Ellen Burstyn: A Full Discovery

Notes Taken After Meeting With Tenn at Royal Orleans Hotel
New Orleans

Tenn spoke at great length tonight about Ellen Burstyn, and her ability, during the past few years, to get him to the pale judgment, to get some fog going, to make him imagine new characters, or what he called "a new sheen on some old characters."

Tenn seems to think that his first sighting of Burstyn was in The Last Picture Show, a performance that he called a distillation of all that time does to us and all that memory can save for us. "In the end," Tenn said, "we have nothing but our inventory of memories, sensations, colors, sounds, scents, dreams. Ultimately, they are combined into something we call the past, a journal we carry around, then carelessly lose, at which point we find that, like a love letter or a poem or Scripture or a nasty ditty from school, we know it entirely by memory. All that we are and have been are there in our hearts, and when Ellen stands at the grave of Ben Johnson, you can see and sense that her past, with all its glories, is nothing now but memories, stringy smoke, an oasis she can see and feel but can never reach. I became addicted to her at that point."

Tenn claimed that he persuaded his friend Jane Smith to accompany him to a screening of The Exorcist, which he sat through three consecutive times. "I do not want you to think that Jane remained for all of the viewings," Tenn told me. "She has her limits. I, clearly, do not." At one point the attendants of the Paramount Theatre on Broadway ("subterranean and amber," as Tenn recalled) asked Tenn to be quiet or leave: he had been giggling with each utterance from the Devil, whose voice was provided by the actress Mercedes McCambridge, who had caused so much grief on the set of Suddenly, Last Summer. "Such ideal casting," Tenn laughed. "So marvelously Satanic."

Tenn continued: There is an extraordinary moment in that film, when Ellen stands in her hallway, as I recall, and someone enters and tells her that a friend has died--has, in fact, been murdered by her possessed daughter. Ellen stands and looks at the man in disbelief, not breathing or moving, her face a mask of pain and exhaustion, and it is so brilliant, so perfect, so true, and then the director, whom I like so much, inserts a hokey, unnecessary cut of Ellen crying, putting a hand to her mouth, banging a wall. We had the emotion, the feeling. Why the fear? Why the capitulation to something so stagey and false? 

I thought at one time that I had a problem with her voice: It seemed at first to be too small, to be untrained, but I came to see that it is, in reality, attached quite wonderfully to her heart, and if you listen to her speak, you are almost gaining access to the rhythms of that organ, to the way it works and reacts and retains. She also has an extraordinary face, and I do not simply mean the beauty that it holds: She is unafraid to let you see her be open and afraid and betrayed; tired and exultant. There is a scene in Resurrection in which I honestly feel that she is in the throes of an orgasm; another in which she is consumed by fear and self-hatred; another in which she is so clean and clear and simple and open--a sentence in a story by Jean Stafford.

I would like to think that she might work with me. I would like to think that I have something in me that might lead to a play. I would like to see her Amanda or her Mrs. Venable. She has the capacity to strip herself of all the experience she has gained, appearing free of a past, and then giving us an explosion of repressed emotion--which leads me to think she might have been ideal for Alma.

We dream of these things. We wait for the fog.

 She hesitates with certain emotions, stops, stares fearlessly at it, then moves with great delicacy toward it. Incremental yet passionate, moving with the weight of the luggage that has been stuffed with her past and her training and her ability to analyze and deny. It is sometimes a slow trip toward her discovery, but it is always, for me, in what I have seen, a full discovery, worth the wait, and worth various viewings. 


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