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Independent Minded

Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn, a 'tough cookie,' is back with two gritty films and a TV show.

October 19, 2000|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you think about '70s cinema, you think of the men--De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffman. The women don't come so easily to mind--Streisand, Fonda, Dunaway, Keaton, Burstyn. Of this group, Ellen Burstyn, who appeared in such films as "The Last Picture Show," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (for which she won a best actress Oscar), and "The Exorcist," is perhaps the least known, and yet she continues to work, lately for cutting-edge filmmakers young enough to be her grandsons. Why that is so, after more than a decade of low-profile work, is something of a mystery.

"I kept getting these grandmas on television in gray wigs," she says, not looking like one, though, at 67, she is. "But the wonderful thing about this business is if you can just endure, what goes around comes around. So you're in, you're out, you're up, you're down."

Burstyn, who lives in upstate New York, is appearing in two independent films, James Gray's "The Yards" and Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream." She's celebrating the re-release of "The Exorcist" and is currently shooting in Los Angeles a television series called "That's Life" (Saturdays at 8 p.m. on CBS, playing a traditional, know-it-all mom whose daughter untraditionally dumps her fiance and goes back to school). Burstyn is also on the board of the famed Actors Studio, with Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino. She says she can't remember when she's been so busy. And what's peculiar, too, is that Burstyn, who is from Detroit and describes herself as "Irish, French, Pennsylvania Dutch, a little Canadian Indian"--a combination that registers as non-ethnic--is playing Italian ("That's Life") and Jewish ("Requiem"). What this means is that she doesn't have an image to protect or a personality-driven acting style. She can do anything.

"Ellen is part of a cultural tradition that's sort of dying," says Gray, referring to performers who studied under Method gurus Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. "I learned a lot from her. Talking about acting with Ellen Burstyn is one of the great joys. She's the dowager empress of Method actors."

'She . . . Flooded My Lens With Love'

"I think the greatest thing I've ever had the honor of being involved in is capturing her performance in 'Requiem for a Dream,' " says Aronofsky, who's directed only one other film, "Pi." "When I wrapped Ellen, I told the crew that few people get to play with Michael Jordan every day, and that's how I felt, like a high school basketball coach being schooled, because she came to the set and flooded my lens with love."

Gray lays claim to casting her before Aronofsky did, in the unlikely battle between two Ashkenazi boys from New York who are Ellen Burstyn fans. In fact, Gray says he wrote the part for her, although he didn't think he'd get her because he didn't have any money. Nevertheless, she accepted, playing the mother of jailbird Mark Wahlberg's character in a story about corruption in New York's train yards. Gray thinks the film harks back to the sorts of movies Burstyn did in the '70s, in that it's a character-driven piece with political overtones.

As with Aronofsky, she may have flooded Gray's lens with love, but not before she insisted that he tell her why she was doing it. Burstyn comes across in person as soft-spoken, even ladylike. It's a different story on set.

"She's a tough cookie," Gray says. "She can be impatient. If you are not direct with her in what you're after, she gets very frustrated. In a sense it's an old-pro thing. She has no time for bull."

Aronofsky admits he was intimidated by Burstyn at first, but this dissipated when they started working together. Burstyn, on the other hand, wasn't sure she wanted to do "Requiem," in part because, like "The Yards," there was no money in it, in part because of the downbeat nature of the material. At the time she was playing--again, for very little money--morphine addict Mary Tyrone in a production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night." But then she saw "Pi" and read the Hubert Selby Jr. novel on which the film is based and decided she couldn't pass it up.

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