HOUSTON -- "The basic work of acting is interior," Ellen Burstyn told an admiring crowd on Sunday, Mar. 22, at a benefit screening of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the seminal 1974 movie in which she starred. "The way you express it exteriorly changes depending on whether it's on the screen or on the stage." Burstyn likened a movie camera to a mind reader, explaining that acting must be centralized in the face. "Onstage," she contrasted, "it's more important to use your whole body." Regardless of the genre, however, acting to her is "the study of human nature and human psychology."
It's safe to say Burstyn knows what she's talking about. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. A year later, she won a Tony Award for Best Actress for Same Time, Next Year.
In fact, Burstyn recalled, she couldn't attend the Oscars ceremony the year she won because she was appearing in Same Time, Next Year. "The producers would have given me off, of course, but I didn't think that was right to the paying customers." Jack Lemmon, the presenter for the Best Actress category that year, gave her the Oscar a few weeks later at dinner in New York, he and pal Walter Matthau having come to see her in the hit Bernard Slade play. "I kept noticing this thing under the table, under a napkin, and when I asked about it, Walter Matthau said, 'Let me put it to you this way, Burstyn. When you die, they will refer to you as Ellen Burstyn, the Academy Award-winning actress.'"
Burstyn spoke for about 30 minutes in a Q&A after the screening, held at Houston's Angelika Film Center, before she had to make her way across the street, literally, to the Alley Theatre for an evening performance as the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night, which runs through April 5.
Burstyn said she owed her Alley appearance in Long Day's Journey into Night mostly to its director Michael Wilson, the newly appointed artistic director of Hartford Stage, with whom she had earlier worked on the premiere of Horton Foote's The Death of Papa at North Carolina's Playmakers Repertory Company. After the Playmakers run, Wilson asked her what she'd like to do next on the stage. When she replied Long Day's Journey into Night, Wilson said he could make it happen at the Alley, for which he was, at the time, associate director. "I don't think the audience realizes how much a part of the play they are," Burstyn commented when asked about the Alley's jewel-box production in its intimate Neuhaus Arena Stage, which seats less than 300 in-the-round. "It's like the four walls of my house are alive." The close proximity to the audience stokes the wrenching emotions and psychological turmoil, Burstyn marveled.
Declining a microphone, Burstyn stood in the middle of a row down front at the Angelika and spoke on a wide range of topic to the 100 or so fans, who gave her numerous standing ovations.
She still seemed stunned that her first professional acting job was at age 23 in 1957 in a lead role on Broadway in Fair Game. "I went around asking everyone, 'Does anyone know how I can get an audition for a Broadway show?'" she laughed. After the run, that's when the former model began to take acting lessons at the Actors Studio, ultimately with founder Lee Strasberg, whom she referred to as her mentor on and off the stage. Burstyn said she dedicated every performance to him.
Beyond being the first woman elected as president of Actors Equity Association, she was particularly proud of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore as a watershed film since it was the first mainstream fare of its generation to be told from a woman's point of view. "The woman's movement hadn't yet manifested itself on film," she observed. "And I wanted no part in playing victims, loyal wives, or tarts," as women had been largely relegated to. To this end, a number of the scenes in the movie were from her own life, Burstyn said.
So were moments from Resurrection, the acclaimed 1980 drama, co-starring Sam Shepard, about a woman who, after a near-fatal car accident, finds she has the power to heal others by touch but denies God is responsible. Burstyn's goal here was to depict a spiritual woman, a sexual being, what she called "in the goddess tradition." So much of what she termed "the feminine" had been left out of contemporary consciousness prior to Ressurection.
Since her appearance at the Angelika was the day before the Academy Awards, talk ultimately veered towards Hollywood's biggest night. Burstyn revealed that she is to take part in a special ceremony involving all the living Best Actors and Best Actresses. She was to fly to Los Angeles as soon as the curtain came down on Sunday evening's performance, then has to make a quick return flight back to Houston for Tuesday's show.
She also volunteered that out of this year's nominees for Best Actress, she voted for the star of English stage, Judi Dench. "I wanted to vote for Al Pacino for Best Actor in Donnie Brasco but he wasn't nominated." Pacino and Burstyn go way back, having succeeded Lee Strasberg as co-artistic directors of the Actor's Studio.
She couldn't remember her selection for Best Picture. "I have to confess I didn't see Titanic, so I hope I didn't vote for it."
Ending her chat where she began it, she said she voted "all she could" for Kundun, the Dalai Lama epic directed by Martin Scorsese. He also directed Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
"I don't know if you've ever seen Marty, but he's a nervous, high-strung, fragile, interesting man," Burstyn smiled. For the film, she had wanted to work with a young director, someone fresh, new. So she asked her friend Francis Ford Coppola to recommend someone. He advised her to take a look at something called Mean Streets, Scorsese's first feature, which hadn't been released yet. Burstyn remembered how impressed she was with a talent so vital. Their conversation, she said, went like this:
Burstyn: "Well, what do you know about women?"
Scorsese: "Nothing. But I'd like to learn."
Burstyn just loved that answer.
-- By Peter Szatmary