Written by Moira Jean Sullivan
Ellen Burstyn received the “Peter J Owens Award for Excellence in Acting” at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival and was publicly honored at “An Afternoon with Ellen Burstyn” at Victoria Theatre on April 23. A selection of clips from memorable films preceded her stage presence, followed by a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s caustic Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Burstyn is outstanding in this stunning, Oscar-nominated performance as widow Sara Goldfarb, whose son (Jared Leto) and his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) are hooked on drugs. Sara becomes addicted to medically prescribed amphetamines while dieting for a spot on a TV game show. Burstyn told the audience that Aronofsky’s mother was on the set all day for Requiem for a Dream and was the inspiration for the New York dialect she spoke in the film.
A woman in the San Francisco audience was upset that Julia Roberts won the Oscar that year for Erin Brockovich instead of Burstyn, which is generally considered one of the worst Oscar snubs in history. “How did you handle that?” she implored Burstyn, who told the audience how people came up to her on the street after the awards and blurted out, “You were robbed!” The actress confided that after seeing Julia Roberts and George Clooney in an advertisement for the upcoming film Money Monster, directed by Jodie Foster, “the thought that went through my mind was: you got my second Oscar!” (She won her first Oscar in 1974 for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.)
Burstyn considers Requiem for a Dream her best acting performance of all. Considering that the majority of Academy of Motion Pictures voters are white men, they might not have been able to relate to a widow who lives alone. Roberts, as Erin Brokovich, is young and of child bearing age. Roberts’s first Oscar nomination was for playing a prostitute who meets her dream prince, one of her clients (Richard Gere) in Pretty Woman (1990).
The male gaze, theorized by Laura Mulvey, describes the process in which films are made from a masculine perspective. Sara Goldfarb and her fellow female friends from Brooklyn, all of whom are over 50, are not interesting to the traditional masculine viewer. Burstyn regarded Darren Aronofsky as an artist, and with the jagged edges of his disturbing film, her authentic portrait of a woman who turns to pills to lose weight and becomes a major abuser was brilliant.
Other mature actresses not awarded Oscars despite exceptional performances are Agnes Moorhead (four-time Oscar nominee) and Thelma Ritter (with six Oscar nominations) who quipped, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride”. Classic Images surmised why Moorhead never won an Oscar: “It is an interesting speculation that one of the reasons she always lost was that she played neurotic aunts, stepmothers, spinsters who reflected the dark side of the human condition”. There has never been a darker role done more luminously than Ellen Burstyn’s Sara Goldfarb.
Ellen Burstyn’s spot-on humor was mesmerizing throughout the San Francisco event. The legendary actress has done a broad range of roles and is not stuck in any genre or typecast. She is from a time when independent cinema was exploding in the 70’s, and where artists were behind the motion picture industry, not just people with money who don’t know the craft, as she explained. She applauded the new creativity in television, where writers are turning out the best work today, which, from the perspective of a woman 60 years in the business, comes from a source of intimate knowledge and experience.
Burstyn spoke about her acting background:
My training was in The Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg and what I learned from him, I can’t say it changed my life, it made my life. Because I think it was really that my values weren’t very developed until I worked with him and he introduced me to depth … attention to what you are doing and your willingness to go through it. I didn’t know about that before and I did learn it from him. It was the place I learned how to be an authentic human being and qualify as an artist.
Burstyn is still involved with The Actor’s Studio; she is one of the co-presidents, along with Harvey Kietel and Al Pacino.
As for her roles, she explained, “I never thought, ‘I’m going do this genre but not that genre.’ It’s never been important what kind of film it is, but what the role is, what the film is saying, and what the story is. The story is very important to me.”
One of the most uplifting moments of the afternoon was Burstyn’s recollection of her Oscar winning performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. She spoke of the women’s movement of the 1970s and the stereotypical roles offered to women, such as a housewife sending her husband into the world and serving him hot chocolate at the end of the day, women raped and beaten, or the prostitute with a heart of gold: “very stereotypical characters.” When asked if she wanted to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Burstyn said no. She didn’t want to act and direct for the first time. Francis Ford Coppola suggested the director of Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese, whom she describes as “a very nervous little guy.”
“I saw your film but I can’t tell if you know anything about women,” she told the up-and-coming director. “I’m willing to learn,” Scorsese replied.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore also stars Jodie Foster as the tomboy who befriends Alice’s son. Later, Foster was to star in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). The same year that Scorsese made Mean Streets, Ellen Burstyn gave an Oscar-nominated performance as an outspoken actress who is on location for a film where she is a vocal supporter of college-student sit downs. But, she is primarily known as the mother of a young teenager who is possessed by a demon (Linda Blair) in William Friedkin’s cult classic The Exorcist (1973).
When asked about roles for women today, Ellen Burstyn stated that we are still living in a patriarchy and little has changed. She said to look at how long it has taken to fight racism. In 2015, she received the Stockholm Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bronze Horse, at the Stockholm International Film Festival. On her trip to Stockholm, she spoke about how many women are in top positions in the motion picture industry. She learned that it works “very well” because “women in the Swedish industry believe in consensus and men in winning.” These are not mutually exclusive ends, but it can be inferred that women in the film industry work together to get the job done.
Ellen Burstyn’s acting career in film, stage, and television has given her the distinction of being a “triple-crown winner.” In 1975, she became the third woman in history to win both the Tony Award and the Academy Award the same year, for her work in Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year on Broadway and Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore respectively, as well as a Golden Globe nomination and a British Academy Award for Best Actress.
Burstyn’s first Emmy was for a guest appearance on Law & Order: SVU (2009), and her second was for USA’s miniseries Political Animals (2013). She has also received four additional Emmy nominations and five other Oscar nominations. In 2014, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and honored with the Mary Pickford Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Press Academy. Her films this year include James Lapine’s Custody and Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. She also appears in the current season of CBS’s Mom with Allison Janney and season four of Netflix’s House of Cards as Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) cancer stricken mother. She asked if the audience had seen it and after a resounding yes, she spoke about how she talked the directors out of making her strip open her housecoat and to pull off her wig instead.
Ellen Burstyn revealed in this wonderful meeting with the public how she has evolved as an actress in a craft where quality and authenticity is extremely important. Is it any wonder that we love her for each evolutionary stage in her development as one of the most respected and talented actors on stage, screen and television?
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 Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona, Inside Oscar. New York: Ballantine, 1986, page 241. See also White, Patricia, The Uninvited, Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 181-193.
 Classic Images. Oct 18, 1986, page 136.