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“THAT THING UPSTAIRS ISN’T MY DAUGHTER…”: Ellen Burstyn and The Exorcist

Much-loved and much-discussed, The Exorcist (1973) undeniably remains one of cinema’s most treasured films. Not only one of the most successful motion pictures ever made and a classic of the horror genre, this demonic chiller also helped usher in a new age of Hollywood – an era of ground breaking cinema with a distinctive, youthful voice burning with the intelligence and edginess of confrontational auteurs.

This era of the New Hollywood – which would proudly come roaring in at the dawn of the seventies – introduced audiences to innovative filmmakers such as William Friedkin who had made his mark with solid documentaries as well as diverse projects showcasing his varied talents as a storyteller and visionary, from the Sonny and Cher vehicle Good Times (1967) to the landmark gay entry The Boys in the Band (1970). After massive critical and box office success with The French Connection (1971), Friedkin would take on the bestselling horror novel “The Exorcist” and bring it to the screen, terrifying audiences in droves. Written by comedy writer turned dramatic novelist William Peter Blatty, the novel told the story of a famous actress who discovers that her pre-teen daughter is possessed by demonic forces. Heading the cast of this Satanic-themed saga and embodying the role of Chris MacNeil, the superstar of the silver screen who has her life turned around, would be one of the decade’s most influential, versatile and multitalented actresses – the remarkably gifted Ellen Burstyn.

After leaving home at eighteen years old, the Detroit native worked hard all her young years as a bit actress and model before she finally got the meaty role that sparked Friedkin’s attention when casting The Exorcist came as a point of vital discussion. The part in question was Lois Farrow, the bored but sophisticated diamond-in-the-rough in Peter Bogdanovich’s coming-of-age classic The Last Picture Show (1971). Burstyn’s wonderful back and forth with her on-screen daughter Cybil Shepherd and her uncanny ability to finely walk between the balance of a self-possessed adulteress and a fragile, vulnerable woman consumed by loneliness, inspired William Friedkin. The energetic director kept Burstyn in mind for The Exorcist‘s Chris MacNeil – a much sought after role among legendary (and soon-to-be legendary) actresses in that age bracket of the time.

Before writing his “game changing” novel (which incidentally was mostly penned at the summer house of famed actress Angela Lansbury – linking the conception of the story within the realm of the entertainment industry from the get-go), William Peter Blatty had never written a woman as his protagonist (albeit working on something like the doomed wartime diegetic musical Darling Lili (1970)), however, he had a great source of inspiration for Chris MacNeil in one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars, the glorious Shirley MacLaine. A good friend and neighbour of Blatty’s, MacLaine was reportedly one of the first people he let read his manuscript and subsequent screenplay. Basing the character of actress Chris on MacLaine (an actress, has a daughter, had housekeepers, drove the same car et al), and because the spritely actress knew the material very well, there was talk of MacLaine taking on the role. However, Warner Bros. who had optioned the rights to the novel, felt that MacLaine was out of the running since she had recently turned in an excellent performance in another occult-centric horror film the year before with Paramount’s The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972).

Three other actresses popped up as possibilities to play the coveted role: Jane Fonda, who, while riding high on her Oscar-winning performance as the cautiously confident call girl in Klute (1971), had strong political views regarding Western culture which led her to refuse to have anything to do with Hollywood pictures at the time. Audrey Hepburn, who lived in Rome in the early seventies would only do the movie if the location shifted from Georgetown to Italy and Anne Bancroft was also offered the part but had to turn it down because she was pregnant. Other stars of the time such as Barbra Streisand as well as Carol Burnett were even considered, but ultimately Chris MacNeil would come to life thanks to the magnetic energy and centred beauty that generates from a performance only given by Ellen Burstyn.

Burstyn delivers a dynamic take on a successful and famous working actress trying to comprehend the demonic possession of her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Her frustration with authority figures such as absentee fathers, drunken movie directors and then more importantly doctors, psychiatrists and priests are expressed in a forthright zeal, with Burstyn’s masterful control of her voice being utilised to break through the stillness and stoic low tones of these aforementioned men who are all fumbling in the dark and impotent in ability. Her desperation becomes the fundamental core of the second act, and Burstyn powers through the film with emotional sturdiness, frailty, fear, compassion, anger, tenderness and bewilderment, all in acute precision and generosity. She brings to life a woman who has transitioned from glamorous movie star with comfortable (if not completely halcyon) surroundings to a person whose faith is put to the test, desperate to save her only child. For Burstyn, acting is the true revelation of the human soul, and used to embody the human condition and tell the human story.

The actress was determined to get the part of Chris MacNeil from the time Warner Bros. put out feelers around the time of pre-production; feeling that The Exorcist was a very important story to be told. Understanding that the piece had such an intense psychological effect on the audience, Burstyn truly believed that one of the main reasons this was the case, was because it was a beautifully composed, complex tapestry made up of a combination of many things. Dealing with religion, faith (gained and lost), motherhood, childhood, alienation, class, alcoholism, show business, mental illness, the mistreatment of the elderly, science, medicine and the devil, this combination was blended all so beautifully, which in turn made for a profound and poignant horror film.

The movie was also controversial and broke many taboos, something that Ellen Burstyn has discussed in follow up interviews regarding the impact of this cultural phenomenon. For a film to deal with something such as the perversion of a parent/child relationship there is a sense of a forbidden door that has been thrust open revealing something truly terrifying – that is also somehow illuminating – expressing the manifestation of extremities in the concepts of evil.  

In addition, portraying an actress on screen in a positive light appealed to Burstyn, who was used to seeing such unfavourable representations as the ghoulish grand dames who haunted films such as Sunset Bvd. and All About Eve (both from 1950). Flamboyant and almost otherworldly actresses as seen in the movies were usually depicted as monstrous divas types, and what appealed to Burstyn was the fact that she could play a woman who happened to be an actress and play her as an earthy practical woman. Burstyn fuelled the role with a measured reasonability, and as someone who is just doing her job, which happens to be in show business.

Burstyn gives Chris MacNeil strength but also within that strength a complexity and a multi-faceted level of insecurities and flaws, which in turn makes the character very human. The influence of Burstyn’s performance in The Exorcist would be completely tangible and palpable in regards to follow up portrayals of mothers fighting for the children against the supernatural. Marsha Mason in Audrey Rose (1977), Jo Beth Williams in Poltergeist and Barbara Hershey in The Entity (both from 1982) – all of these films, and many more, would be direct (and superlative) derivatives of Burstyn’s turn as the actress/single mother facing Satan himself. Outside of the film industry, the performance would also spark an influential force among movie fans that truly understood the plight of Chris MacNeil, inspiring many young women (and men) in throes of turmoil to manoeuvre varied coping mechanisms.  

The ability of an actress to be a positive force was brought home to Burstyn via interactions with one fan. Not long after appearing in The Last Picture Show, she received a letter from a troubled young boy who lived in Texas, who told her that he was extremely suicidal and couldn’t cope with life. He had thoughts of killing himself for a long time, but when he saw The Last Picture Show, he somehow related to Burstyn’s character and decided that he’d stick it out and learn to live. The actress had kept in touch with him for a little while after, and in one of her letters advised the boy to move to Los Angeles because he was such a film buff, and that the city may be a healthier option than the dustbowl town he was stuck in out in rural Texas. Time went by, and with all of these kinds of interactions, the actress and the young fan lost touch. However, during the early eighties, just after Resurrection (1980) opened (SIDE NOTE: a severely underrated masterpiece featuring yet another Oscar nominated performance from Burstyn), the now seasoned and incredibly successful actress wanted to visit a Los Angeles hospital treating young men living with AIDS. During her visit, Burstyn came across a young man racing towards her, with his arms extended, smiling. It was the young boy from Texas, now an adult and sadly diagnosed with the horrible disease. She threw her arms around him, held him tight, and right there both of them would realise how important movies are to people – not only as a form of entertainment, an escape, a stylised reflection of the human condition, but also life affirming and life changing.

If you live in Melbourne, the wonderful Ellen Burstyn is performing in a play entitled 33 Variations. It is her Australian stage debut, and not to be missed.

In 33 Variations, Burstyn plays Katherine Brandt, a musicologist devoted to uncovering the mystery behind Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Moving between the past and present, the play interweaves Beethoven’s (AACTA and Logie winner William McInnes) struggle to complete his masterpiece with Katherine’s journey to understand the composer’s obsession. Meanwhile, Katherine’s daughter Clara (four time Gold Logie winner Lisa McCune) seeks to connect with her mother as they face the greatest challenge of their lives. Featuring live performances of Beethoven’s magnificent music by renowned pianist Andrea Katz, the witty and profound 33 Variations is sure to be one of the theatrical highlights of 2019!

Book your tickets here: https://www.ticketmaster.com.au/33-Variations-tickets/artist/2543604

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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