The great actress speaks about her own suffering as she prepares to break an Oscar record, losing her abusive mother and living in the Hollywood “hamburger machine”
Ellen Burstyn is trying to make herself heard over the city-screaming sirens. “I live on a street where there are a lot of police cars and ambulances,” she says through the New York cable.
When the noise interrupted her, she was about to tell me about the Oscars.
She would be the oldest nominee of the Academy, having turned 88 this month, if she was nominated in March – and at 5-1 odds for the best supporting actress award, that’s all but assured. “Right now, it’s Chris Plummer,” she says excitedly. “But I would beat him by 42 days! That would be a great crown for me to wear.”
It would be her seventh if her success in the Netflix drama “Pieces of a Woman” won her a nomination. For her portrayals of an embittered wife in The Last Picture Show, a mother whose child is demonically possessed in The Exorcist, and a widowed waitress who avoids walking the streets with her young son in Alice Lives Here, Burstyn has won awards in the last 50 years.
She played a married woman in Same Time, Next Year who sees her boyfriend annually; she was a victim of a car crash in Resurrection who gains healing powers; and she played the mother of a junkie who herself becomes an addict in Requiem for a Dream.
Alice, where the spectrum of her success continues to amaze, from desperation and desolation to joy and unconcealed comedic verve, was her only victory.
Since she was busy with the Broadway success of Same Time, Next Year, on Oscar night, she sent Alice’s director, Martin Scorsese, to accept the award in her place.
She was actually glad that she didn’t have to go. All in borrowed clothing, smiling down the red carpet and being interviewed about, well, I don’t know. “I never really feel comfortable there.”
I can tell you that, but it’s not that kind of talk. “Whose dress do you wear? Whose diamonds?” “It’s all right to participate, she thinks, when the odds are against you.” When I was more confident that I wouldn’t win, I went in other years. I wasn’t surprised with Alice, however, that I won.”I’ve gone in other years when I was more sure I wouldn’t win. With Alice, however, I wasn’t surprised that I won.” At the 1975 awards, her rivals included Gena Rowlands for A Woman Under the Influence and Chinatown for Faye Dunaway. The competition will be fierce again if Burstyn is nominated next year, as she’s likely to be up against Amanda Seyfried for Mank and Olivia Colman for the dementia drama The Father.
Back in 1973, when her popularity was much superior to his, it was Burstyn whom Scorsese preferred to direct Alice. Dazzled by how successful she was in The Exorcist’s daily newspapers, Warner Bros gave her any script she liked.
To give the project its freewheeling, improvisational energy, Burstyn chose Alice, which had once been suggested as a vehicle for Diana Ross, and then selected Scorsese, fresh off Mean Streets.
Currently, the director has lent his name to Bits of a Woman as executive producer in what could be perceived as a fun gesture of reciprocation – “to make sure the film gets seen,” as Burstyn puts it.
She plays Elizabeth, a stealthy matriarch with a clenched, joyless face who, after the death of her son, forces her mourning daughter Martha to testify against a midwife. Elizabeth plunges headlong into adulthood, refusing to let fate have the upper hand. Hair coiffed into a type of crash helmet. A fierce, tongue-in-cheek exchange between mom and daughter is the undisputed highlight of the movie.
Elizabeth attempts to tip the scales with a story about her own history – about her birth during the Holocaust, when a doctor ordered her mother to just throw her away. When Martha, played by Vanessa Kirby, hesitates to appear in court.
The dialog has been louder and louder,”The talk got louder and louder,” “Vanessa said, ‘Convince me,’ before I made my take, because her character was resistant to the concept of a court.
I made the speech the way it was, and then, just as I was done, I realized that I hadn’t convinced her the way I had to.
So I kept talking, and I did the part, “Speak the truth, tell them what it’s like for you.” I don’t know how I said it.
One came out,