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Ellen Burstyn: Here, for 'Alice'

Ellen Burstyn is a tricky interview. She's hard to get to see or talk to. And when you get her, she keeps you on your toes, challenging your questions with questions about the questions. I remember once winning her over by asking her about the shoes her character wore, an old woman wearing a scuffed pair of Buster Browns. Did that mean, I wondered, that she was still a little girl at heart? My reward: Ms. Burstyn said "You are an excellent theatergoer for noticing that." I floated home. For this 2010 interview, we spoke on the phone.

Ellen Burstyn, the winner of acting's Triple Crown — an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy — prides herself on her memory.

In her 2006 memoir, "Lessons in Becoming Myself," she recalls: "John Gielgud once said to me, 'Memory is like any muscle. It must be exercised.' I have trained my memory and I exercise it often."

When Burstyn sat down to write her book, her memory muscles got a workout, but they also had some help, from an extensive archive in Burstyn's Nyack basement.

Ellen Burstyn, it turns out, is a bit of a pack rat.

"I don't know why, but when I was 19 and had my first apartment in New York, I got a filing cabinet and started filing letters and diaries and notebooks," she says. "And I kept it up. When I started writing the book, I discovered, 'Oh! I have a complete record of my life!'

"My alternate title was 'More Than You Ever Needed to Know About Ellen Burstyn,'" she says with a laugh.

Burstyn's fans, and supporters of Nyack's Rivertown Film Society, will get to know more about the actress at Saturday's screening of her Oscar-winning performance in 1974's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

(She won the Tony in 1975 for "Same Time, Next Year" and a guest-star Emmy last year for "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.")

Saturday's screening is a benefit for Rivertown Film Society, at 7:30 p.m. in the new auditorium at Nyack Library.

"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" was a trailblazing film. Co-starring Kris Kristofferson and Harvey Keitel, it's about Alice Hyatt, a single mother with an 11-year-old son and a dream of being a professional singer. She bounces from job to job and eventually lands in Arizona, where she parks her dream for a while and becomes a waitress.

It was turned into the TV sitcom "Alice," starring Linda Lavin in the title role, the character created by Burstyn.

In 1974, fresh from a big hit in "The Exorcist," she signed a deal with Warner Bros. that gave her artistic control of her next project.

Though not credited as such, Burstyn effectively acted as producer on "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," willing the project into being.

She knew she wanted to present stories of "real women" on the screen.

"I was looking for what I was experiencing," she says.

What she might not have fully appreciated at the time was how big a trail "Alice" — a story about a woman making her way in the world — would blaze.

"I knew that we were in the midst of a transformation, that the zeitgeist was undergoing a shift as far as the feminine consciousness was concerned," Burstyn says. "And I was aware that there was something new afoot — because it was new in me.

"I could feel the idea, like I said in the movie, 'This is my life, it's not some man's life I'm helping him out with.' That was actually my attitude and that was changing and it was changing all around me with all the women I knew."

After the film's success, and in the intervening years, Burstyn has heard from women who drew strength from their connection to Alice's journey.

"Interestingly, I also hear from a lot of young men who went through what the boy did in the film and wrote to me to say, 'Boy! That was me and my mom,'" she says. "I still will meet men to this day who say that film was very impactful for them, that they saw it with their mom and said, 'That's us.'"

"Alice" was an opportunity for a young Martin Scorsese, who had directed "Mean Streets," but hadn't released it yet.

"I liked 'Mean Streets' and I wanted that level of reality for 'Alice,'" Burstyn says, adding that she and Scorsese worked well together, improvising some elements of the story and incorporating what worked into the film.

"I had no idea that in hiring him for 'Alice,' I was in at the beginning of one of the most illustrious careers in film," she says.

Her next project is "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You," based on Peter Cameron's novel.

In the film, due out next year, she plays an ex-dancer on Broadway whose grandson is at the center of the story.

"She's a grandmother who's not the typical granny, but somebody with character and interest and intelligence," Burstyn says. "I'm the one he can talk to."

Burstyn says she hasn't seen "Alice" in years, but she plans to be in the audience in Nyack on Saturday, alongside the film's art director, Toby Carr Rafelson.

"Toby's an old friend of mine, and we just decided that we're going to stay and watch it because she's going to join me on stage afterwards," she says. "We're going to refresh our memories."

Burstyn is not one of those actresses who can't watch herself on screen.

"I usually see my performances. It's my work," she says, adding that she's able to forget what went into making a film and just concentrate on the story the filmmaker is telling.

"I pretty much am experiencing it like an audience so I can feel what worked and what didn't," she says.

Asked to choose a favorite performance of hers, she purrs a bit as she thinks, then chooses "Requiem for a Dream," Darren Aronofsky's gritty, gripping 2000 film on lives lost to drugs.

Her performance, as Sara Goldfarb, garnered a host of critics' awards.

"It was both exhausting and exhilarating," Burstyn says. "It's fun to work really hard."

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