Saturday, October 28, 2006

Ellen Burstyn's "Lessons in Becoming Myself"

This post is the first in a series on Ellen Burstyn and The Exorcist, a film I have not seen since 7th grade and swore never to watch again. Eleven years later, it is sitting on my desk in a Netflix envelope. I am looking at it right now. I am terrified to watch it. But watch it I will. I plan to notate my terror as I watch, and write a post immediately after finishing it. If I finish it. If I start it.

I biked to Olsson's yesterday to pop in on Ellen Burstyn, who was signing her memoir, Lessons in Becoming Myself. She looked good. White-haired, purple-suited, and wearing a wrist brace. I got there about 20 minutes after the start time, and no one was around except for a couple handlers. Ellen was signing copy after copy for the store. I'd like to think that a 73-year-old actor would be delighted by a visit from a 23-year-old guy who wasn't even born when she was doing her most important work. But she was as unaffected and calm as when I first met her in New York after Long Day's Journey into Night in 2003.

"What's your favorite movie so far this year?" I asked.

"The Departed," she said in that wobbly-yet-stalwart voice, "although it wasn't the greatest."

I wanted to respond: "So do you feel responsible for Martin Scorsese? After all, it was you who sought him out to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore when he was a nobody in 1973. He directed you to your Oscar, and then went on to make films that are regarded among the greats. If it wasn't for your initiative, maybe no one would've noticed him."

I wanted to take her to lunch and have her spill her goddamn guts, but, well, it was only appropriate to say, "Thanks for doing this. Goodbye, Ellen."

"Bye Dan," she said.

Her memoir is very good, and I'm not generally keen on memoirs. Most feel forced, as if the celebrity feels he or she is required to conjure one once they stumble into their emeritus years. But Burstyn has lived a full and dramatic life, and it glitters with consequence on the page. She had a wretched mother, an absent father, regular beatings and mental abuse, an abortion at 16 that rendered her infertile, a psychotic husband who hounded her, trouble with alcohol and drugs, a primo spot on Broadway as a young lady with Jackie Gleason, a spiritual awakening in Europe and a fruitful apprenticeship with Lee Strasberg. And that's not the half of it.

"Lessons in Becoming Myself" works because we actually feel a chemical change in Burstyn as she grows from a needy wild girl in destructive relationships to a grounded actor with an unflappable work ethic. The book starts with shards of diary entries from her childhood and starts to crystallize only around page 133. Burstyn chronicles this change in the arena of her gradual spiritual awakening, which centers on Sufism. It's a book about the small-but-crucial choices that make or break movies, but it's also about Burstyn's self-actualization and how it fits into those movies. She gets into some heavy holistic-mystical stuff, and while passages on these matters tend to run long, they never seem fake or wishy-washy. It works for her. And her religion, Sufism, is founded on the search for truth. Lessons in Becoming Myself is its own search for truth.

Some excerpts, for those who want the Cliff's Notes version:
After the scene [in The King of Marvin Gardens], Bruce [Dern] said to me, "Now, get it. You are one of the five best actresses in America. I'll name them," and he counted them on his five fingers. "There is Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, and you."

[An episode of Gunsmoke] was on television the other day and I watched it, more than thirty years after I made it. It's such a strange experience watching your young, thin, pretty self, while you sit on your sofa icing your arthritic knee, feeling every one of those years and probably the same number of added pounds on your aging body.

I struggled with the decision [to attend the 1971 Academy Awards] until the last moment. I even attended the rehearsals. I saw my name pinned to the seat where I would sit. Something about it seemed so cruel. Each one of the names pinned to a seat represented a life that had fought to get to the point where they were doing good work in a good film. Five of us in each category were cited, but only one would win. The others would be losers. It seemed so unfair. And a loser by dint of one vote or a thousand. Didn't matter. A loser.

After the party Billy [Friedkin] and I got in the long white limousine to go to the Whiskey A Go Go with Francis [Ford Coppola]. Driving down Sunset Boulevard, we pulled alonogside a car with Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd. They'd been at the party, too. Billy rolled down the window of the limo and shouted across to Peter's car, "French Connection, five Academy Awards." We raced on. Suddenly Peter zoomed by us shouting out his window, "Last Picture Show, best movie since Citizen Kane." Francis told the drive to catch up. As he stood on the seat putting his head through the roof, he shouted, "The Godfather, one hundred fifty million dollars." They were all screaming with laughter, with success, and with the promise of what would become a classic decade in film history.

Many people, including me, consider [The King of Marvin Gardens] to be Jack Nicholson's best work. In my opinion, everything he is credited for in About Schmidt he did earlier and better in The King of Marvin Gardens.

Coupled with news that Billy [Friedkin] had used Mercedes McCambridge's deep voice to overdub some of the demon's lines, the impression was that Linda [Blair] had done far less than she actually did [in The Exorcist]. Billy and others, including myself, feel that's why Linda didn't win the Oscar she deserved. She was a sweet, innocent adolescent girl who gave one of the scariest and most difficult performances in the history of motion pictures. She should have been granted that award.

[The Exorcist] is a classic and has lasted longer and is shown more often today than any of the films we were in competition with [for the Oscars] at that time.

One of the [Tehran Film Festival] officials told me that The Exorcist had not played in Iran because each of the three times they tried to dub it, the dubbing cast got too frightened and couldn't complete it.

I was the shepherd of [Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore]. I use that metaphor because there wasn't a title for what I was. I should have been executive producer. ... I was an actress in a film that I had brought to Warner's, sold to them, and hired the director. That's what a producer does. Why didn't I ask for credit? I was asleep -- asleep to who I was and what my value was.

[Charles Grodin] refrained from kissing me [in Same Time, Next Year] until the first performance before a live audience in Boston. Then he kissed me and he really did it. I had the sensation of an electric charge moving from where our lips met, down my body, and landing smack in my number-two chakra! ... I told Charles how I was feeling and what I thought about it. I suggested we have our love affair
only onstage. He agreed, and that's what we did.

By mid-September [1977], I'd returned to New York and the challenge of dealing with the dark forces manifesting in my life. In that period I was probably the only actress in Hollywood who was initiating her own projects. Yet with all the heady success, when I went home to my beautiful house and three-acre garden, I lived in fear for my life. So far, every time Neil appeared there was someone there to protect me. But I lived in terror that someday he would find me alone and kill me.

[Before shooting the film version of Same Time, Next Year], Alan [Alda] and I went out on a tear and, I have to say, it was fun. I don't remember too much of it, except at one point we went into a supermarket that was still open, though the bars had closed. There was a big wire bin of bech balls and my memory is of Alan and me running up and down the aisles playing catch. There were no other people in the store except one cashier who was about to close up for the night. He watched our hilarity warily. He had an expression that said: I'd like to throw those drunks out of here, but am I crazy or is that Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn?

I didn't win the Oscar [in 2000]. It was Julia Roberts's year. ... But I know what I did in

So do we. Read the book and then watch Requiem again. You can see Burstyn drawing on every aspect of her rough-and-tumble life to tackle Sara Goldfarb. Coincidentally, it is Julia Roberts 39th birthday today. You got away with murder, Jules, in 2000. Enjoy that Oscar. It's Ellen's.


Middento said...

I caught Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore recently and thought it was a brilliant piece of work -- and this after finally realizing that it was the inspiration for Alice, seminal TV show of my youth. Dark, funny, yet moving. And Ms Burnstyn is really quite amazing.

I now show clips from Requiem for a Dream every semester I teach the intro film class and one is always the scene where Harry realizes his mother is on uppers. The acting Burnstyn leading up to Harry's realization is heart-breaking and I generally have to compose myself before I start to talk again. Every time.

J.J. said...

And Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was totally Burstyn's project. She laments the fact that she didn't get that producer credit, because then she would've made a fortune on the TV series (with which she had nothing to do).

Ehil Bent said...

I've actually been watching that scene in Requiem over and over again recently.

Anonymous said...

well---I remember the evening distinctly--like it was yesterday---you came home from A.L.'s house after watching The Exorcist and you were in tears---major tears; bordering on hysteria-------hmmmm, are you really going to watch it again?!---not before bed I hope---and what scene is ehil bent watching over and over----shall I be concerned??---Moo???---M

cattleworks said...

The excerpts from the memoir were cool.
The story of the Friedkin, etc, good-naturedly one-upping each other appears in "Raging Bulls, Easy Riders," I think Bogdanovich tells it.
It's neat hearing another version of it, hearing who else was in the other cars. It's a great story.

The story of the kiss while doing Same Time, Next Year is also cool. The conclusion she draws after the kiss makes so much sense, especially considering the story of the play.

Sorry I've been sort of missing lately. I've been reading horror movie blogs lately! (Yes, I've gone to the Dark Side...)
Coincidentally, Red Scream Films is screening their third production, FRIGHT WORLD, Halloween night (they also did PRISON OF THE PSYCHOTIC DAMNED).
Anyways, I helped out on FW part-time. Got to pump blood during a couple scenes!
Here's the trailer:

Have a safe, fun Halloween, stud!
And enjoy yourself watching the scariest friggin' movie made!

J.J. said...

Welcome back to the real world, TK. You know, I thought I'd remembered hearing the story of the one-upsmanship on Sunset Blvd. And you're right -- it was in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. What times...

wharman said...

Great story. I've had Requiem in the queue for a while but just moved it up because of this post.

JavierAG said...

Ellen Burstyn = Greatest American actress ever. LOVED this entry, want these memoirs.

Anonymous said...

If ever there was a robber in the history of the Academy Awards, it was 2000, Best Actress.

Burstyn so deserved it for Requiem for a Dream. The fact that Roberts was awarded it is a joke.

After that year, I stopped taking the Academy Awards seriously AND the SAG awards. After all, these are actors voting for actors. I am a member of SAG and I voted for Ellen. I have to wonder if the members of SAG are watching all these films before they're voting or are they just going with the more popular?

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