The Triple Crown of Acting: to have won an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony award. Not even Meryl Streep or Marlon Brando can claim such a feat. Ellen Burstyn can.
This week, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is running a retrospective of some of Burstyn’s most memorable performances. Spanning nearly sixty years, Burstyn’s career is defined by unremitting risk-taking and a tenacious passion for the craft. She’s embodied over one hundred and fifty diverse roles, which include—but are not limited to—the mother of a devil-possessed daughter ("The Exorcist"), a resurrected car accident victim with a benevolent gift ("Resurrection"), an amphetamine-addicted and increasingly deluded elderly widow ("Requiem for a Dream"), a Neo-Pagan cult leader ("The Wicker Man"), a triple-infanticide murderess ("A Dream of Passion"), and a ‘70s feminist with dreams of stardom ("Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore"). Last year, she took on a role that’s somehow both antithetic and perfectly in tune with her career: a sadistic, sociopathic grandmother (the Lifetime movie "Flowers in the Attic"), which pitched the ultimate challenge of an enormously empathetic person taking on a character with a distinct lack of empathy.
When I spoke with Burstyn about her life and career, I had the almost indescribable sense that I was speaking with someone infinitely wise—the grandmother who has lived so many lives that it’s criminal not to defer to her judgment on everything. And in a sense, that’s true; not only has Burstyn herself lived a storied life, but she’s also lived one hundred and fifty different lifetimes, each of which instilled in her a different perspective. "I’m a deep-waters swimmer," she told me. "Everything on the surface is usually a mask. I always know what’s behind the mask."
Deep-water swimming leads to murky territory, and Burstyn described the process of confronting a particularly complex role as entering a labyrinth. "You have a hold of a string that you’re following where this question leads to that question… and it keeps on going until you come to some specific understanding of this human being as opposed to every other human being in the world."
For Burstyn, this all-consuming nature of acting means that every experience of a character is inextricably linked with her own. And her own journey was not a quiet stroll in the countryside. In her autobiography, "Lessons in Becoming Myself," Burstyn speaks candidly about her struggles, which began with an abusive and demeaning mother and stepfather. Upon attempting to reconnect with her biological father, he tried to seduce her. A period of poverty and desperation ensued as Burstyn chased her acting ambition. She suffered through three dysfunctional marriages; her third ex-husband was schizophrenic, stalking her for years after they parted and eventually raping her. (The relief only came when he committed suicide.)
"The main way you grow is in deepening compassion," she said. "Somehow when you go through painful experiences yourself, you’re more sympathetic to other people’s suffering. That’s the main virtue of pain. It builds empathy in you." Instead of wallowing, Burstyn responded to life by breathing it into her work. Her pain gave her the gift of empathy. So, is it necessary to know pain to be a truly great actor? "After you have been working for a while and discover how much material you have to call on, you end up saying, ‘Oh, thank god I had an unhappy childhood!’ I suppose there are some good actors somewhere who have had a happy childhood, I just haven’t met them yet." (It seems fitting, then, that one of Burstyn’s many credits includes a film titled "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You.")
Unlike masochism, though, acting serves a purpose. It moves outside the self and extends its arms into society. This is at the center of Burstyn’s personal ideology. "I think theater and film do influence the consciousness… [they] bring about growth and change in people’s lives just by putting certain ideas in their mind—certain suggestions—to look at and understand life a little better." Among the ideas about which Burstyn feels passionate is feminism. She believes that patriarchal attitudes still prevail; there’s "a general unspoken feeling that men are more important than women." She chooses to portray strong women, such as Alice in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (for which she claimed her Oscar), to subvert the status quo. Though she does think "a lot has changed since the ‘70s," she doesn’t believe we’ll begin to see real progress until women achieve an equal pay standard and a woman--she'd prefer Hillary--is elected President.
In keeping with her interest in deep-water swimming, Burstyn is also passionate about independent film. "I’m hoping one of these days corporations will lose interest in the film business and leave it to the filmmakers," she said. Her proclivity for independent film is writ large in her choice of directors. Her best experiences have been on set with directors such as Darren Aronofky, about whom she said is "not just telling the story, 'and then this happened, and then that happened,' but is, in fact, finding a way to express the deeper-leveled character in life and story in an artistic way." Another artist-director she respects is Christopher Nolan, with whom she recently filmed "Interstellar," a highly anticipated project shrouded in secrecy.
Yet for all her breadth of experience, Burstyn doesn’t consider herself a veteran of acting. "If I ever stop growing… Well, I learn from my plants," she said. "You’re studying the human condition, the human psyche. There’s no end to that exploration."