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Interview: Ellen Burstyn Keeps Watch

The 88-year-old legend stars in a virtual reading of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine.

Ellen Burstyn
(© David Gordon)

Fanny Farrelly, the redoubtable dowager who throws open her spacious country estate to houseguests with opposite World War II agendas, arrives at the start of Lillian Hellman's drama, Watch on the Rhine, already ruling the roost. "Breakfast is at nine o'clock in this house and will be until the day after I die," she tells her servant. "Ring the bell." When informed it's only 8:30, she barks back, "Well, put the clocks up to nine and ring the bell." Told that its ring is too mean and disturbs folks, she is unmoved. "That's what it was put there for. I like to disturb folks."

Fanny, through hardly a prime mover of plot, is all over this play. She provided the venerable Lucile Watson with her best performance — on Broadway in 1941 and onscreen in 1943 — and now she is giving the no-less-venerable Ellen Burstyn a spirited workout in the May 13 Broadway's Best Shows' "Spotlight on Plays" virtual reading to support the Actors Fund.

It's almost impossible to find a harder-working, more frequently working octogenarian than Burstyn, star of stage, screen, television, and that new addition of these pandemic times, the virtual reading. At 88, she's a virtual veteran, one of the few performers to come back for seconds.

In November, she was the old nurse in Neil LaBute's version of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, mixing it up with Alan Cumming, K. Todd Freeman, Constance Wu, and Mia Katigbak. Now, as Fanny, she labors to keep it light (a lost cause) with the likes of Alan Cox, Carla Gugino, Jeremy Shamos, Alfred Enoch, and Mary Beth Peil.

Cox has the lead role that Paul Lukas originated on Broadway and repeated (to Oscar-winning effect) in film — a German-born Fascist-fighting engineer who brings his wife and three teenage children from war-ravaged Europe to what he thinks is a safe harbor, his mother-in-law's home outside Washington. Unfortunately, trouble also abides there — an impoverished Romanian count "with good manners and odious character" who conspires with Germans in DC and is not above blackmailing Fascist fighters. The play won Hellman the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Burstyn has made her peace with virtual presentations. "It's a different result, certainly," she admits. "The actors are not in the same room. Sometimes, they are in different cities or different parts of the country. Once we get past Covid, we won't be doing much of this. I'm just glad that we got to do this play. Lillian Hellman is such a great writer, and she's not done so much anymore."

Watch on the Rhine is all ready to be watched by theater-no-goers. "The show has been, as they say now, 'captured.' Instead of recorded or taped or whatever, it's 'captured.' I think it went very well. Of course, I love Carla Gugino. She and I did a series together — so we got to know each other then. All of the actors I was so impressed with, even the children. I have two grandsons and a granddaughter in this. I don't know where they got these kids, but they were just fantastic."

(© Broadway's Best Shows)

Like any red-blooded actor, she is itching to get back onstage again. The actress has no qualms or vanity about elderly roles, provided it's a good part. She's plucked quite a few of late.

Current case in point is Pieces of a Woman, which has been making the rounds via Netflix. In it, she plays the mother of Vanessa Kirby, who loses a child in a fumbled home birth. It allows Burstyn a blistering scene in which she rages at her daughter for giving in to sadness and tells her of when she herself was a sickly Holocaust survivor baby who flatly refused to die.

The power Burstyn pours into this speech earned her nomination talk. Alas, she didn't make the Oscar cut. If she had, she would have made Oscar history. At 88, she would have become the oldest performer ever nominated for an Oscar, besting (by 38 days) the record Christopher Plummer set with All the Money in the World.

As it is, Burstyn's award record is not so shabby: She has been nominated for eight Emmys, six Oscars, and one Tony and is one of the few people to have won all three, the Triple Crown of Acting. She has in common with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Booth, Mercedes Ruehl, and Judi Dench the fact she won her Oscar and her Tony in the same year—1975, the Oscar for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and the Tony for Same Time, Next Year; the Emmys came in 2009 (Law & Order: SVU) and in 2013 (Political Animals).

As for coming attractions: "I shot a film called 30 Days, a coming-of-age story about a gay boy, and I'm his grandmother. It's a very interesting script and beautifully shot. That'll be making the film-festival circuit in the fall."

There's a hush-hush postscript to all this. "I'm working on a long-term project right now — a long poem called Memorial that's a version of The Iliad by Alice Oswald, and I'm busy memorizing it. That's not placed yet. It'll take me a year to memorize the thing. I work on it every day."

"How does she do it?" you have to ask. "I do all the right things. I eat well. I don't eat meat. I don't drink alcohol. I don't smoke dope or do any prescription drugs. I walk for close to an hour several times a week. I work out with a trainer. It pays off. I didn't in my 20s and my 30s, but, starting in my 40s, I started exercising and slowly gave up all my bad habits. The first thing I gave up was cigarettes, and I think that was the hardest. It's made a huge difference."

Ellen Burstyn is a woman who loves what she's doing — and she fully intends to keep doing it. "I'm so blessed. I'm really glad that I am able to keep on truckin'."

Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn in Pieces of a Woman
(© Netflix)

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