At 68, the ''Requiem for a Dream'' actress countinues to stun viewers

By Ty Burr
Updated December 23, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”I’ve been in the business for 45 years, and it’s always feast or famine,” says Ellen Burstyn, matter-of-factly explaining why she decided to take her first stab at a TV series in a decade and a half. ”I was just thinking that maybe it was time to extend the feast for a while.”

Who knew the year 2000 would turn into Ellen’s All-You-Can-Eat Smorgasbord? Certainly the actress couldn’t have predicted that The Yards and Requiem for a Dream — two dark, artistic, low-budget movies shot a year apart — would open across the country on the very same day in October, a month after the successful theatrical rerelease of one of her biggest hits, 1973’s The Exorcist, and two weeks after the premiere of her CBS dramatic series That’s Life. Or, better yet, that her performance as Requiem‘s diet-pill-popping hausfrau Sara Goldfarb — weighty with loneliness, vibrating like a nerve ending, swan-diving into madness — would be prompting talk of a sixth career Oscar nomination (she’s won once, a Best Actress statue for 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). ”I can only stand in a state of humility and grace and say I don’t know what’s going on,” says Burstyn, paying proper obeisance to the whims of the acting gods. ”But I know it’s a good thing.”

Those who work with her know exactly what’s going on. Requiem director Darren Aronofsky remains in awe of the way the actress handled major technical constraints while zeroing in on emotional truths: ”She’s wearing four prosthetic necks that take about four hours to put on and take off,” he marvels. ”She wears a 40-pound fat suit, a 20-pound fat suit. She wears nine different wigs…. (And yet) to look at her was almost pornographic at times, because she was completely open and completely emotionally naked.”

Even beyond Requiem, the sheer range of Burstyns on display this year has been astounding. The Yards’ Val is too fragile for this dirty world; on That’s Life, she’s a tight-lipped emotional icebox as the heroine’s mother; before the terrors begin in The Exorcist, she’s warm, funky, beguilingly neurotic. For starlets possessing a third of Burstyn’s years and talent, this is the master class. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder of the grace that can, occasionally, come with experience. ”I’m 68 years old,” laughs Burstyn. ”I don’t expect to be a movie star forever.” Lady, as long as you keep acting.