Ellen Burstyn

Ellen Burstyn (born December 7, 1932) is an American Academy Award-winning actress.


Early life

Burstyn was born Edna Rae Gillooly in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Correine Marie (née Hamel) and John Austin Gillooly, who was a building contractor. She is of Irish, French, Pennsylvania Dutch and Native American ancestry, and was raised Catholic. Her parents divorced when she was young. She would later refer to her mother as tough, violent and controlling. She left home at age 18.


Burstyn debuted on Broadway in 1957 and joined Lee Strasberg's The Actor's Studio in 1967. In 1975, she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Same Time, Next Year (a role she would reprise in the film version, three years later). In 1990 she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre. Until 1970, she was credited as "Ellen McRae" in nearly all her film and TV appearances.

Burstyn won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1974 for her performance in the movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, directed by Martin Scorsese. She received her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1971 for the film The Last Picture Show, and was subsequently nominated for Best Actress in 1973 for the horror movie The Exorcist, in 1978 for Same Time, Next Year, in 1980 for Resurrection, and for Requiem for a Dream in 2000.

In the early to mid 1960's, Burstyn played Dr. Kate Bartok on the NBC soap opera, The Doctors. She worked on several primetime television shows of the 1960s, including guest appearances on Perry Mason, Maverick, Wagon Train, 77 Sunset Strip, The Big Valley and Gunsmoke. She hosted Saturday Night Live in 1980. In 1986, she had her own ABC sitcom, The Ellen Burstyn Show costarring Megan Mullally as her daughter and Elaine Stritch as her mother. It was canceled after one season. From 2000 to 2002, Burstyn appeared in the CBS television drama That's Life. In 2006, she starred as a bishop in the controversial NBC comedy-drama The Book of Daniel.

Burstyn's most recent film appearance was in The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky, with whom she worked in Requiem for a Dream. She also appeared on a 2007 episode of the HBO series Big Love, playing the mother of Polygamist wife Barbara Henrickson.

In 2008, Burstyn returned to the stage in Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Little Flower of East Orange, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a co-production by LAByrinth Theater Company and The Public Theater in New York City. The off-Broadway production ran from March 18 - May 4. Burstyn played the title role of Marie Therese. In addition to her stage work, Burstyn will portray former First Lady Barbara Bush in director Oliver Stone's upcoming film W. She will also guest star in the tenth season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as the estranged mother of Detective Elliot Stabler.

Emmy Awards and controversy

Burstyn was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or Special, for the TV movie The People vs. Jean Harris (1981) and again for another TV movie, Pack of Lies (1987).

In 2006, she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special for HBO's Mrs Harris as Dr. Tarnower's "Ex-Lover #3." (She had played the title character in The People vs Mrs Jean Harris). She was nominated for a performance that consisted of 14 seconds of screen time, two lines of dialogue and a total of 38 words. This is the shortest nominated performance in the history of the Emmy Awards.

Soon after the nominations were announced, an outcry ensued from the press and the public regarding the worthiness of the nomination. One explanation for the nomination was that people were honoring Burstyn for her nominated but non-winning performance from the first Harris telefilm. A more popular accusation was that the nominating committee was either confused in their recollection, or merely "threw in" her name from sheer recognition, assuming a worthy performance without actually seeing it.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences initially insisted that "based on the popular vote, this is a legitimate nomination." Meanwhile, HBO deflected the blame for submitting the nomination to the movie production company. Burstyn's own reaction ranged from initial silence to:

I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and ultimately I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don't even appear.

to this final quote:

This doesn't have anything to do with me. I don't even want to know about this. You people work it out yourself.
Ultimately, Kelly Macdonald, who starred in The Girl in the Cafe, won the award. In March 2007, the Academy officially announced that eligibility for a Primetime Emmy Award in any long-form supporting-actor category required nominees to appear on-screen in at least 10 percent of the project (9 minutes in a typical 90-minute telefilm).

Many critics still cite this incident to criticize the Emmy nomination process, claiming that name recognition has played an increasingly visible role over the years.

Other activities

During the 1970s, Burstyn, was active in the movement to free convicted boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter from jail.

In 1981, Burstyn recorded "The Ballad of the Nazi Soldier's Wife" (Kurt Weill's musical setting of Bertolt Brecht's text "Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib?") for Ben Bagley's album Kurt Weill Revisited, Vol. 2. Burstyn served as president of the Actors' Equity Association from 1982 to 1985.

In 1997, Burstyn was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. In 2000, she was named co-president of The Actor's Studio, alongside Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel.

Personal life

In 1950, she married Bill Alexander, but they divorced in 1957; the following year, she married Paul Roberts, with whom she adopted a boy named Jefferson in 1962. They divorced the same year. She then married fellow actor Neil Burstyn, but the union was turbulent; a schizophrenic, he would have episodes of violence, and eventually left her. He attempted to come back to her, but she rejected him, ultimately divorcing him in 1972. In her autobiography Lessons in Becoming Myself, Burstyn revealed that he stalked her over a period of 10 years after she divorced him. He eventually sexually assaulted her, but was not arrested, as spousal rape was not yet considered a crime. He committed suicide in 1978, upon which his parents sent Burstyn a telegram stating "Congratulations, you've won another Oscar; Neil killed himself".

She is currently unmarried.

Burstyn practices Sufism. She is affiliated with the Maezumi Institute (Zen Peacemakers) and says her spiritual journey was inspired by the book The Last Barrier: A Journey Through the World of Sufi Teaching.


Year Film Role Other notes
1964 Goodbye Charlie Franzie Salzman
For Those Who Think Young Dr. Pauline Thayer
1969 The Winner Ellen McLeod
1970 Alex in Wonderland Beth Morrison
Tropic of Cancer Mona Miller
1971 The Last Picture Show Lois Farrow Nominated - Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress; Nominated - Golden Globe Award
1972 The King of Marvin Gardens Sally
1973 The Exorcist Chris MacNeil Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated - Golden Globe Award
1974 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore Alice Hyatt Academy Award for Best Actress
BAFTA Award Nominated - Golden Globe Award
Harry and Tonto Shirley Mallard
Thursday's Game Lynne Evers TV
1977 Providence Sonia Lngham I
1978 A Dream of Passion Brenda
Same Time, Next Year Doris Golden Globe Award Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
1980 Resurrection Edna Mae McCauley Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated - Golden Globe Award
1981 Silence of the North Olive Frederickson
The People vs. Jean Harris Jean Harris TV; Nominated - Golden Globe Award
1984 The Ambassador Alex Hacker
1985 Into Thin Air Joan Walker TV
Twice in a Lifetime Kate MacKenzie
1986 The Ellen Burstyn Show Ellen Brewer TV
Act of Vengeance Margaret Yablonski TV
Something in Common Lynn Hollander TV
1987 Look away Mary Todd Lincoln TV
Pack of Lies Barbara Jackson TV
1988 Hannah's War Katalin
1990 When You Remember Me Nurse Cooder TV
1991 Grand Isle Mademoiselle Reisz
Dying Young Mrs. O'Neil
Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love Lillian "Lil" Lambert TV
1992 Taking Back My Life: The Nancy Ziegenmeyer Story Wilma TV
1993 Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story Joan Delvecchio TV
The Cemetery Club Esther Moskowitz
1994 Trick of the Eye Frances Griffin TV
Getting Gotti Jo Giaclone TV
When a Man Loves a Woman Emily
Getting Out Arlie's Mother TV
The Color of Evening Kate O'Reilly
1995 How to Make an American Quilt Hy Dodd
The Baby-Sitters Club Emily Haberman
Follow the River Gretel TV
My Brother's Keeper Helen TV
Roommates Judith
1996 Timepiece Maud Gannon TV
Our Son, the Matchmaker TV
The Spitfire Grill Hannah Ferguson
1997 Flash Laura Strong TV
Deceiver Mook
A Deadly Vision Yvette Watson TV
1998 Playing by Heart Mildred
The Patron Saint of Liars June Clatterbuck TV
You Can Thank Me Later Shirley Cooperberg
1999 Walking Across Egypt Mattie Rigsbee
Night Ride Home Maggie TV
2000 Mermaid Trish Gill TV
Requiem for a Dream Sara Goldfarb Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated - Golden Globe Award
The Yards Val Handler
2001 Within These Walls Joan Thomas TV
Dodson's Journey Mother
2002 Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood Viviane Joan 'Vivi' Abbott Walker
2003 Brush with Fate Rika TV
2004 The Five People You Meet in Heaven Ruby TV
The Madam's Family: The Truth About the Canal Street Brothel Tommie TV
2005 Mrs. Harris Ex-lover #3
Down in the Valley Ma
Our Fathers Mary Ryan TV
2006 The Fountain Dr. Lilian Guzetti
The Wicker Man Sister Summersisle
The Elephant King Diana Hunt
30 Days Maura
2007 The Stone Angel Hagar
Mitch Albom's For One More Day Pauline Benetto TV
2008 The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond Miss Adie awaiting release
Our Lady of Victory Mother St. John awaiting release
Greta Katherine post-production
W. Barbara Bush post-production
2009 Lovely, Still Mary post-production


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