meBurstyn is struggling to make himself heard above the sirens blaring across the city. “I live on a street that is very popular with police cars and ambulances,” he says from New York. She had been trying to tell me about the Oscars when she was interrupted by the ruckus. If she is nominated in March, and, with the odds that she currently wins best supporting actress at 5/1, she almost certainly will be, this would make her the oldest acting nominee in the Academy, having turned 88 this year. month. “At the moment, it’s Chris Plummer,” she says excitedly. “But I would beat him by 42 days! What a great crown it would be to wear. “
If her performance in the Netflix drama Pieces of a Woman earns her a nomination, it will be her seventh. For the past 50 years, Burstyn has been recognized for her portrayals of a jaded wife on The Last Picture Show; of a mother whose son is possessed by demons in The Exorcist; and a widowed waitress hitting the road with her young son in Alice no longer lives here. In At the same time, next year, played a married woman who meets annually with her lover; in Resurrection she was a survivor of a car accident who acquired healing powers; and in Requiem for a Dream she played the mother of a drug addict who becomes addicted.
His only victory was for Alice, where the range of her performance still amazes, going from heartbreak and desolation to joy and comedic dynamism. Busy on Oscar night with the Broadway presentation of Same Time, Next Year, she sent Alice’s director Martin Scorsese to collect the award for her.
In truth, she was relieved not to go. “I never really feel comfortable there. All in borrowed dresses, smiling down the red carpet and being interviewed about, oh, I don’t know. But is not this kind of conversation, I can tell you. ‘Whose dress are you wearing? Whose diamonds are they? ”. Okay, think, if the odds are against you. “I spent other years where I felt more confident that I would not win. Whereas with Alice, I wasn’t surprised that I won. “She lets out a mischievous laugh, perhaps realizing this might seem less than humble. Her rivals at the 1975 ceremony included Gena Rowlands for A Woman Under the Influence and Faye Dunaway for Chinatown Competition will be tough again if Burstyn is nominated next year, as she is likely to face Amanda Seyfried for Mank and Olivia Colman for the dementia drama The Father.
It was Burstyn who chose Scorsese to direct Alice, back in 1973, when her stock was much higher than his. Warner Bros, dazzled by how good she was at The Exorcist diaries, offered whatever script she wanted. Taking advantage of Alice, who had once been proposed as a vehicle for Diana Ross, Burstyn then selected Scorsese, fresh from Mean Streets, to lend his free, improvisational energy to the project.
Now, in what could be construed as a nice act of reciprocity, the director has lent his name to Pieces of a Woman as executive producer: “To make sure the movie gets seen,” as Burstyn puts it. She plays Elizabeth, a matriarch of steel with a closed, sad smile, who pressures her grieving daughter Martha to testify against a midwife after the death of her baby. With her hair lacquered in some kind of safety helmet, Elizabeth charges headlong against life, refusing to let fate take the lead. The undisputed highlight of the film is a fierce and surprising exchange between mother and daughter. While Martha, played by Vanessa Kirby, hesitates to appear in court, Elizabeth tries to tip the balance with a story about her own past, about her birth, in fact, during the Holocaust, when a doctor advised her mother to simply tell her. pull. .
“That discourse kept growing,” he says. “Before taking my opinion, Vanessa said, ‘Convince me.’ Because his character had resisted the idea of the court. I did the speech as it was and then just as I finished, I realized that there was no convinced her as needed. So I kept talking, and I did that ‘Tell your truth, tell them what it’s like for you’ part. How I said it, I don’t remember. It just came out of me. I was at the scene, you know? Fiction was reality at the time. When I got to the end, I felt like I had actually made her want to go to court. “
In his 2006 memoirs, Lessons to become myself, Burstyn explains that preparing for any role involves “taking an elevator to my inner archive, where I silently leaf through the archives until some memory emerges and is offered.” What did you find there that was relevant to Elizabeth? “You know, I never talk about it,” he says. “If I do, it loses its power. Personal memories are like tools that I can turn to for help. If I give it to you, it won’t work for me anymore, so I won’t answer that. ”The elevator doors close firmly on the subject.
However, he will confirm that he has never resorted to the kind of harsh tactics Elizabeth employs, removing obstacles with his checkbook. At one point, he tries to bribe his daughter’s partner, played by Shia LaBeouf, to leave town for good. “I doubt I will ever do that,” he laughs. “It would have to be extreme circumstances.”
Speaking ahead of recent allegations about LaBeouf’s abusive behavior, Burstyn is full of praise for his co-star. “Shia is so fierce about being real. It’s not a standard problem. “I remind him that he once appeared on the red carpet at the Berlin film festival with a paper bag with the words” I’m not a celebrity. “” Oh, I read about that, “he says.” Never. I fully understood. “Has fame ever been a burden to her?” I have never been one of those celebrities who are chased down the street screaming crowds. People are always very nice to me. It has not been anything unpleasant. “
The same cannot be said for his life. Burstyn’s childhood in Detroit was marked by abuse of all kinds, especially by his violent mother. “It amazes me how much I miss her these days, having had such a difficult relationship with her,” he says. “I have the urge to call her very often. Sometimes I say it out loud: ‘Mom, I wish I could call you.’ What would she say? “I think it’s just to go back to the past. I wish I had been more helpful then and understood their point of view, rather than resisting. It would be nice to be able to talk to her about it now. And I speak. I talk to the mother who lives within me. “
How did the way you were raised affect your own upbringing? “Well, I remember when I was a kid I had a mental notebook where it said, ‘I’ll never do that when I’m a mother. ‘ She took notes on what a good mother should and shouldn’t be. I think my son would tell you that I was a very good mother. I’m sure if my mother and I could sit down and talk about it today, she would say she’s sorry. Years later, when I was an adult, I told him that they beat me so much. I told him this was not good. She said, ‘I would never do it again, I’ll tell you. Now I don’t know how much trouble it caused. ”He pauses. “I’m glad you got it before you left.”
Learning to “endure problems and suffering,” she says, has served her well as an actress. “Otherwise, you are afraid of dragging those uncomfortable things into your work.” He trained at the Actors Studio in New York in the late 1960s after realizing he didn’t want the fluffy, flashy star roles that awaited him on the path he had been following for 10 years. She yearned for the difficult things. It didn’t have to be Debbie Reynolds: it could be Marlon Brando.
Burstyn is still intimately involved with the Actors Studio. In fact, you have to get a call from one of your co-chairs in the middle of our conversation, to discuss an upcoming board meeting. “Wait, I’m getting a call from Alec Baldwin,” he says. “Do not go anywhere”. Her stint there under Lee Strasberg led her straight into the series of films, including The Last Picture Show and The Exorcist, which transformed her career and all of American cinema. If she is rarely invoked alongside Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino as one of the faces of the American New Wave, it can only be because she is, inconveniently enough, a woman.
Casual moviegoers can recite those very masculine monologues from Taxi Driver, Five Easy Pieces, or Network. Less familiar but as scalded as it is the scene at The King of Marvin Gardensfrom 1972, in which Burstyn offers her makeup, clothes and some freshly cut locks of hair to a campfire on the Atlantic City beach. “They are made of mink hair, did you know?” she says while sprinkling her false eyelashes over the flames. “For 20 years, I have been wearing animal hair on my face.”
The sight of a woman fearlessly grappling on screen with age, decadent beauty, and disappointment was a discipline, more uncomfortable for many than the male equivalent. Burstyn’s experiences also show that a woman has much less cultural credit in the bank when things go wrong. All the industry clout it had amassed during the 1970s evaporated after a couple of box office flops: Same time, next year, and the resurrection. Two strikes and she was out, more or less, confined for about 15 years to television, in the days when this was not a prestigious place. “That was it, girl, you know!” he said in an interview in 2000. “It’s a sin that your movies don’t make money.”
Daring directors who grew up in their work eventually came to the rescue, invoking his unusual ability to be both benign and spiky, in films as diverse as The Yards, Requiem for a Dream, Interstellar and Wiener-Dog. However, she has had few opportunities to be as laid back and fun in the movie as she was in Alice. There’s been a lot of sleet in his career (The Spitfire Grill, Playing by Heart, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) but a distinct dearth of laughs, unless you count the absurd remake of The wicker man, where he joyfully presided over the torture of bees and the eventual immolation of Nicolas Cage.
The bottom line is that he survived Hollywood, a place he once described as a “hamburger machine.” How did you avoid turning into mincemeat? “It was never my intention to be a movie star,” he says. “I always wanted to be as good as I could be. That kind of goal takes you in a different direction than wanting to be a star, which can be a scary experience. The fact that I’m still working on ’88 tells me I did what I wanted to do. ”The sirens have stopped sounding now. Calm settles over the city.
• Pieces of a woman it’s in theaters now and on Netflix as of January 7.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism