Ellen Burstyn's Lessons on Survival

Death, Sex & Money

By WNYC Studios

Ellen Burstyn's Lessons on Survival

Wednesday, 22 October

When Burstyn was 18, she got on a Greyhound bus going from Detroit to Dallas. She had 50 cents in her pocket and a hunch that she could find work as a model. The actress and director, known for her roles in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Exorcist, and Requiem For a Dream, says she’d never do that now. But back then, she didn’t doubt herself.

It wasn’t the only risk she took as a young woman. At 18, she’d already gotten pregnant and had an illegal abortion. By her mid-20s, determined not to just get by on her looks, she left Hollywood to study acting with Lee Strasberg. In her mid-40s, after leaving an abusive marriage, she starred as a newly single mom in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The role was based in part on her own life, and it won her an Oscar. 

Now, at 81, she told me she is most proud of her relationship with her son, whom she adopted at birth. "I really think of myself as a work in progress," Burstyn told me as we sat in wicker furniture in her Manhattan bedroom. "I know I’m a successful actress, but I don’t feel I’m necessarily a successful person."


Why she doesn’t recommend abortion:

I don’t recommend abortion to anybody. I don’t think it’s a good thing to do. At the same time, if women are pregnant and don’t want to have a baby, they will get an abortion one way or another. And if it’s illegal, they will get an illegal abortion. As I did. And it’s a scarring experience. The illegal abortion just botched me, so I couldn’t ever get pregnant again. That was a part of the trauma.

What the police said when her husband assaulted her:

When I called the police, they said, we don’t mix in household problems. And I said, he’s threatened to kill me. And he said, no, we don’t respond. And I said, well what is it you do? And he said, we apprehend criminals when a crime has been committed. And I said, you mean, I should call if he actually kills me. And he said, that’s right. 

How her acting coach filled the role of a father figure:

I think an absent father—not ever having that experience of a man who just loves you because you’re you—is a big detriment. I think it’s very hard for women to overcome that. Thank God I got to Lee Strasberg, because when I got to him, he approved of me for me, and I hadn’t ever had that. You know, without wanting sex from me.

On being taken for granted as a woman:

I think that we have a natural impulse to serve. We like to serve a man dinner. We like to get up and give him a cup of coffee. But that leads us down a path where it gets taken for granted. As though we are supposed to, as opposed to, we want to. One has to learn that. It’s not an obligation. It’s a gift. That we want to give. But if it’s not received as a gift, but as a duty, one starts to get their hackles up after a while.

You can read a full transcript of the interview, and if you haven't seen her 1980s sitcom The Ellen Burstyn Show, I highly recommend it:

"When Death Comes" from New & Selected Poems, Vol. 1 by Mary Oliver - published by Beacon Press, Boston, used herewith by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency.

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