Because of This One Flash of Insight, Ellen Burstyn Could Win a Second Oscar for ‘Pieces of a Woman’

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Anne Thompson
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With six Oscar nominations (and one win), seven Globe film nominations (and one win, for “Same Time, Next Year”), eight Emmy nods (and two wins), Burstyn knows how to pick her roles. If she likes a script, she asks about the director. Only when she watched Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” did she get why she should take the role of the drug-addicted mother in “Requiem for Dream.” “OK, I get it, the guy’s a poet,” she said. “Twice in my life at the end of a screening there was a 10-minute standing ovation,” she said, “‘Spitfire Grill’ at Sundance and ‘Requiem for a Dream’ at Cannes.” It yielded another Oscar nod.

With Kornél Mundruczó’s “Pieces of a Woman,” she read the script by Hungarian playwright/screenwriter Kata Wéber, who drew upon her own silent reaction to a miscarriage. Burstyn watched Mundruczó’s Oscar submission “White God.” “I liked the script, investigated Kornél’s work,” Burstyn said. “I was impressed by Vanessa’s work from ‘The Crown.’ Three wins.”

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Burstyn has been lauded for her performance as a holocaust survivor trying to help her daughter (Vanessa Kirby) put her life back together after losing a child. Wéber found that women who had that kind of experience “don’t talk about it,” said Burstyn. “It’s verboten in polite society. I hoped this will help encourage the conversation.”

Before “Pieces of a Woman” got started in Montreal, the writer, director, Kirby, and Shia LaBeouf, who played her husband, worked over the script for four days at Burstyn’s kitchen table in New York. “As soon as Vanessa walked in the door, we connected,” said Burstyn. “We looked at each other: ‘This was going to be fine.’ I invited her over for a sleepover, she came after rehearsal one night, brought her pajamas. I made her dinner, we spent the night talking on a deep and personal level. In the morning, I made her breakfast. We intended to bond and we did. I feel maternal toward her. She’s a wonderful person. She’s smart and talented and beautiful and she’s kind and socially conscious, spiritually alive. She’s a very easy person to love.”

Burstyn’s tough-loving mother in “Pieces of a Woman” is one of those people who “believe in improving a situation whatever it is, not letting things just be,” said Burstyn. “Her daughter had a horrible experience, and it is all locked up, she’s not talking about it, not expressing pain or grief or anything, closed off. She wants her to get it out and confront that she was wronged. She wanted her daughter to not crumble under the weight of this horrible experience, to convert it into action somehow.”

That leads to the movie’s centerpiece. Kirby took Burstyn aside before the explosive dinner scene and said, “Make me ‘go to court.'” They did the scene, and at the end, Burstyn had a flash. “I had not made her go to court,” she said. “The next part came out of me, about how you have to speak your truth, and let people know how it is for you. Vanessa hadn’t come to terms with whatever it was was in the script that was to make her go. She hadn’t felt connected with it. So she was asking me to help her.”

That flash of inspiration could earn Burstyn her seventh Oscar nomination.

Raised in Detroit in the ’40s, Burstyn was Edna Rae Gillooly, who at 14 cooked up short-orders at a lunch counter and dropped out of high school at 17. “I was too impatient to get out into the world and have at it,” she said. “I always had something else going on. I was captain of the cheerleaders, president of the drama club, president of the junior class, so I wasn’t very interested in math or algebra. I was already on the path that lead to where I finally went, but I didn’t know it yet.”

Dropping her last name, Edna Rae left Detroit on a Greyhound bus for Dallas, where she worked as a model. Later she danced in a chorus line at a Montreal nightclub, where she took the name Kerri Flynn.

“I went around saying to everybody I knew that I had made my mind up to be actress,” Burstyn said. “‘Does anybody know how to get an audition? I want to do a Broadway play this fall.’ Somebody said they were auditioning girls to play a model. ‘Well, I am a model, let me go up for that lead.’ I got the part.”

The actress who made her Broadway debut at 24 was Ellen McRae. “I kept that name for a few years,” said Burstyn. “When I got married to Neil Burstyn, my third husband, I had a son [Jefferson Roberts, adopted during her second marriage]. We had three different names. So we decided we would all have the same name.”

After many TV westerns (“Gunsmoke,” “Iron Horse”) and some strong movie credits (“The King of Marvin Gardens,” “The Last Picture Show”), Burstyn starred in “The Exorcist” in 1973. Warner Bros. executive John Calley liked the dailies and wanted to put her in another movie. She was nonplussed.

“They sent me scripts they owned with a part I could play,” said Burstyn. “They were women not like the women I knew: the good wife who stays at home as her husband goes out and sees the world, and when he comes home, she makes him a cup of tea. Or the victim who gets raped or beaten or whatever, or the bad girl with a heart of gold. They were caricatures, not like the women I knew.”

Burstyn brought Robert Getchell’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” to Warners. “Do you want to direct?” asked Calley. “No, I’m not ready to direct and act at same time,” she said.

Bursten asked her friend Francis Coppola if he knew someone “young and new and fresh who hadn’t developed habits,” she said. “He suggested I look at ‘Mean Streets,’ which Warner had purchased and wasn’t released yet. Nobody knew who Martin Scorsese was. I called him in for a meeting at the office at Warner Bros. I liked ‘Mean Streets,’ but I wanted a story told from the woman’s point of view, and there was only one woman in ‘Mean Streets.'”

“Do you know anything about women?” Burstyn asked Scorsese. “No, but I’d like to learn,” he said. He got the gig. And Burstyn won the Best Actress Oscar.

Burstyn has enjoyed directing plays, but she’s never directed a film. She’s been trying to mount a film based on the play “My Brother’s Keeper” for the last couple of years, she said: “I must say that experience made me wonder how any film ever gets made. That process is just exhausting and ridiculous. It takes a lot of time. I had a full vision of how it should look. I was excited to do it, and I’m disappointed it still hasn’t been done.”

She’s pondering how to update her 2006 memoir, “Lessons in Becoming Myself.” “If I wrote the next portion, it would be more about being old.”

If she were to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Pieces of a Woman,” she would be the oldest person to win the award, beating Christopher Plummer by 42 days. “I think it’s just wonderful,” she said. “Can I celebrate my age? The fact that I am 88 and still working? And having a good time? And in good health? I feel very surprised and very happy. I did vaccinate. I’m going to get the second one in two weeks!”

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