This award-winning actor has lived quite an interesting life. Now in her 88th year, she is still a working actor.
If you are old enough to remember the early 1970s, Burstyn was an A list actress. In the 1950s and 1960s, she guested on many television shows, had a role on a soap, a featured role in The Iron Horse television series, and minor parts in a few films.
She catapulted into the spotlight in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). There were no minor roles in that film, only great performances.
Her next principal role was in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), where she played Linda Blair’s mother. She received an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
In 1974, she starred in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anyone, and was presented with the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role. Most people remember the television sitcom rather than the original film. This was one of the key films in the era that showed a single mother struggling to make a life, raise a son and pursue a career dream.
Burstyn did not exactly disappear, but she never again had the kind of popular film leads that marked those years. The exception was co-starring with Alan Alda in Same Time, Next Year (1978), for which she earned a Golden Globe. She had starred in the Broadway production along with Charles Grodin in 1975, winning a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for her role.
“I wanted to portray women as heroes because that’s what they are,” she says. “Women were either villains or wives who stayed home while their husbands went out to save the world. Or they were prostitutes. Or they were victims. I wanted to embody a woman as a hero, so those were the parts I was looking for,” Burstyn said for turning down roles. She discovered that producers stopped calling, so she couldn’t afford to be as picky, but she never stopped looking for those roles. She even completed an industry program for teaching film direction.
In years since, Burstyn has appeared in a number of well-received television and cable films like Mrs. Harris and The People vs. Jean Harris, about the real life of Jean Harris and the murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower. She had her own television series, co-starred in another, and contributed multiple roles in other series, like The Book of Daniel and House of Cards.
She tool supporting roles in films like The Spitfire Grill and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and lead roles in smaller films like Requiem For a Dream (2000), for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.
Despite her television and film success, Burstyn never left the stage, returning to Broadway at least once a decade, and plays at other venues. She has a long association with the Actors Studio and has served as co-president since 1994.
“It occurred to me, I could have a career based on my looks,” she says. “But if I did, it would be a very short career and that I’d better not rely on that. So, I went to [Lee] Strasberg and I studied the art of acting. And it makes me so happy to be 85 and still working.” Burstyn recounted in a 2018 interview with The Guardian.
“He stalked me for 10 years, so I had to have bodyguards. I was opening on Broadway with bodyguards… I was onstage in the matinee and we were looking at each other and suddenly I heard from the top balcony, ‘Ellen.’ “Charles and I both knew that it was Neil… When it’s just black out there and a crazy person is out there, he could have a gun… I thought that was going to be the end of the story – that eventually he’d kill me.” Burstyn related how her estranged husband stalked her, and broke into her apartment and raped her. Because that was not illegal then; he was not arrested.
In Lessons in Becoming Myself (2006), Burstyn’s autobiography, it as much about her spiritual journey as the events of her life. Talking with Briefnet, about her spirituality. “Certainly, therapy is part of it, meditation, whatever psycho spiritual practice you employ. But it’s really the process of becoming conscious, of being willing to look for what’s behind the mask, however you do it. Acting was a big teacher for me.”
Burstyn came was a difficult childhood and endured three failed marriages, and stardom came late. In her book, Burstyn does not try for sympathy, she relates her mistakes and lesson, and also her survival.
One thought on “Ellen Burstyn”
She was fantastic in those 1971-74 films. Good to see her getting Oscar attention again. Like recently departed Christopher Plummer, it will probably open up more “older” character, big-picture opportunities for her.
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