Success At Last
It’s not so usual for someone to become a star at 42, as I have, or even for any woman to come into her own after 40…. It’s no longer all over at 24 because you have a wrinkle or two. There is more of an appreciation of women, I think, as human beings now, and I’m an example of that change.
Though she is personally almost un-wrinkled at 42, the rest of actress Ellen Burstyn’s judgment applies. She is woman. And no one has to hear her roar. Her own life speaks quite powerfully enough. She has survived three failed marriages and a time when “I couldn’t imagine getting out of bed if I didn’t have to make somebody’s breakfast.” After entering show business 20 years ago in that most demeaningly sexist of roles—as one of Jackie Gleason’s TV “Glee Girls”—Burstyn has won this year’s best-actress Oscar for an affecting woman’s statement film she helped put together personally, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Ellen followed that by starring in Broadway’s biggest comedy smash of the decade, Same Time, Next Year, for which she was up last weekend for a Tony Award. The screen-stage dual crown had not been carried off since 1954 (by Audrey Hepburn for the film Roman Holiday and the play Ondine). But Burstyn is a seeker of truth rather than trophies (she didn’t attend the Oscar ceremonies), and no other actress of the 1970s, except possibly Liv Ullmann, commands as much esteem as artist and woman.
In her eight earlier film roles including two which won her Oscar nominations—as Cybill Shepherd’s mother in The Last Picture Show and as Linda Blair’s movie-star mother in The Exorcist—Burstyn says, “I’ve had to wear a ‘wardrobe.’ With Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, I could use my own skin.” In the script, which Warner Bros, acquired for her, she plays a widow poignantly trying to establish a hopeless singing career in Southwestern roadhouses while coping with men and bringing up her 12-year-old son (played by Alfred Lutter).
She had not known the writer, Robert Getchell, but the scenario had resonances of her own life. Burstyn’s own delightful son, Jefferson, now 13, was on the location and played a cameo bit as the chubby boy next door. In the partially improvised script, Jeff was personally responsible for one of the liveliest lines. When Alice tells her son, “I don’t want to discuss my sex life with you,” the 12-year-old cracked back, “Then I won’t tell you about mine.”
In her own career, Ellen has assumed a dizzying succession of stage names. She was born (in Detroit) Edna Rae Gillooly, the daughter of lower-middle-class Irish parents who divorced when she was 6. As Edna Rae she was a fashion illustrator’s model in Dallas. She was Kerri Flynn when she danced in a Montreal boîte. As a paperback cover model in Manhattan, the name was Erica Dean. She called herself Ellen McRae for her 1957 Broadway debut in Fair Game and during her run as Dr. Kate Bartok in the NBC soap opera, The Doctors. Finally, it was Ellen Burstyn, for movies like Tropic of Cancer and Alex in Wonderland.
As for names by marriage, the first was Mrs. Bill Alexander, an auto salesman whom she lived with briefly in Detroit. Then came Paul Roberts, director of Fair Game, in another short relationship. The last husband was Neil Burstyn, an actor with whom she spent 11 years in New York and Rome until their divorce in 1971.
Ellen attributes her education not to the classroom (she never finished high school) but to voracious reading, and her ultimate mental well-being not to analysis (at which she spent seven years) but to mentor Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. “I’ve always considered acting a healing art,” she says. “I see destiny as what happens when you alter your condition and not just react to your early programming.” In the past year she has finally kicked “drinking and smoking. I’m a mixture of Irish and American Indian which is not a good mixture for drinking. I was just a social drinker, but I had to have a glass of wine before I went to bed. Now I take hot milk with calcium. I want to rid myself of habitual anything—it’s good for your character to shed habits, it’s an awakening process,” she believes. “I was never much of a user of drugs, but I gave up all that too. I couldn’t imagine what life was like straight, and it turns out that it is easier.” Sex? “That’s another habit worth giving up, I think,” says Ellen, half facetiously. “Again we are conditioned to think we have to have a prescribed amount of it. I hope I won’t get married again. I won’t, in fact, and I hope I don’t even live with someone again.” Then she smiles broadly, “Well, maybe a weekend visitor would be nice. My son would like to have a man around the house.”
Ellen and Jeff live in a subleased home in Sneden’s Landing, outside of New York City, with 32-year-old actor Bill Smith. “I’ve always had a kind of open house,” Ellen explains. “I did it before the hippie communes, but it’s not that. My dream is an ideal community like Brook Farm that the transcendentalists had. As for Bill, he is the perfect roommate. He lives upstairs and he can do things I can’t around the house. We shared a house in Los Angeles where we lived with Lelia Goldoni [the actress who is also in Alice and The Day of the Locust] and her husband and son. They’ve since gotten their own house and Bill came to New York with me. I’m financing his education at Lee Strasberg’s. Then when he starts acting I’ll get a percentage of his income for the first two years.”
As for her own business interests, Ellen professes unconcern. “I suppose the money piles up somewhere but I really wouldn’t want to have too much. I’m glad, in fact, I didn’t have a piece of The Exorcist. I’d feel stupid to be a millionaire and still work, and I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t work.”
In the past month, besides planning her next movie project, an adaptation of Olive Fredrickson’s memoir about life in the Canadian wilderness, The Silence of the North, Ellen has had to hire a secretary to help handle her increasing fan mail which she still personally answers. Looking back on this past incredible year, she observes, “I can honestly say I have never been happier; rather I’ve just never been happy before. Everything seems right and at last I’m not resisting my own life anymore.”