Here we go!
As I first noted last month, I will, over the coming 20 weeks, be venturing back through awards history as I reveal my selections for the 100 greatest performances ever nominated for an Oscar - let's call it the Oscar 100. I will do five performances per week, starting at #100, as I look back at what made each portrayal so richly deserving of recognition and what went down in each Oscar race.
The format of this shall go as follows... (and no worries, fellow Ellen Burstyn fans, she'll be making at least one appearance in the Oscar 100)
101. Ellen Burstyn in Resurrection (1980)
Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin
Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People
Gena Rowlands, Gloria
Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter (WINNER)
Burstyn portrays Edna Mae McCauley, a woman who briefly experiences the afterlife following a car accident that leaves her widowed and paralyzed. Edna moves from California to Kansas to be closer to her extended family and, while in recovery, discovers she now has a supernatural power to heal. She herself quickly, fully recovers from her injuries and becomes something of a local celebrity, healing anyone who needs assistance. While most accept and even celebrate her gift, Edna's lover (Sam Shepard), an unstable and deeply religious man, sincerely believes she is the resurrection of Christ. This performance marked Burstyn's fifth Oscar nomination.
For far too long, Resurrection and Burstyn's haunting performance were exceedingly difficult to access. Rarely aired on television and scarcely distributed on DVD in 2009, Universal at last gave the picture a sufficient DVD re-release just two years ago. We should all be thankful, as Burstyn's stirring work here is to be treasured.
Working alongside two pros - director Daniel Petrie, whose Sybil and Eleanor and Franklin were two of the best TV specials of the '70s, and screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, who also had The Great Santini in 1980 - Burstyn is pitch-perfect in a remarkably challenging and idiosyncratic role. Her transformation from ordinary woman to mystical miracle worker is dead-on convincing. There's an especially stunning scene in the picture in which Edna is called upon to heal a gravely ill woman and it's a moment which, if played incorrectly, could have easily ended up unintentionally funny. As played by Burstyn, however, it's a captivating and cathartic scene in a picture full of them. She also has several memorable scenes opposite that brilliant stage actress Eva Le Gallienne, also Oscar-nominated here, in a rare screen appearance.
The picture, I'm afraid, falters a bit in the final act, with Burstyn donning a truly hideous wig and old lady makeup. It's a misstep that brings the film down from masterpiece-level but thankfully isn't enough to much detract from Burstyn's superb work.
Not that Burstyn had a prayer of prevailing this year. With Spacek steamrolling and Moore viewed as the only real threat (albeit a modest one at that), she, Hawn and Rowlands were stuck watching on the sidelines. Even so, this is a remarkable performance in a film that someday, hopefully will be rediscovered.
Next week - time to officially kick off the Oscar 100 with #100-96! I'll be starting things off with five women, two pairs from the '80s and '90s, plus a turn from perhaps my favorite film of the '50s.