She’s played the mother of a demonically possessed child, a resilient diner waitress, a speed-addicted widow obsessed with infomercials, and a Texas woman who sleeps with the same man with whom her daughter has a liaison.
Now approaching the age of 81, Ellen Burstyn made a name for herself because of her versatility and ability to tackle roles of women who call on their inner strength to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
She appears to be as busy as ever with several high-profile roles in the works, including a key role in the new Christopher Nolan science-fiction opus Interstellar, and in Ivan Reitman’s football dramedy Draft Day.
The Detroit native formerly known as Edna Mae Gilooley is a graduate and regular spokesperson for the Actor’s Studio, and paid her dues before her Hollywood acceptance as a model, a chorus girl for Jackie Gleason, a bit player, a theater actress and, appropriately, a waitress.
Early career roles found her in in the farce Goodbye Charlie, the soap opera The Doctors, and in loads of episodic TV work—usually billed as “Ellen McRae”. She also played a fictional stand-in for the real-life wife of Henry Miller, opposite Rip Torn’s turn as the author, in the notorious film version of The Tropic of Cancer.
But it was the turn as Lois Burns, the sad, small-town Lone Star state momma of manipulative daughter Jacy (Cybil Shepherd)–both involved with the same oil rigger– in Peter Bogdanovich’s much-lauded The Last Picture Show (1971) that brought her lots of attention and got her prime parts.
While Burstyn and co-star Cloris Leachman were both nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, it was Leachman who won for her performance as the unhappy wife of a high school football coach who has an affair with a teenage student (Timothy Bottoms).
Still, the recognition helped Burstyn score more interesting roles with top-notch filmmakers of the era. For Paul Mazursky, she played wife to confused film director Donald Sutherland in the Fellini-influenced Alex in Wonderland, and she was Art Carney’s bookstore owner daughter in Harry and Tonto. Bob Rafelson cast her as a faded beauty queen hanging—along with her stepdaughter—onto the dreams of Atlantic City huckster Bruce Dern, brother to radio disc jockey Jack Nicholson, in The King of Marvin Gardens.
Burstyn’s most popular work came from two of the era’s most prominent directors. William Friedkin cast her in The Exorcist as actress Chris MacNeil, the anguished mother of Regan (Linda Blair), a young girl possessed by demonic forces. Burstyn received raves and an Academy Award nomination for a part that actresses such as Shirley MacLaine and Jane Fonda passed on.
Burstyn won the Best Actress Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), in which she plays Alice Hyatt, a single mother hoping to have a career as a singer. She settles in Tucson with her young son and takes a job as a waitress at a diner. This touching and funny change-of-pace from Scorsese received rave reviews while Burstyn garnered high praise. “At the center of the movie and giving it a visible sensibility is Miss Burstyn, one of the few actresses at work today (another is Glenda Jackson) who is able to seem appealing, tough, intelligent, funny, and bereft, all at approximately the same moment,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times.
For the next several years, Burstyn was adventurous in choosing her roles, mixing the eclectic with the commercial. She was an American prisoner in a Greek prison interviewed by actress Melina Mercouri in Jules Dassin’s Medea allegory Dream of Passion (1979). In Providence (1977), the English language debut of French auteur Alain Resnais, Burstyn was amongst the dysfunctional family of dying novelist John Gielgud, who gather at his Rhode Island estate where they let secrets out of the bag.
Meanwhile, more Oscar nominations were to come. In Same Time, Next Year (1978), Burstyn repeated her award-winning Broadway turn as a housewife who has a once-a-year rendezvous with also-married New Jersey accountant Alan Alda in a Northern California inn. Burstyn delivered a tour-de-force performance in the under-seen Resurrection (1980), playing Edna Mae Cauley, a woman who discovers she has special powers to heal after a near-fatal car crash handicaps her. This powerful drama received shoddy handling by its distributor, but is recognized for touching on questions of religious and spiritual import.
It would be a 20-year gap until her next Oscar nomination, but Burstyn would continue to impress in such parts as the wife dumped by hubby Gene Hackman for sexy barmaid Ann-Margret in the quietly powerful, criminally overlooked Twice in a Lifetime (1985); Winona Ryder’s grandmother in How to Make an American Quilt (1995); the cranky owner of an eatery who gives an ex-con a second chance in The Spitfire Grill (1996); and as a mother concerned with her ill son in the ensemble piece Playing by Heart (1998).
Burstyn’s 2000 Oscar nomination for Best Actress came for Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. The actress brings compassion and intensity to the part of the speed freak mother obsessed with TV and losing weight, who lives in a fantasy world regarding her own existence, as well as that of her junkie son (Jared Leto). Rated NC-17, this trippy, in-your-face cautionary tale of the dangers of addiction received rave reviews, with Burstyn singled out for a bravura performance in which she dropped 50 pounds onscreen (some of which was achieved through some primitive special effects). She ultimately lost the prize to Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.
Reported Entertainment Weekly at the time: “Strapped into a fat suit, she is so bloated that her walk becomes a waddle. Her hair, expressed by a grotesque series of wigs, eventually turns into a crinkled bride-of-Frankenstein nimbus. As her character goes insane, her eyes dart and squint and finally wash out into a dead daze. ‘Unflattering’’ is too wimpy a euphemism to describe Ellen Burstyn’s transformation into tormented diet-pill addict Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream. She disintegrates in front of your eyes. ‘Here’s a woman in her 60s who allows the camera to be an inch from her face — without makeup, or with makeup making her look worse than she does,’ marvels director Darren Aronofsky. ‘You find me a 22-year-old actor who doesn’t have an issue with that.’”
Since this release, Burstyn has kept busy in all mediums, taking parts in Aronofsky’s trippy The Fountain, playing a neuroscientist; The Mighty Macs, as a nun; portraying an elderly, opium-addicted woman in the Tennessee Williams’ adaptation The Loss of the Teardrop Diamond (2009); essaying a difficult mother to Sandra Bullock’s writer daughter in The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002); as the top pagan in Neil LaBute’s wacked-out remake of The Wicker Man (2006); and as Barbara Bush in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). On TV, she has been a regular presence in such shows as That’s Life, Weeds, Big Love, and Political Animals, starred in her own short-lived self-named sitcom (with Megan Mullally as her daughter and Elaine Stritch as her mother) and played an Episcopalian bishop in the controversial 2006 show The Book of Daniel.
In addition, Burstyn was Emmy-nominated in two TV movies about the killing of “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower (The People Vs. Jean Harris as the title character and, with a controversy, a 45 second cameo in Mrs. Harris) and had roles in in two wildly popular adaptations of Mitch Albom bestsellers (The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Mitch Albom’s For One More Day). Oh, yes: She also won an Emmy for her turn as the bi-polar mother of estranged son Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) on Law & Order: SVU in 2009.
Staying true to her roots, the actress has been no stranger to the stage, trying to make one appearance on the boards a year. She recently appeared in Picnic on Broadway, and has taken key roles in such productions as Oldest Living Confederate Tells All, The Children’s Hour, 84 Charring Cross Road, and Shirley Valentine on “The Great White Way” and elsewhere.
A lifelong backer of Democratic causes and former president of the Actor’s Equity Association, Burstyn has been married three times, including a stormy union with actor Neil Burstyn that lasted from 1964 through 1972. Her son with second husband Paul Roberts was adopted in 1961.
Now into her senior years, Burstyn appears busier than ever. She has maintained the characteristics that have made her so interesting over the years.
“…[A] desperate cheerfulness struggles with grim prospects and her battered good nature comes near to breaking down,” observes critic David Thomson. “She has a round face, a little swollen, like a doll soaked in tears or straining to hold back crying.”
That’s some doll.