Ellen Burstyn is the “Peter J Owens Award for Excellence in Acting” recipient of the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival and was publicly honored at “An Afternoon with Ellen Burstyn” at Victoria Theatre on April 23. A selection of clips from memorable films preceded her stage presence, followed by a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (2000).
Burstyn plays Sara Goldfarb, a widow with a son (Jared Leto) and girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) hooked on mainline drugs. Sara in turn becomes addicted to medically prescribed amphetamines while dieting for a spot on a TV game show.
A woman in the San Francisco audience upset that Julia Roberts won the Oscar that year for “Erin Brockovich” asked Burstyn “How did you handle that?”, who responded that people came up to her on the street after the awards and blurted out, “You were robbed!” The actress confided that after seeing Julia Roberts and George Clooney in a advertisement for the upcoming “Follow the Money”, “the thought that went through my mind was: you got my second Oscar!”
The legendary actress is from a time when independent cinema was exploding in the 70’s and where artists were behind the motion picture industry, not just people with money who don’t know the craft, as she explained. She applauded the new creativity in television where writers are turning out the best work today. Burstyn spoke about her acting background:
My training was in The Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg and what I learned from him I can’t say it changed my life, it made my life. Because I think it was really that my values weren’t very developed until I worked with him and he introduced me to depth …. attention to what you are doing and your willingness to go through it. I didn’t know about that before and I did learn it from him. It was the place I learned how to be an authentic human being and qualify as an artist.
Burstyn is still involved with The Actor’s Studio and co-President along with Harvey Kietel and Al Pacino.
As for her roles, she explained:
“I never thought I’m going do this genre but not that genre. It’s never been important what kind of film it is but what the role is film is saying and what the story is. The story is very important to me”.
One of the most uplifting moments of the afternoon was her recollections of her Oscar performance in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”. She spoke of the importance of the women’s movement of the time and the usual roles offered women such as a housewife sending her husband into the world and serving him hot chocolate at the end of the day, women raped and beaten as victims, or a prostitute with a heard of gold: “very stereotypical characters”. When asked if she wanted to direct “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, she said no, she didn’t want to act and direct the first time. Francis Ford Coppola suggested the director of “Mean Streets”(1973) Martin Scorsese, “a very nervous little guy”, according to Burstyn.
“I saw your film but I can’t tell if you know anything about women”, she told the up and coming director. “I’m willing to learn”, he replied.
When asked about roles for women today, Ellen Burstyn stated that “we are still living in a patriarchy and little has changed”. She said to “look at how long it has taken to fight racism”. In 2015, she received the Stockholm Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bronze Horse, at the Stockholm International Film Festival. On her trip to Stockholm she spoke about how many women are in top positions in the motion picture industry. When she asked a Swedish director how it works, she replied “very well” : “women in the Swedish industry believe in consensus and men in winning”.
Ellen Burstyn’s acting career on film, stage and television has given her the distinction “triple crown winner”. In 1975, she became the third woman in history to win both the Tony Award and the Academy Award the same year for her work in Bernard Slade’s “Same Time, Next Year “on Broadway and Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”. Her first Emmy was for a guest appearance in “Law & Order: SVU” (2009) and her second Emmy for USA’s miniseries “Political Animals “(2013). She has also received four additional Emmy and five other Oscar nominations. In 2014, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and honored with the Mary Pickford Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Press Academy. Her films this year include James Lapine’s “Custody” and Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog”. She appears in the current season of CBS’s “Mom” with Allison Janney and season four of Netflix’s “House of Cards” as Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) cancer stricken mother.