking at his strong hands working the land, watching him move. It is a beautifully intimate scene, and the chemistry between Burstyn and Kristofferson is easy, natural. It is as though the actors are discovering one another onscreen as they say their lines to one another. Nothing feels forced, the tone is relaxed and true, the love story completely believable and passionate.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a story of survival, ultimately. A story about a woman surviving catastrophe after catastrophe somehow, just barely, running on empty, on instinct alone. Alice is not at all perfect as a protagonist. In fact, she is deeply-flawed, which makes her that much more engaging, dynamic and real as a character. It is this marriage of cinematic size and actorly scale that makes Alice so indelible and enjoyable, as well as totally relevant almost forty years later. Sometimes she is a bad mother who makes decisions that range from practical to just bad to outrageous, but she is constantly solving these problems in her own way, cleverly charting her own course in the face of overwhelming, adversarial odds. It is because of the Burstyn’s total commitment to playing the role that the film works as well as it does, and stands out as the part that best captures the evolving essence of the performer as much as it does the essence of the character. Alice is an angelic harmony, sung and played with perfect pitch.

The film won Burstyn her only Oscar to date, for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and she would go on to win the Tony the same year for her Broadway comedy Same Time, Next Year (the film version of which would nab the actress an Oscar nomination in 1978). She was vocally critical of the Academy Awards – Burstyn detested the idea of actors competing, and also signed a petition insisting that Liv Ullmann be eligible for a nomination for Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage in the same year as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and in the following year encouraged voters to not vote for Best Actress because of the lack of great female roles. Previously attending the ceremony only for her nomination for The Exorcist, she stayed in New York City in 1978 (coincidentally, Burstyn’s former Jackie Gleason co-star Art Carney won Best Actor that night, for Harry and Tonto, a film in which Burstyn played his daughter). Backstage at Same Time Next Year, following the ceremony, Burstyn was presented with her Oscar by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Matthau infamously quipped to the actress as she inquired about the trophy’s meaning: “Let me put it to you this way, Burstyn. When you die, they are going to say ‘Ellen Burstyn, the Academy-award winning actress, died today.’”

The Exorcist