The 1970s’ Magnificent Obsession: Ellen Burstyn’s Legacy

Lessons in Becoming Myself
Ellen Burstyn
October 2006

Ellen Burstyn is a beloved, iconic American actress. One needs only to glance at a filmography that includes work with Bob Rafelson (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. She has been at the flashpoints of several important filmic movements – from the blunt, burgeoning Cassavetes-inflected American indie scene of the early ’70s, 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 ’70s, Burstyn was (and is still) rarely credited with being a feminist pioneer in the business. She enjoys an unusually successful, “industry-approved” career as a woman over 40. She’s considered a great beauty as well as a great talent, and a popular box office draw. People (rightly) get excited about Meryl Streep becoming a hot commodity in her 60s, but it is uncommon these days for more seasoned actresses to achieve the level of stardom Burstyn did during her break-out years. She has sustained her career well into their 70s and beyond.

In her book Lessons in Becoming Myself, Burstyn recalls these years as “the thick of it”, an accurate description of the professional triumphs that were, unfortunately, coupled with a complicated personal life spent with an abusive, mentally-ill husband from whom she was desperately trying to escape while caring for her young son. Attracted to characters that are navigating difficulties and discovering newfound independence, it is clear why Burstyn loved her roles as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist and Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. These characters were personal for her.

Perhaps this is why viewers can so readily 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 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 the theme in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (which was Burstyn’s first Oscar nomination) mirrors Burstyn’s real life, the film that feels like the biggest personal and artistic triumph is her role in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

This film was directed by the at the time neophyte, Martin Scorsese, fresh from 1973’s Mean Streets. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore begins with a surreal, ruby red-saturated fever dream sequence that features Alice as a girl on a farm, alone in the music of her dreams. There is a deliberately theatrical, artificial feel to the mise-en-scène. 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 and conventions as a jumping-off point for doing something truly unique, maverick even, in depicting Alice’s reality. The visual style is quite 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. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 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.

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, it has already communicated 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 Alice, allowing the character to live through her own experiences.

It is difficult to watch the violent-tempered Harvey Keitel, as Alice’s lover Ben, threaten to break her jaw knowing of the erratic behavior of her real-life husband. Burstyn, in her memoir, writes 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, 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. Indeed, Burstyn is a rare female lead in the uber-masculine world of Scorsese and his male contemporaries.

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 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, wherein she connects with that little girl on the prairie that we glimpsed at the beginning of the film.

In a breathtaking scene following the funeral, Burstyn sings “Where or When” while playing the piano. She’s 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 remarkable thing to witness: an actor getting lost in the moment, in character, with no apparent self-consciousness. It’s 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 that Alice realizes that she can be self-sufficient and strong, and the moment that Tommy realizes his mother is not just a meek housewife. The mother-son relationship is central to the film and highly complex. Burstyn never shies away from scenes where she behaves unsympathetically toward her bratty kid, and she never attempts to play any discordantly sacrificial notes of Stella Dallas-levels of faux-sainthood.

There is also an attention to Alice’s erotic life that is palpable. And it’s not just about sex. The scene where David is mending the fences while Alice watches is, according to Burstyn’s interview on the extras disc of the DVD reviewed here, the moment when Alice falls in love with David. She touches his beard, looks at his strong hands, and watches him move. It is a beautifully intimate scene, and the chemistry between Burstyn and Kristofferson is easy, natural.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is ultimately a story of survival. The protagonist survives catastrophe after catastrophe somehow, just barely, while 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 seemingly real. Sometimes she is a bad mother who makes decisions that range from practical to just bad to outrageous, but she is constantly solving problems in her own way, cleverly charting her own course in the face of overwhelming adversarial odds.

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. In the following year, she encouraged voters to not vote for Best Actress because of the lack of great female roles.

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 her when 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.'”