Ellen Burstyn at 90: the New Hollywood icon looks back at her 1970s classics

In films such as The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Ellen Burstyn became one of the iconic faces of 1970s New Hollywood. On her 90th birthday, she tells us some tales about that golden era.

7 December 2022

By Anthony Frajman

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Ellen Burstyn has been a fixture on American screens for more than five decades, with roles in Requiem for a Dream (2000), Interstellar (2014), The Tale (2018) and Pieces of a Woman (2020) all highlights from her 21st-century work. But it’s her extraordinary run of 1970s pictures with directors including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson and William Friedkin that made her an icon, and perhaps the defining actress of the New Hollywood era.

While she had attained some early success with roles on Broadway, Burstyn began her formal training as an actor in New York at the famous Actors Studio of pioneering Method teacher Lee Strasberg, whose other alumni included Paul Newman, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft and Al Pacino. “My first audition was for a lead in a Broadway play, and I got it,” explains Burstyn. “So I began that way, but I didn’t really have technique. Lee was such a profound human being. To expose my work to Lee and have him tell me what he saw was to know what I was doing and what I could do. I learned how to utilise deeper parts of myself; the parts that hide. I learned to access them and have them be part of my work.”

The Last Picture Show (1971)

She first became associated with New Hollywood after she landed a part in Peter Bogdanovich’s poetic coming-of-age drama The Last Picture Show (1971). She was initially offered Cloris Leachman’s role, Ruth Popper, which was thought to have Oscar potential, but Burstyn was determined to take on a different role: Lois Farrow, the frustrated mother of town beauty Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). “I said I didn’t wanna play Ruth as I was going through a nasty divorce. I didn’t wanna play somebody who was so fragile and so unable to handle her life circumstances. And Peter said, ‘Well, Ruth’s gonna be the Oscar-winning part’. I said, ‘I don’t care. That’s not what I wanna play.’ So, he let me play Lois.”

As Burstyn remembers, the film was a highly unlikely proposition at the time – none of the lead cast were established actors, and Bogdanovich was not yet established. But this was an era when Hollywood was prepared to take chances on new talent. “We were all unknowns. There wasn’t one famous person among us. We had all auditioned, and we got the part.”

The Last Picture Show (1971)

What’s more, Bogdanovich wanted to shoot the film in black and white, which by the early 70s had become a very rare choice and was considered highly uncommercial. But Bogdanovich had the backing of a key New Hollywood figure and friend of Burstyn: Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson. Hitting pay dirt after having produced the countercultural sensation Easy Rider (1969), Rafelson had gone on to form the production company BBS with Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, which backed a number of major early New Hollywood films. “They all said, ‘It has to be in colour or it wouldn’t get sold to television after its theatrical release’. And Peter then took it to Bob Rafelson at BBS and Bob said he would do it in black and white.”

“One of my favourite moments was the first time we read the script together,” says Burstyn. “We didn’t know each other, we didn’t really have a sense of how good the film was. As we were reading and seeing each other and getting to connect with each other, the story and the characters came alive. When we turned the last page, there was a moment of silence. Everybody just sat there, stunned, realising what we were in for, what we were part of.”

Recalling shooting the film in a dead-end small-town in Texas, Burstyn – who was Oscar-nominated for her performance – says the cast quickly bonded and became like a family. “Peter very cleverly put us all in one motel on the side of a highway miles from anything, with no car. So we had nowhere to go. After we rehearsed or shot, we all went back to the same hotel. We all had dinner together. And then we hung out in each other’s rooms, and Jeff Bridges brought his guitar and we sang together. Cloris and I were both going through a divorce at the time. I can see us sitting on the floor talking about our husbands and our marriages and crying, but always in our Texas accents.”

Lobby card for The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

One of the most vital and subversive films to come out of Burstyn’s golden 70s run was her 1972 collaboration with Rafelson, The King of Marvin Gardens, which turned 50 this year. This Atlantic City-set drama featured Burstyn alongside two other prominent New Hollywood actors – Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern – all in roles completely unlike their usual screen personas. Burstyn stars as a manic former beauty queen, Nicholson is a quiet introvert and Dern his shrewd brother. “We got together at Bob Rafelson’s house to read it – originally [Jack and Bruce] were cast in the opposite roles. And then after the reading, Bob said, ‘Do it again and switch roles.’ Everybody was kind of surprised because for Jack Nicholson to be playing the shy introvert and Bruce Dern to be playing this expansive character, it was like, ‘What is Bob Rafelson thinking of?’ And it was such a great suggestion. I think it’s one of the most interesting things Jack Nicholson ever did.”

Making the final scene, which ends in a violent crescendo, is an experience Burstyn still remembers fondly. “When we were doing that scene and we broke for lunch, I didn’t leave the set. I didn’t eat. I just stayed in that chair. And slowly the crew came back and we picked up, finished the scene. And when it was over, Jack Nicholson said in a very loud voice, ‘This woman has put in a day of work like I have never seen in my life.’”

William Friedkin and Ellen Burstyn on the set of The Exorcist (1973)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Burstyn would follow it up with another intensely felt performance, taking on the role for which she is best recognised: Chris MacNeil, the mother of the possessed child Regan, in William Friedkin’s landmark horror film The Exorcist (1973). 

The shoot was extremely long and difficult for Burstyn. Infamously, she injured her back permanently in an on-set accident. “I remember I got a radio headset, and after we did the masters, when they were lighting for the close-ups, I would turn my chair to the wall, put the headset on and listen to music and close my eyes, so that I could stay on the same emotional level. We were shooting for eight months.”

Again, Burstyn would be Oscar nominated for her performance, one of her six nominations to date. A year later, she won the award for a film she was instrumental in developing: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), the story of a widow striving to make a new life for herself. Burstyn even handpicked the director herself: the young Martin Scorsese, then fresh from his breakthrough film Mean Streets (1973).

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Burstyn says the rampant social changes of the 70s led directly to films like Alice, which is one of comparatively few New Hollywood films with a woman in the lead role. It was this upheaval that made the films of the era so vital. “There was so much fervour during that period in America: the anti-war movement and people were in the streets, including me. It was a time where people were taking LSD and opening up to new possibilities, not holding to the conservative rules of what had been but reaching out to new territories and new ways of expression. Those films were a product of that.”

“There were wonderful young directors coming up then, and they liked me and put me in their films. And there was no reason to say no. If I was offered something that was of interest of any kind, I leapt at the opportunity to work.”

Looking back on her illustrious run, Burstyn feels immense gratitude for the opportunities she had and the incredible films she became involved with. “I’ve been blessed in that I have been able to make a living off what I can do. Making those movies is why anybody would wanna be an actress. I just happened to be there at the right time.”


Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is available on BFI DVD.

Further reading

Long live The King of Marvin Gardens

By Peter Tonguette

Long live The King of Marvin Gardens

One great New Hollywood film for every year (1967 to 82)

By Sam Wigley

One great New Hollywood film for every year (1967 to 82)
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