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Ellen Burstyn, in Melbourne to star onstage in 33 Variations, has a film career spanning six decades and including such cinematic touchstones as The Exorcist and The Last Picture Show. She talks tabout Beethoven, spirituality and recruiting Scorsese to direct her in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. “I asked that he be the director. He had already made Mean Streets, but it hadn’t been released and he was deeply grateful that I wanted him. This doesn’t mean that I gave him his start. And there was no stopping him, anyway – he would have got there in any case. But, you know, there was never any sense with Marty of working with a monster, with a master in the nasty sense. He’s marvellous, he’s an original. He’s smart and fiery and rough and excitable and alive.”

By Peter Craven.

Ellen Burstyn variations

Ellen Burstyn rehearsing ‘33 Variations’
Credit: Jim Lee

It’s an extraordinary thing that one of the great ladies of the American stage and screen has been lured to Melbourne to head the cast of 33 Variations at the Comedy Theatre. What has brought Ellen Burstyn – an actress with a career that spans 60 years – here to perform in a local production of the show that took Broadway by storm with Jane Fonda in the lead?

“I adore the play,” Burstyn tells me. “It was my choice to do it. [The producer] Cameron [Lukey] said, ‘What would you like to do, how do we get you here?’ And he gave me a list of possible plays to choose from and it was one of them, and I said if I can do that play I’ll come.”

The title of Moisés Kaufman’s play refers to Beethoven’s 33 variations on a waltz by Diabelli.

“The writing is so intricate and complex – there are many different realities on the stage at the same time,” she says. “And it’s about the characters and a psychologist who has a question of why Beethoven wrote 33 variations on this simple little theme, and she’s dogged about answering that question. And so it’s her love of Beethoven, and I love Beethoven, so that’s really the crux of why I wanted to do the play. And there’s music on stage – a live pianist is playing the variations as we’re talking about them – so to be on stage with Beethoven and his actual music is a treat.”

Burstyn learnt piano as a child. “So I grew up listening to and playing Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin. So I’ve always been a lover of classical music. That’s the music I listen to as I cook in the kitchen.”

Neat and pensive looking in a green dress, Burstyn has a quiet manner that might almost be shyness. She makes no attempt to disguise her 86 years. She was born in Detroit, although she spent a couple of years at a convent school in Canada and then a while more at St Theresa’s in Detroit.

Even if you were born in the wake of September 11, you might have seen Burstyn’s extraordinary, flinty portrait of Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright) Texan mother in the fourth season of House of Cards, which was equal to, or greater than, anything that dark brilliant bit of television had to offer. Or you might have seen her in 2000 as the drug-deranged mother in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. If you were watching movies in the ’70s, you might remember Burstyn in some of the more famous films ever made: the original The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, or The Last Picture Show, by Peter Bogdanovich. Her Oscar in 1975 was for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Burstyn has been acting since 1957 so even baby boomers might have caught a glimpse of her when she was a budding model on 77 Sunset Strip or Cheyenne or even Gunsmoke. But for a long time now she’s been an actor’s actor, the sort who loves her craft and does only what she can be bothered with.

In 2017 she played Jacques, Shakespeare’s melancholy brooder in As You Like It, the man who comes out with, “all the world’s a stage … and one man in his time plays many parts”. How did she find that?

“It was such fun, first of all just to be saying his words and secondly for me to be able to take part in a more androgynous character. I didn’t play Jacques like a man but I played it like an androgynous character so you couldn’t really see if it was a woman with masculine tendencies or a man with feminine tendencies. And it felt really freeing somehow to penetrate the other genders. But Shakespeare is just thrilling. I haven’t done enough of it – I wish I’d done more.”

On one occasion, she says, she staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the garden of her New York home. “And the price of admission was food for 10. It was really wonderful. I wish I had carried it on more after that because I loved it. I played Titania.”

It seems logical to ask her at this point about doing Providence not only with one of the great French directors, Alain Resnais, but with one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, John Gielgud. She recalls shooting in a freezing old French chateau, in which she asked Gielgud if he would like to join her by a fire in a bedroom she used as a dressing room. “And he said, ‘Yes, dear’, and I got a rug and put it on him for warmth, and I said, ‘Would you like a drink?’ And he said, ‘Oh yes, there’s some brandy in my room.’ So I went and got brandy, and I brought it in on a tray and he was sitting in front of the fire and I served it to him … And I suddenly felt like I was in a different century, you know, I was serving brandy to my lord in front of the fire. And then I sat with him and we talked and told wonderful old theatre stories. I was sitting in front of the fire by his feet. It seems like a very romantic – and not sexually romantic – moment in my life that I treasure. When something is really great, it moves us, it stays with us forever.”

She loves the risk and magic and reality of the theatre: “It’s alive. It’s a different quality to a film because anything could happen with live theatre. It could turn into something horrific or magical, or there could be an awful accident.”

She proceeds to tell the story of an actor who was doing a two-hander with her and for two whole nights lost his lines altogether: “I did the entire play saying, ‘I know what you want to say.’ I performed the entire play playing both parts. And the funny thing was he remembered all the prompts. He knew that when I said this he should be in the chair and when I said that he should be across to the window, but not one word came out of his mouth.”

Miraculously, it looked to the audience as if this had been the intended effect. Then, after two nights of this, the actor worked as if nothing had happened. Burstyn says she must look him up to see if he ever acted again.

We discuss favourite novels, talking for a while about the snowbound sparkle and strangeness of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, its sense of new worlds coming and old worlds departing. “I read some of his diary and it was strange because it was so much a record of his day – what he had for breakfast and that kind of thing.”

I tell her that the snapshot effect of the Mann diaries often puts people off and the critic Susan Sontag, who met the great German novelist when she was a teenager in California, was put off by his ordinariness.

“My only contact with Susan Sontag,” Burstyn says, “was that one day, one quiet Sunday, I parked in her parking lot. And the next day there was a very angry note on my windshield saying, ‘This is my parking space. Do not park here. Do not even think about it.’ ”

Sontag was close to Jeanne Moreau, the great French actress, whom Burstyn worked with in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland. “[Moreau] was a real person. She had a sense of depth, she was friendly and gracious.” She adds, almost as an afterthought: “She dubbed me in the French version of The Exorcist.

The Exorcist got Burstyn an Oscar nomination and a place among the ultimate popular legends of Hollywood. Did she enjoy making it?

“It was a big experience. A very large experience indeed, and the research I did on it was fascinating. Bill Friedkin, of course, was a great director, very intellectual. It was a big profound enterprise and it involved a very heavy energy.

“I saw The Exorcist again recently at its 45th anniversary screening … And it really holds up. There’s actually no aspect of it that’s not still believable – even the clothes and the faces look real. And that extraordinary story, which it’s so easy to make fun of. I still appreciated it.”

We talked of the sheer wrenching quality of her much later film Requiem for a Dream. “There’s so much soul-searching,” she says. “It’s such a bold film. You have to see it as a work of art. And it can be a difficult film to watch. But once you’re into it, you’re really seeing something.”

One of Burstyn’s arguable influences on the development of the cinema is that she was responsible for Martin Scorsese carving out a reputation as one of the greatest postwar directors by getting him to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

“I asked that he be the director,” she says. “He had already made Mean Streets, but it hadn’t been released and he was deeply grateful that I wanted him. This doesn’t mean that I gave him his start. And there was no stopping him, anyway – he would have got there in any case. But, you know, there was never any sense with Marty of working with a monster, with a master in the nasty sense. He’s marvellous, he’s an original. He’s smart and fiery and rough and excitable and alive. And we had such a good time because he’s very collaborative – he’s not someone who comes in with something and insists, ‘This is my idea, this has to be like that.’ ”

I mention how Scorsese once said he didn’t know what the fuss was about with him – he hadn’t made 8 ½ or The Searchers or The Red Shoes.

“Thank you for telling me that. I didn’t know that, and Red Shoes is my favourite film. But Marty loves the camera, he loves the cinema, he loves the art of the cinema. We were in Phoenix, Arizona filming. There were the wide open spaces and the sun was blazing red and other colours. We both just stood there in awe of it and Marty looked across at me and said, ‘He makes good skies.’ ”

Did she feel as if she werecommuning with a fellow Catholic?

“Yes,” she says. “I did.

“My problem isn’t with Jesus, it’s with the way the church can behave. I was doing a film set in Boston when all the sexual abuse things started to come out there, and I met with a very cultivated priest, a Jesuit, a respected man. And I asked him about it and he said, ‘I’ll tell you, one of the men accused is a friend of mine and he was having real trouble, and he went to his spiritual adviser and he said, I don’t think I’m going to make it with this celibacy thing. And the elder priest said, Don’t even think about it. All you’ll need is a pretty little altar boy.’ ”

But this actor of great eminence, who’s pleased to tell me she has a granddaughter in college who wants to be a theatre director, still has preoccupations with the deep and dazzling darkness that is sometimes identified with the shadow of the Most High.

“I was pleased to read recently that the basic term in Aramaic was Elaha and that it didn’t indicate a father, it simply meant ‘sacred unity’. I love that.”

Burstyn describes herself as “more spiritual than religious” but the woman who’s fascinated by the gamut of spiritualities is clearly some kind of syncretist and a believer in “the a priori mystery” of things. “The question of a) the meaning of life and b) what we’re doing here and how we got here and how life formed … I don’t think there’s anything more important to think about and explore, you know,” she says. “Which leads to questions like, how does a Beethoven manifest? What genetic process has to occur for there suddenly to be a genius in any one field? It’s an unanswerable question, except it’s one you want to keep on asking.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "Ellen variations". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.