During these challenging COVID days, Ellen Burstyn enjoys her solitary walks in New York City's Central Park, with the ducks and geese as company – and the occasional human interaction.
"A frisbee came over the fence and landed near me," she told correspondent Nancy Giles. "And I went and got it and gave it to the girl. And she said, 'Thank you.' And I felt so much better! She related to me.
"And not only that, I was useful. I had a reason to be on the Planet Earth!" she laughed.
Still, at 88, Burstyn is as busy as ever. Her latest film, "Pieces of a Woman," was just released on Netflix. She stars as a mother whose daughter, played by Vanessa Kirby, loses her baby after a home birth. "It's not an easy relationship, but we go through something together," Burstyn said of the film. "Vanessa and I really bonded. It's wonderful when you get to work with another actor that it's like you're jamming, like you're jazz musicians jamming."
Watch a scene with Ellen Burstyn and Vanessa Kirby in "Pieces of a Woman":
Giles asked, "There's Oscar buzz about your performance. Now I'm wondering, is still exciting when you hear that, you know, your work might be Oscar worthy?"
"Oh, you bet!" Burstyn laughed.
Burstyn's first Oscar nod came in 1972, as Lois Farrow, mother to Cybill Shepherd, in "The Last Picture Show." it was her first big role in film, with Peter Bogdanovich as director.
"We had a scene where I hear my lover drive up. Oh good. My lover's here! And I'm just about to open the door, and my daughter comes in. And then I realize, Oh, it's not my lover coming to see me, it's my daughter – oh my God, my daughter's in bed with my lover!
"So, I said, 'Peter. I have eight different things to express here, and I don't have a line.' And he went, 'I know.'"
"Dastardly!" said Giles.
"And I said, 'How am I supposed to do that?' And he said, 'Just think the thoughts of the character, and the camera will read your mind.' That was the most important acting-for-film lesson I ever got. It was just brilliant, because that's the truth."
Next came "The Exorcist" – another mother, with a daughter possessed by the devil, and another Oscar nomination.
A year later, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," as a single mother trying to do it all – a story that mirrored her own experience.
Burstyn said, "In the '70s, we all kind of woke up, you know, and went, 'I don't have to be a wife, I don't have to. I could be a woman. I can be a wife and a woman, or I can be a woman without being a wife.' And Alice wasn't a wife once her husband died. And she raised her son by herself, like I raised my son by myself. And that was never kind of dealt with yet."
"You brought a real, total sense of being what a woman was, and is, to all of your work," Giles said.
"That was my intention."
This time, she had the power and the moxie to choose her director, a very young Martin Scorsese. Third time was the charm, but on Oscar night, she was on Broadway, starring in "Same Time Next Year." ["People waited four months for their tickets to see that show," she said to explain her absence.]
She asked Scorsese to accept the award for her. "He said, 'What should I say?' And I said, 'Thank yourself.'"
"And then he walked off!" Giles laughed.
"'God, Marty, if I had known you weren't gonna say something, I'd have written a speech for you!'"
She's worked steadily ever since, and mentored generations of young actors along the way. She credits Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio for showing her how to become her authentic self.
"It's my creative home," Burstyn said, touring the Actors Studio with Giles. "And I just wouldn't be the person I am, or the actress I am, without this place."
Edna Rae Gilooley grew up in Detroit during the Depression, except for the two years her mother sent her away.
"She put her two children in boarding school until she got husband number three," Burstyn said.
"Did husband number three know you guys existed?" asked Giles.
"Not until she was pregnant with his son, which did not make him like us very much."
"There's a lot of mother/daughter interaction in almost everything that you do," Giles said. "Do you feel like your relationship with your mom was something that helped you in doing these roles?"
"My mom and I had a difficult relationship," she replied. "And I remember sort of taking notes when I was a kid. I was like, I'm not gonna do that when I'm a mother!'
"Yeah, so I had, in my mind, what a good mother was."
"What's that like now for you as a mom and a grandmother?"
"I just know that I did right by my kid, because our relationship is so real," she replied.
The last time Burstyn was nominated for an Oscar was in 2001, playing a woman addicted to amphetamines, in "Requiem For a Dream."
"I've had people say to me, 'Well, how do you feel at the end of the day after you've gone through all that tortuous stuff?' When you do something that's hard, and you pull it off, that's only feels good," Burstyn said.
And this year, if she's nominated yet again, she'll make Oscar history in the acting category.
"You'd be the oldest nominee, I think," said Giles.
"Yes, and I really want that!" Burstyn laughed.
And possibly the oldest person nominated in any category this year.
"But there is Ann Roth, who is a [costume] designer," said Burstyn. "And she gets nominated a lot, and she's older than I am."
Giles said, "We won't say anything bad about Ann, but, you know …"
"And if Ann really needs it, okay. She can have it! But if she can just, like, skip this year?"
"If she could and just wait 'til she's 90, you know? Give it a rest?"
"Yeah!" Burstyn smiled.
For more info:
- "Pieces of a Woman" on Netflix
Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. Editor: Carol Ross.