Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:
Lessons in Becoming Myself, by Ellen Burstyn
In less than a decade, Ellen Burstyn was nominated 5 times for an Oscar (for The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist (speaking of The Exorcist …), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Same Time Next Year and Resurrection) and won one Oscar (for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). That’s a helluva good run. One of the best in the business. Then, of course, in 2001, she was nominated for an Oscar again for Requiem For a Dream. Her work in the 70s and 80s helped define the new cinema, the independent spirit, the breaking down of the boundaries of the old studio system. She WAS 1970s film, in many ways.
She’s nominated almost any time she acts – including the controversial nomination for her 14 seconds of screen time in HBO’s Mrs. Harris in 2006. Remember that? People were upset – like: how on earth could only 14 seconds be worthy of a nomination?? It was the talk of the town for a good 2 weeks. Burstyn made no statements about it for a while. After all, it wasn’t her fight. If they wanted to nominate her, how is that HER fault? Finally, she did make a statement, and it’s glorious:
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.
She’s also co-President of the Actors Studio, an organization which she has always been highly involved in – Lee Strasberg adored her, and pretty much clocked what he saw to be her issues as an actress immediately. But I’ll talk about that in a minute.
I took a 4-day acting workshop with Ellen Burstyn about 10 years ago. There were about 30 people in the class – a huge class – but the way she set it up and organized it (it was impeccable) we all had a chance to work, and get feedback from her. Nobody was stiffed. We all got our shot. She had obviously thought long and hard about what she wanted to do in such an intensely condensed time period, and it WASN’T scene-work. It was an extremely unconventional acting class, like no other I have ever taken before or since. She was magnificent as a teacher. It was not “Oooh, here I am The Guru” … she had things to impart to us, and then – when it came time for each one of us to get up and work – she honed in on each student specifically, with eyes like laser beams … seeing right into who we were. It was not generalized (as a lot of acting classes can become, with the same comments given to different people – one-size-fits-all). She did not say to me what she said to the guy across the room. Because she saw in us different things. Basically, she’s a person of deep and also relaxed focus (that’s one of the things that really struck me about her – her level of relaxation – without EVER seeming “mellow” or indifferent) – and when one person was up in front of the group working, her entire consciousness was focused on that person. It was amazing – to be in that spotlight for 2 minutes, or however long it was I was up in front of the group. It was almost embarrassing. You would finish working, and there would be a long long silence, as she would look up at you, thinking, thinking, thinking … It wasn’t a dead silence, it was FILLED with anticipation and thought … The whole room was riveted. Because this was an intensive and there were so many people in the class, she couldn’t spend 25 minutes on every person, analyzing them – it had to be about 10 minutes per person … That’s hard to do. Hard to be specific enough in that small amount of time, and also difficult to make the comments something the students will take with them, things that will elevate the students’ understanding not only of their own process, but of who they are, for God’s sake. THAT’S a good class. And person after person, Burstyn was able to do that. It was extraordinary. We were all on the edge of our seats. We would watch another classmate work (and these weren’t monologues or scenes – it was a different kind of thing she was having us explore) – and then we’d all sit there, quiet, aware of her, sitting in her chair, always wearing bright deep colors – reds and purples and deep greens – thinking, pondering, staring up at our classmate … choosing her words very carefully. She said a couple of things to me, after I worked, that I have never forgotten.
She was an incredible teacher. And why she is incredible is because she has such good eyes for it. She also loves other actors and has very little envy. Her energy during our class was that of shining JOY at seeing actors do well, grow, be brave, face fears. It’s a strange thing – to feel safe and yet courageous at the same time – but that’s what she created as a teacher. The class was not, as I mentioned, an acting class, where people got up and did monologues. It was an exploration of each actor’s “shadow side” – the part of us we do not want to admit, or we avoid, or we say to ourselves, “OTHER people are like that – NOT ME!” Burstyn said, “When you catch yourself saying things like that, pay close attention. You’re coming close to your own shadow side.” In order to be fully expressed as an actor, then the “shadow side” must not be avoided. Nothing can be avoided. You can’t judge certain attributes as unworthy of you. You have to be willing to experience the full spectrum. I had never quite thought of it in that way before, but Burstyn’s class represented a slight shift in how I thought, not just about acting, but also about my own ambivalence and sometimes hatred of a certain individual – who, during the course of the class, I realized represented my “shadow side”. I mean, she was also a full individual in her own right – but she was symbolic to me. Exploring that side of me that was her was excruciating, at times. But such worthwhile work.
Ellen Burstyn has four rules of acting. 4 things that you MUST do:
1. Show up.
2. Pay attention.
3. Tell the truth.
4. Don’t be attached to the outcome.
I fluctuate on which one is the most difficult – but often I think that it’s flat out #1 that is the hardest. But “showing up” is what you MUST do – and that doesn’t just mean getting to rehearsal on time, but showing up, with all your talent, openness, creativity, fearlessness, self, fears, whatever – at your disposal. There are those who WANT to “show up” but honestly can’t. That’s what separates the talented from the not-talented.
But certainly #4 is one of the most challenging things of all – not just in acting, but in life in general. I have not mastered #4 at all, and it is a lifelong journey, I suppose. I am terribly bad at it. Most of my broken hearts have come from not having a grasp on #4. And I can feel it in me: it will happen again.
But not being attached to the outcome – in acting – is especially essential. It is that which creates fearlessness, it is that which sets an actor free. Having an idea about how to play something is great. But do not ever be attached to the outcome. Life is more mysterious than that. You can’t expect anything. The DOING must be enough. (My college acting teacher used to talk about “the reality of the doing” – which helped actors ground themselves. What are you actually DOING? It helped you get specific).
Anyway, those 4 days of workshop left me with a lifetime of lessons, which is why I’m talking about it so much.
Her autobiography, which came out last year, is a real actor’s book. She obviously has had much success at the highest echelons of Hollywood. I mean, 5 nominations in less than 10 years. You know. She’s one of the anointed. BUT alongside of that, has been her rigorous training – she STILL is in training, she still does workshops of plays, and teaches, and moderates at the Studio (another once-in-a-lifetime experience – watching her handle that room … You just hold your breath, waiting to hear what she will say).
Her relationship with Lee Strasberg, famous acting teacher and creator of/head of the Actors Studio is well-known. Burstyn had been a model in her early 20s, with some success in television, commercials and variety hours and the like. She was beautiful. Burstyn is quite honest about how vain she was (and still can be) – which is one of the reasons why I think her performance in Requiem For a Dream was so shattering to watch. Talk about shadow sides.
The vanity of that character became so acute that it was indistinguishable from self-loathing (something that I think is quite common). And her vanity about her looks – and dropping some weight for her big television moment – is something that Burstyn, as a model, and a beautiful young woman, understood intimately. It may seem easy to play something so close to yourself, but it is not. That’s why Burstyn has her students work on “shadow sides”, because we all have blind spots – and it is usually in our blind spot about ourselves that we find the gold mine. You don’t act from anywhere else but there. It is the most truthful part of us, because it is the part we are ashamed of, that we hide, deny. Bring it out into the light. Let’s let that sucker breathe. Easier said than done. Anyway, Lee Strasberg, within one or two sessions of working with Burstyn, could sense her shallowness as a human being, and could sense her vanity. Burstyn said to us, during the workshop, “Let’s not forget. I was a pretty silly girl. I got by on my looks, and that’s the truth.” Strasberg recognized that in her – that defense mechanism – and went after it. Many actors resent such intrusions. Who the hell does he think he is?? But careful: when you hear a voice like that, make sure it’s a REAL voice, that is on the side of growth and health … as opposed to the shadow side protecting itself, not wanting to be revealed. Burstyn took to Strasberg’s teachings like blood to a vampire. He saved her from what could have been a rather conventional career. Burstyn was a pretty girl, a flirt, who was used to having things come to her. (That is not to say she was a happy person. Her childhood was a sad one, it’s just that once she hit puberty, her looks blossomed – and things started to just come easily to her, because of her beauty). Strasberg threw a wrench in that particular journey and Burstyn is forever grateful – because he gave to her a sense of her own power, first of all – but ALSO: a sense that she was more than her face, AND that certain emotions which did not really fit with being a pretty girl (rage, grief, need, envy) – needed to be explored and released. Just because she was pretty didn’t mean she wasn’t deep. Believe it or not, this was a revelation to Burstyn at the time. She flourished under his teaching.
So that’s the excerpt I wanted to choose today from her lovely autobiography. A real actor’s kind of excerpt. Nothing to do with fame, or her famous co-stars, or her most popular roles, or shooting The Last Picture Show … but beginning her work with Lee Strasberg, and discovering, basically, who she was.
Also, as an aside: she told the story about the actress playing Joan of Arc in our workshop, and it’s one of my favorite anecdotes ever. Having sat through years of classes in sense memory (and not really “getting it”, let’s be honest) … I read that anecdote and think: Yup. If you’re GOING to use that technique, then you had BETTER use it in that particular way. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise and who the hell cares about that.
This is not the time or the place to go into sense memory. Or who knows, maybe it is, but I’m going to the beach today and I don’t have time to go into it.
Any actor who has taken beginning sense-memory classes will recognize those early exercises described by Burstyn. Creating the cup, the glass of juice … using only your sensoral apparatus. Training your concentration.
More to say about Burstyn. All I can say is: I was nervous to read this book, because I have such high regard for her … and I also wasn’t wacky about the title, which seemed rather generic – BUT: it’s a lovely and honest book, and it really is about her lifelong journey in becoming herself. It’s not been a neat life, and her trajectory has been full of fits and starts … and her honesty about herself is not only refreshing, but totally inspiring.
(I also have Ellen Burstyn to thank for bringing the word “entelechy” into my consciousness – a concept she brought up continuously in the workshop).
Here’s the excerpt. Ellen and her husband Neil Burstyn signed up for a class with Lee Strasberg.
No pressure, Ted (haha), but I would love to hear your thoughts. I know you have them!!
EXCERPT FROM Lessons in Becoming Myself, by Ellen Burstyn
At that time, 1964, Lee was holding his classes in a studio behind Carnegie Hall. You signed up for two classes a week – one exercise and scene class with lee and one scene study class with his wife, Paula. Lee asked for a commitment of at least six weeks because he felt it took that long to understand what the classes were about so that one could make an informed decision on whether or not to continue. He was right. The first weeks I didn’t understand the classes at all. Several actors would work at the same time. There was one guy who was obviously being a chicken picking at food (turned out it was a pigeon). Another girl was looking close up into a mirror, singing to herself in a sultry way and crying. Another older woman seemed to be taking an imaginary shower and rubbing soap between her legs. One guy was on his hands and knees doing something I couldn’t understand, but it was obviously very moving to him because he was crying like a baby. The whole lot of them looked crazy to me. I wanted to laugh out loud. I looked around the room to see if anyone else was suppressing a giggle as I was. Everyone was dead serious. I couldn’t imagine what any of this had to do with acting. Then Lee brought the exercise to an end and criticized each one as though what they were doing made any sense at all. I was baffled. I would have left the class right then, but I had made that promise to stay for six weeks. I attended the scene study class taught by Paula. She was a short, heavy, fair-skinned, red-headed woman in a black muumuu. The scenes didn’t seem all that good to me and I didn’t quite understand her comments afterward. She praised things I didn’t see and seemed to criticize the very things that I thought looked pretty good. I just didn’t get it. But I thought before I left I ought to give it a go, so I signed up to do an exercise for Lee and a scene for Paula. The fist exercise everyone was asked to do was to create whatever you had for breakfast, a cup of coffee, a glass of juice, whatever you normally drank every morning. I was a coffee drinker at the time, so I went to work at home creating my imaginary mug. When I felt I had it, I got to be one of the five crazy people up there. I sat in my chair and held out my left hand and imagined a cup sitting on it. With my right hand I traced the rim of the cup. I let my finger move down the handle until I could define its shape. Then slowly I wrapped my fingers around the handle and tried to lift the cup off my left hand into my right hand. But when I did, I lost the whole thing. The cup had no weight. Damn! I had to start all over, holding the cup with my left, bouncing it gently up and down. yes, there’s the weight, I can feel it. Now I can feel the rim again. During all of this, the other four people were going through various intensities of sobbing, sighing, laughing, and grunting. I never took my eyes off the cup. After about twenty minutes, in my peripheral vision I saw Lee sitting in the front row, lifting up the five-by-seven white cards with an actor’s name on each and going through them until he came to the name he was looking for. Then he said, “Ellen, keep on doing what you are doing, but just answer my questions.”
There was a pause and I felt the focus of the room shift to me. I tried to continue concentrating on my cup, but I began to get a little nervous. What was he going to ask me?
“Do you ride horses?”
Oh man, this was from left field. Where was he going with this one?
“I used to,” I answered, still trying to feel my cup, which no longer had coffee in it. I tried to get it back.
“When you rode, did you ride well?” he asked, seemingly innocently.
“Pretty well,” I said. “I used to own my own horse.”
“Well,” said Lee with the precision of a surgeon. “You don’t have to ride that cup.”
I paused. My hands remained poised, but they trembled. What had he just said? I looked at him. My exercise was over, but I found I couldn’t drop my hands. The cup had become too real. I had to set it down on an imaginary table. My heart was pounding. I looked at him. He said to me gently, “What would happen if you made a mistake?”
Tears rose. What was happening to me? I was losing it. The room got deathly quiet. He said in the kindest way, “Go on, make a mistake!”
I shattered, broke, chunks of my mask, my persona fell to the floor. My bare skin, or what was under it, was exposed to the air for the first time like the pink skin under a peeled scab. He pierced me with his gaze. He saw me. He knew me. He gave me permission to make a mistake. And I would not be punished or beaten. I could risk something. Anything. I might even risk not pleasing him. He said it was okay. I could be whatever I am. I could … I could … He said that I could even … be … myself. I cried for two weeks.
I didn’t know what to do. I had learned survival techniques – how to please, how to be charming and cute, to split from what was painful, to dissociate from what I didn’t want to feel, to hide behind a persona that worked for me. Now Lee was telling me I didn’t have to do any of that anymore. Lee’s genius, and he was a genius, was that he could say what his X-ray vision perceived, in words that had deep meaning only to the person he was addressing. I don’t know if what he said to me had meaning to anyone else in the world, but those words were like a sword of truth that pierced my heart and opened me to a new world. I just didn’t know what do instead. I tried explaining this to Neil.
“Well,” Neil said softly, “maybe you can just consider that personality you built to be a temporary thing, like a crutch, and now you can put it down because you don’t need it anymore.”
I stopped crying. That’s it, I thought. I don’t need it anymore. Now I’ll find out who I am without all of that.
And that began my new life. Lee told me that the first step was the willingness to make a mistake, to suffer the humiliation of daring to risk, to grow. I just had no idea how terrified I was not to be perfect. “Addiction to perfection,” Marion Woodman, the famous Jungian analyst and writer, would teach us later. I had it. And it wasn’t that I thought I was ever perfect or anywhere near it; it was that I thought I should be perfect, but was so far from it that I needed to hide the fact. I felt that I was just plain wrong. Essentially wrong, bad, unacceptable, shameful. That was really it. I was ashamed of myself. And that’s what had to be hidden. That’s what was behind the mask. And somehow by telling me that I did not have to ride that cup, he freed me. By telling me that I could make a mistake, he communicated to me that there was not some mark that I was required to hit and it was unacceptable to miss. He was telling me that I didn’t have to pretend anymore. People say, “But isn’t the point of acting to pretend to be someone else – to submerge yourself and just become the character?” The answer is a paradox. You cannot move your persona from yourself to the character’s without first locating yourself, and from that site you make the move. If you are hiding not only your self, but from your self, you don’t have a chance for a true creative impulse.
Lee discerned something in me. Something that I formed many years before. A way of coping with my situation at home, a way of dealing with my sexuality and my talent. It was a way that was not truthful. When my mother said, “Pick up the rug, Edna, and do your tap dance,” dutifully I did. I did my tap dance for my mother’s friends. And I was still doing it. This was what the voice meant when it said, “I don’t want it.” It didn’t want me to go on tap dancing anymore. In Jeff Corey’s class, I had begun to ascertain another way. This is what I came to Lee to learn. I thought it was another way to act. He quickly let me know it was another way to be.
This was when I finally had the answer to the question I asked in my art class when Don Brackett tacked up my drawing on the bulletin board. It had come from a true creative impulse, not from a desire to please or to get a good grade.
For our first scene in Lee’s class, we were to choose one that was “close to us,” “not a stretch,” “a simple scene”. So without a trace of irony, I chose Joan of Arc. I don’t remember the scene at all, just that I felt I understood Joan hearing voices. She heard two. I had heard one. I’d heard it twice. So that was why I felt the role was “not a stretch”. After the scene, Lee chastised me for my selection and at some point asked, “Can you hear something we can’t hear?” I was leaning forward, my elbow on my knee, chin cupped in my hand. I nodded my head, thinking of the voice that had spoken to me. Lee said in a surprised tone, his voice rising a bit, “You can?” Suddenly, his question put me in doubt. I mean, I could hear something when it spoke to me, but he meant now, right now. I listened. The class was still.I could hear only the sound of the air conditioner. I listened further. I detected a sound just behind the air conditioner, another sound, almost like white sound or the sound behind sound. I had just got there, just heard it for the space of a second, when I was interrupted by Lee saying, “Ahhh, but that’s different.” That’s all I remember of this incident, but it etched itself into my actor/artist’s knowing. I did hear something different. I hadn’t moved. My chin was still cupped in my hand. Nothing had changed but the quality of my listening and he saw it! He could see me hear! Now, that not only taught me something about him and how precise were his powers of observation, it taught me something about the level of reality that an actor must create onstage. “The voice” that had spoken to me was a memory that helped me to understand Joan, but that was in the past. I had to hear something now, in the present, onstage. It didn’t have to be St. Michael or St. Catherine or even my “voice”. It just had to be something real, active in the moment, and then that would be seen, communicated, and experienced by the audience. There is an engagement – I would later feel it as a communion between the actor and the audience – that requires an active doing in the present moment of time. Yesterday’s memories are not active. They must be brought into the senses and enlivened in the present. That way, the witness can “see me hear”. It was a great lesson.
Another lesson comes to mind concerning Joan of Arc. In the early seventies at the Actors Studio in California, a visiting actress from England who was not a member had somehow gotten working privileges and was playing Joan in a scene from The Lark. She was not an accomplished actress and she played Joan like a cheeky bird. It was painful to watch. After the scene was over, she and the other actor pulled up chairs and waited expectantly for the praise of the master. There was a moment of quiet, then Lee addressed the girl. “Have you had any training in sense memory?”
“Yes.” She nodded her head, her pretty blond curls bobbing up and down.
“Could you create a candle for me?”
“Right now?” she asked innocently, even happily.
“Yes, right now,” said Lee, also seemingly innocently.
She used her hands to define the shape of the imaginary candle. When she thought she had it, she looked at Lee sweetly and smiled.
“Is it lit?” he asked.
“No.” She pouted.
“Light it,” Lee instructed.
She went through the motions of lighting a candle, put down the matches and looked at Lee, pleased.
“Hold one finger over it,” he said.
“Can you feel the heat?” he asked.
She nodded vigorously.
“Now lower your finger into the flame and hold it there.”
Her smile dropped.
“That’s right,” Lee snapped. “She put her whole body into the flame. Now you think about that before you ever play Joan again.”
We never saw her again.
Neil did a scene for Lee and it was brutal. At one point he dropped his keys accidentally on purpose. He made a point of looking surprised before he picked them up. I don’t remember now what that was supposed to signify, but it was something Neil liked and he must have thought it was something Brando would do. After the scene, Lee lit into Neil. At one point he said in a very stern voice, “What are you doing? You drop your keys on a particular line. You bend to pick them up on another line. That kind of acting went out forty years ago.” Afterward Neil said, “I was thinking, Gee, is this as bad as I think it is? I’d almost talked myself out of it being that bad until after, when people started coming up to me and saying things to make me feel better. Then I knew it really was that bad.”
I never thought of Lee as being cruel, as others did. He was very truthful. When your ego prevented you from hearing the truth, Lee was willing to cut through your ego. Years later when I was teaching, I said to Lee one day, “Sometimes when I’m teaching, something will occur to me to say, but I know it will hurt the person’s feelings and I hesitate to say it.”
Lee answered, “You must be like a surgeon. When a surgeon has to cut, he doesn’t say, ‘Oh, this is going to hurt.’ No, he just cuts.” And he made a chop with his hand. That’s what I saw him do. Cut through the defenses of a person. Did he succeed? Not always. Many times he did. But only if the person, the actor, was willing to move beyond his ego-defended ignorance and really learn. I have discovered that the only position from which one can learn is the position of not knowing. From there you say, “Teach me.” Then the teacher can teach. I was blessed to be able to stand in that place. Whatever are the ingredients of that blessing, I don’t know.