Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show - Supporting Actress Sundays

The year 1971 has been described, by one especially eloquent commentator, as "the time when it was raining Glenda Jackson movies." True 'nuf. Good times. Ho ho. But, for actressexuals, 1971 seems also to be a crucial moment in a delicious era of American filmmaking: the onset of the Epoch of Ellen. Sure, the 1970s brought any number of more sparkly, more controversial, more phenomenally popular female stars to the US moviegoing imagination, but none delivered such steady clarity and quality. And, in an unusual, possibly prescient move that hinted at all that was about to happen to this woman's career as the new decade began, emerging director Peter Bogdanovich offered the actress her choice of roles in his upcoming picture, suggesting that one of the true stars of his movie would be...

approximately 10 minutes and 31 seconds
8 scenes
roughly 8% of film's total running time

Ellen Burstyn plays Lois Farrow, who has -- for a very long time -- been the prettiest girl in the tiny town of Anarene, Texas.

As the movie begins, Burstyn's Lois is pushing 40 ("It's an itchy age") and bored. With her husband, her lover, her life.

What's worse is that she's faced with the realization that she's no longer the prettiest girl in Anarene. That title has finally passed to Lois's daughter, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd, in a startlingly effective debut performance). Lois is perhaps the only one to truly recognize the formidable gift of prettiness inherited by her daughter Jacy. She sees Jacy's casual cruelties and calculated whimsies as no one else. For Jacy, like her mother before her, crushing the hearts of boys is neither the sum of who she is, nor the result of some previous trauma. Rather, it's just a way to pass the time, a way to stay awake until something more entertaining comes along.

Lois's problem, however, is that -- in so witnessing her daughter -- Lois also recognizes the stark limitations inherent to the power of pretty. Plus, for Lois, crushing hearts isn't so entertaining anymore. It's not that Lois wants fulfillment; rather, she's just damn sure she doesn't want what she has.

Burstyn understands Lois with an empathetic alacrity that carves the character's inner life in nearly every gesture. Her performance is clearly the work of an actor arriving to mastery of her craft.

That said, there remains something a little "off" in Burstyn's casting. Yes, she's really good and totally vivid. Yes, Burstyn nails character details that most other actresses would miss entirely (eg. Burstyn shows us that Lois rides back to Oklahoma with Sonny mostly to avoid Jacy's inevitable attention-grabbing backseat performance as the misunderstood delinquent; likewise, Burstyn makes it clear that Lois weeps for Sam the Lion mostly because he was her guiding star, always reminding her that -- in his eyes -- Lois would always be the prettiest girl in Anarene).

Yet, Burstyn's astonishing clarity of characterization, her mastery of the moments, her vivid interiority does not adequately handle the necessity of Lois's formidable exterior. In a word, I don't buy -- for a second -- that Burstyn's Lois has been brash and sassy and the center of attention her whole life. Burstyn charts Lois's interior life with apparent effortlessness but the character's exterior drapes awkwardly. For Lois's character arc to really work, there just needs to be more air in her hair. (Basically, I ended up wanting Burstyn to coach/direct Diane Ladd in the role; between the two of them, they would have hit it.)

Burstyn really really understands Lois, staging incredible beats for Bogdanovich's enthralled camera. (The extended moment where she decides not to bed Sonny? That should be in The Actors' Studio "Hall of Fame" right next to Brando's legendary Waterfront glove bit.) But, in the end, Burstyn's Lois reads more like an expert demonstration of how to construct a characterization, with few of the giddy thrills that come from watching an actress truly inhabit such an artful creation.


criticlasm said...

Diane Ladd. You totally got it. I wonder if it's that Southern Woman syndrome. You can always tell when a real southern woman plays a Southern Woman. Like Lily Tomlin in Nashville, or Dolly in Steel Magnolias or basically, the entire cast of Designing Women.

criticlasm said...

oooh--and Celia Weston and Ann Wedgeworth. We just need to mention them. Because. It's similar to your point of Park Overall vs. Frances McDormand. I think there's a certain similar exterior you're pointing to--of performance in everyday life maybe.

J.J. said...

Agreed on Diane Ladd, but I still think Burstyn was the one and only for this role. If she turned up the sass or the vavoom factor, it simply wouldn't have worked. Lois is not a disillusioned woman. She knows she's old. She knows she has to act her age. In the most effective (if obvious) actorly choice, Burstyn tries to catch her own eye in every mirror she passes -- like she's hoping to see a younger reflection. This is better than dialing up the character into some kind of aging harlot. If I were to picture Ladd in the role, I'd've expected her Lois to have moved on from Anarene a long time ago.

Raybee said...

Interesting. It felt like Burstyn was on screen longer. That's part of what a true great supporting turn is, making you think they are on screen longer than they are, because it stick with you.

I've only seen three of the nominees (can't find Leighton or Barrie's film), but Burstyn should've won. Love her subtlety.

thombeau said...

On a semi-related note, Miss Burstyn was ROBBED of the Oscar she so richly deserved for Requiem for A Dream! I will go to my grave believing that.

CLNY said...

I'm going to see this film tonite!!

alan ruck said...

You're thoughtful and you're entitled to your opinions, as we all are.
But I couldn't disagree with you more.
If there ever was a woman as sexy as the
39 year old Ellen Burstyn in a teeny town
like Anarene, she would be a legend to this day.
Great actor.
As good as anyone out there at that time.
And as a critically heterosexual
15 year old boy at the time,
she was just about the perfect fantasy.
Everybody else was gaga over
Cybil Sheppard.
I was like,
"Who's the Mom ?"