Back in 1971, when Ellen Burstyn was first catapulted to movie stardom with The Last Picture Show, she received a letter.
“It was from a young man in Texas who told me that he was suicidal,” she says. The man wrote that he’d decided to see one final movie before he killed himself: The Last Picture Show. And that her performance had changed his mind. “He came out of there feeling, ‘Well, if she can make it through life,’ meaning the character I played, ‘if she can make it, I guess I can too.’” He thanked Burstyn for saving his life.
An inspiring and indomitable spirit isn’t confined to Burstyn’s work though; it seems inherent to who she is. As an up-and-coming actress, before she made her name on the stage and in television, before the big film roles came in, she never thought of quitting. “Honestly, I don’t remember ever considering giving in. I just don’t remember saying, ‘Well, maybe I should just give up,’” she says. Through her turn in perhaps the premier horror movie of all time, The Exorcist, to her shattering portrayal of a hallucinating addict in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, through six Oscar nominations and one win, two Emmys and a Tony, and a list of projects as long as a phone book, her drive and talent appears unstoppable. And now, aged 88, though she hasn’t been in Academy contention for 20 years, she is very much back in that conversation with Pieces of a Woman.
Loosely based on the experiences of screenwriter Kata Wéber and her partner, director Kornél Mundruczó, the film stars Burstyn in a supporting role as Elizabeth, mother to Vanessa Kirby’s Martha, who has lost her baby in childbirth. Elizabeth wants Martha to sue her midwife for negligence, in a move she sees as a refusal to submit to despair, but Martha is too mired in grief to know what she wants. Then, in a single, blistering scene, we’re slapped in the face with Burstyn’s towering talent. As Elizabeth rages at her daughter for succumbing to her sadness, she tells the story of herself as a sickly Holocaust survivor baby that flatly refused to die. Thus, the film asks, what is it that drives us to carry on? How do we choose to survive?
“Trauma can stay with someone, a person, and cripple them, or it can steel them to inner strengths,” Burstyn muses. “And I think that’s what happened with Elizabeth and what she wants her daughter to do. From her daughter’s point of view, it’s, ‘I’ll grieve my way, not your way.’ But from Elizabeth’s point of view, it’s, ‘You’ve got to state your truth, and there has to be justice. You move on with this situation, and you don’t allow it to just send you into the darkness.’”
Acting was, Burstyn says, “always something that I could do.” But, although she was involved in her high school drama club, producing and performing in the senior musical, and was a cheerleader and class president, she was not a good student in other respects. “I was skipping classes all the time, and I was failing everything. I was much more interested in the extracurricular activities than I was in going to geometry,” she says.
It was only years later, in the ’80s, when she was chairing a meeting one day as President of Actors’ Equity, that Burstyn realized how that high school experience had reflected her future. “All of a sudden I flashed on the fact that I was President of the junior class [back then], and now I’m President of the Actors Studio, and I’m President of the Actors’ Equity. And I thought, ‘I was getting the education I needed. I just didn’t know it.’ I was getting prepared for the life that I was going to lead.”
Today’s world weirdly mirrors the past in some other ways too. Burstyn is relieved by Joe Biden’s new Presidency—“It’s like a dark cloud has lifted off the whole country; I feel like we’ve all been living through a nightmare”—but our current political turmoil also keeps reminding her of the ’70s, the era in which she shot The Exorcist.
“During that whole Watergate time, when all of that was unraveling and Nixon was in trouble and everything, we were in Washington shooting The Exorcist,” she says. “So, I think about it. I can feel myself in the makeup chair, reading the Washington Post about the latest new developments, and was Nixon going to be impeached or what. All of the talk was about Washington and politics and Nixon and the Watergate thing. And here we were, performing exorcisms. I wonder if, as we were performing exorcisms, we were cleansing Washington of some of its demons at the time.” Recently, reading Bag Man, Rachel Maddow’s book about Vice President Spiro Agnew, she says she thought, “Maybe we should be doing some exorcisms in Washington at this time too.”
When Burstyn won her Best Actress Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the directing gig was originally meant to be hers, but she handed it to a then relatively unknown Martin Scorsese, so she could focus on her performance. That working relationship paid off. “Marty has an energy, that’s all I can say,” she says. “When you enter on the set, you’re in this creative, energetic, alive space. And some kind of reality emerges out of it, some kind of realness that we strive for all the time, actually, and when we’re doing our best work and we’ve achieved it, it’s an energy field, and you get in it and sparks start flying between the actors.”
Those sparks certainly flew between Burstyn and Kirby on Pieces of a Woman, a situation partly down to the close relationship they’d built off camera—”We love each other. I feel very maternal toward Vanessa”—and partly down to the freedom and security of Mundruczó’s set.
“I always felt safe with Kornél and assured that I could just allow what wants to come out to come out, and he would be an appreciator,” Burstyn says. “I mean, I don’t always know what’s going to come out. I surprise myself sometimes. That scene with Vanessa, that surprised me. At that moment when I described my birth, it came out with a force beyond what I had ever experienced when I ran it for myself. I didn’t have a specific way that I thought it was going to come out of me. But when it did, it surprised me.
“One of the important qualities for a director,” she says, “is to appreciate what he’s being given, and understand what it is. Darren [Aronofsky] has that quality. He knows when what you’re giving is your best, or he can feel that maybe there’s another possibility that you haven’t come up with yet. One time [shooting Requiem for a Dream] we did a difficult scene. I was already crazy [in the context of the story], and we shot it four times, and they were all good. And then Darren said to me, ‘OK, we’ve got it. It’s in the can. Let’s just do another one, and do whatever you want.’ And we did another one, and that’s the one that’s in the movie.”
With Pieces of a Woman that Scorsese relationship came full circle. “I never worked with him again. I’ve always hoped that I would,” Burstyn says. “He saw Pieces of a Woman, because the composer of Pieces is the composer that does Marty’s films. And he suggested Marty look at it. And he did. And he liked it so much that he volunteered to be executive producer, so that it would be seen by the right people and gotten to the right places, which was, of course, ecstatic for Kornél and Kata and the rest of us.”
Now, on the eve of possibly becoming the oldest ever Academy nominee for acting, she’s focused on how she might affect people with her art. And so, we return to the story of that suicidal, young Texan man.
One Christmas some years ago, she found herself at a loose end in LA. “I decided to go to a hospital to visit people who were in there for the holiday,” she says. “I was in the ward, and this man came up to me. And he said, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing you.’ He told me that he was the man and I had saved his life. And now he was in the hospital with AIDS and dying. So, I saw him at the end of his life, isn’t that incredible?” It turned out he had left Texas and come to Hollywood to work in the industry before becoming sick.
“I know that performances I’ve given have affected people’s lives,” Burstyn says. “And that pleases me more than anything. If I can be helpful in some way through my art, to help someone deal with their own life, that’s the best thing anybody can say to me.”