Actress/Director Ellen Burstyn: How to win an Oscar the hard way

She sinks into a battered brown leather armchair in a borrowed office at the National Women's Political Caucus. The Metroliner from New York was an hour late, her interviews are stacked up like pancakes, and she's due at the White House for an ERA benefit in an hour.

But Ellen Burstyn, who won an Academy Award as best actress for the title role in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," has time enough to talk about how tough it is to find good roles for women in film.

Ten years ago, she dazzled critics with her realistic portrayal of the troubled wife in Paul Mazursky's film "Alex in Wonderland." It happened in a year when there were virtually no parts for "real" women in films that were concentrating on male camaraderie. When she is asked if now there are more and better roles for women in films, she pauses.

"I like to think so," she says demurely, then launches into a not-so-demure explanation: "The fact is, there are more and better roles for women who make their own roles. You know Jane Fonda is creating her own work, and I am, and Lily Tomlin is, and Barbara Streisand does, and other than that, it's pretty much the same as it always was.

"I said for a couple of years it was changing, but that was an illusion. The only change is that we can, if we make the full effort, get our movies on now. But it still is necessary to, in essence, produce the films yourself."


"I wish to knew. I'd like to understand it. I don't. Except that the industry is run by men. And those are the themes that interest them -- men's themes - so those are the scripts that are bought and produced and directed. I think that when there are more women producers and more job opportunities for women in Hollywood, there will be more films about women."

Ellen Burstyn, who is directing now as well as acting, has had to find, shape , and mold her own roles herself. Even though she's won both the Oscar and a Tony (for "Same Time, Next Year"), good roles arent't thrust at her like red roses on opening night.

This is how she won the Oscar for "Alice": She herself discovered the script, brought the proprty to Warner Bros., and selected a then-unknown director, Martin Scorsese, to direct it.(His first film, "Mean Streets," had been made but not yet released, so he was almost unknown.) After persuading Warner's to back it financially, she also had a part in the casting and was responsible for the hiring of several women for key productioin jobs.

Watching the film again recently for the first time in five years, she says, "I appreciated really cearly fro the first time just how much Marty contributed to it. I think I always tended to think of myself as doing the whoel thing. When I looked at it, I realized, 'No, I didn't do the whole thing, for goodness' sake!' And I could see Marty's vision and how really unusual and special it was."

As she talks, her expressions shift as rapidly as clouds on a windy day. She has a face that (especially if you know she's the former Edna Rae Gillooly) tends to look Irish. There is a certain fey glint in the eyes, which are the blue of Bantry Bay. The high cheekbones helped her earlier in her career as a photographer's model, and later on Hollywood where she worked in films she'd rather forget, under the name of Ellen MacRae. Her hair, now worn long, is the reddish gold sometimes called titian. She is prettier in person than on film, but beyond the prettiness is a certain wary look in the eyes, a skeptical intelligence that gives her face an extra dimension.

She has had to work hard to find the material for her two new films, "The Silence of the North" and "Resurrection." Five years ago, she bought the rights to the life story of Olive Frederickson, a widow who homesteaded in the wilderness; it has just become a film "The Silence of the North."

"Olive is still alive. And she's a woman who's lived a life that is epic. IT's heroic; that's the only way I can explain it. . . . She fought bear and wolves and brought up her three children alone after her husband was killed. She's just a magnificent woman, a very simple woman, but brave and very wise. And it's hard to find scripts like that." The film, to be released next spring, is a Canadian production directed by Alan King.

Her other new film, "Resurrection," hs en even more unusual theme for a movie. And its inspiration came from an incident she witnessed.

"It's the story of a very simple woman who is killed in an automobile accident and who is clinically dead for seven minutes, then returns to life . . . crippled. By accident, she discovers that she seems to have the power to heal. So she sets out to heal herself and does. And then becomes a healer.

"In doing the research for the film, I was astounded at the extent that healing exists in America and how many people have this talent and have developed it."

She says her film takes a positive approach to healing, but admits, "It usually is a negative approach [in film] because healing has really been a phenomenon in America, although it's very developed in other countries such as England. . . . My first experience in healing was an amazing one, when my son was injured [in England she has a 13-year-old son, Jefferson, by her third marriage, to Neil Burstyn, from whom she is divorced]. He was thrown from a horse and his face was badly scarred. The doctors said he would need plastic surgery. A friend recommended a healer. I took him to a healer, and within 10 days his face was completely healed."

"Resurrection" will be released Sept. 26, and will open in New York in November. It is directed by Daniel Petrie ("A Raisin in the Sun" and "Stolen Hours"), and its cast includes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, as well as Eva Le Gallienne.

Ellen Burstyn knew she wanted to be an actress from the age of 6, when she wowed them as Little Miss Muppet in a Christmas recital at St. Mary's Academy in Ontario. She was born in Detroit and grew up there following her parents' divorce. In her senior year, she flunked out of Cass Technical High School.

"I just didn't go to class very much," she explains, "because cheerleading and a very active social life left little time for the history of the Peloponnesian Wars."

After she left school, she realized "how very ignorant" she was and set out to educate herself. She started with the New York Times crossword puzzle, when she discovered to her dismay one day she couldn't do even a word of it. It became her teacher; it would take a her a week to complete the puzzle, using an encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus. Just slogging her way through the puzzles for five years, she read more books than she ever would have normally. She set out, for instance, to read the entire encyclopedia from cover to cover.

"I made it halfway through. I know more about all the things that start with A through L than I do about the things from M through Z."

She also knows all about modeling, soda jerking, short-order cookery, fashion coordination, dancing in the chorus, and TV walk-ons, jobs she took along the way after her first marriage to poet Bill Alexander.

"And then at a certain point," she says, "I went to somebody and said, "How do you get an audition for a Broadway play?'" Her first time out, she landed the lead in "Fair Game," a play that opened on Broadway in the fall of 1957. "I don't recommend that way to anybody. It's trial by fire . . . ."

Her career as an actress has been a mix of films and theater ("Same Time Next Year") with a bit of TV (playing in the soap opera "The Doctors"). She won a New York Film Critics award as best supporting actress in "The Last Picture Show ," and an Oscar nomination for best actress as the mother of the tormented child in "The Exosxist" before "Alice."

In 1969 she also joined the Actors Studio Inc., in New York, workout" in a play this summer, "Welcome to Andromeda."

"Last summer I did a play at the Actors Studio that I also directed, and by the time it was mounted, I felt . . . "this is all my mistakes mounted now.'"

Her interest in directing goes back to the year she spent at the Women's Directing Workshop of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she was one of several prominent actresses learning that art. There she directed a tape called "Snatch Man," about a woman car thief who was rehabilitated in L.A. It was part of a script that later became a film called "The All-American Girl," starring Stockard Channing.

"I just considered that a learning process," she says. "When I look at that tape, it's all my mistakes cut together." Right now she's in the early stages of developing two feature films she plans to direct, one "an erotic comedy" and the other a comedy-mystery. She refuses to say anything more about them.

The directing workshop followed her Oscar in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." Did that film change her life?

"Oh, sure. Once you've won an Academy Award everything is different, you know. It's like when it was delivered to me, I was doing 'Same Time Next Year' on Broadway [and so couldn't be in Hollywood to accept the Oscar].Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau brought it to the theater when they came to see the play. We went out afterwards. They had a dinner for me, and it [the Oscar] was sitting on the floor beside me in a little blue felt bag. And I turned to Walter Matthau and siad, 'What is that down on the floor there?' And he said [she drops into a takeoff of Matthau's grizzly-bear growl], 'Let me put it to you this way, Burstyn, when you die they're going to say, "Ellen Burstyn, the Academy Award-winning actress, died today." "That was a wonderful definition."

And was winning the Oscar -- or the Tony -- the happiest moment of her life?

"No, I wouldn't say happiest moment. When I think about those times, I always think about them with a slight feeling of embarrassment. I don't even understand it. The real joy is in the work, and the real rewards are in that. . . ."

And then, perhaps thinking of her ERA gig at the White House, she takes a left turn in the conversation: "One of the wonderful things about being an actress is, it's one of the few fields where there is equal opportunity. Since shortly after the time of Shakespeare, we did manage to convince the world that we could play women better than men. We actually had to work to do that, if you can believe it. And in other fields we're still making the effort to convince the world we have something to offer. So, to be an actress and have the opportunity to live a creative life and work creatively and make money doing it is a real blessing. And I don't think winning awards ever felt better than that. I never felt better than I did working."

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