Actress Ellen Burstyn could fill a book with her Broadway and Hollywood memories, but Lessons in Becoming Myself is more than a stagy reprise of her eventful career. As the title suggests, this memoir reflects on her quest for personal meaning and fulfillment. Because of this focus, she dwells on personal relationships as much as on film and theatrical triumphs. In fact, her search for spiritual equilibrium is at the very root of this soulful book.
Burstyn's autobiography resembles a Hollywood film, complete with an abusive, self-centered mother, sexual predator father, and failed marriages. The Oscar and Tony Award winner reflects on her life and career here, exposing all the pain and difficulty as she moves toward spiritual and creative fulfillment. Born Edna Rae Gillooly, she left home at 18, first working as a model in Detroit and then taking a bus to Manhattan to try for a career in acting. After some lean times, she eventually met acting guru Lee Strasberg and became a student of his method acting, a technique that helped propel her into prominence. She distinguished herself in such films as The Last Picture Show, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Same Time Next Year, in a role she also played on Broadway. Despite her professional success, Burstyn struggled with personal relationships; she married Neil Burstyn, a psychotic who stalked and threatened her even after they were divorced. Of primary interest, though, is Burstyn's ability to persevere against difficult odds and learn from her mistakes as she strives for knowledge and spiritual meaning. At times the abridgment makes for some abrupt and confusing content shifts, but overall the book is an enjoyable mix of insider film talk and New Age ideas. Burstyn reads in a pleasant though clearly mature voice, providing a convincing touch of reality. Recommended for large collections.
Nancy R. Ives
Long-winded memoir of an actress preoccupied with her own psychic structure and spiritual side. Burstyn, best remembered for her roles in the films The Exorcist and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, chronicles the successes of her career on stage and screen, her difficulties in relating to men, her failures in marriage and her never-ending search for self-understanding. First, though, there's the unhappy childhood with a much-married mother. Desperate to get away, she left home on her 18th birthday, in 1950, working as a model in Texas and a chorus girl in Montreal before heading to New York, where, in 1957, she landed a lead in a Broadway play. Already, inner voices were guiding her acting, but her private life was a shambles, with her second marriage ending in divorce in 1962. Burstyn married again in 1964, and this toxic relationship and the effects on her of her husband's mental breakdown are the subject of much of this work. A lapsed Catholic, she was attracted to Sufi mysticism and fell for a time under the sway of a guru with a compelling line of spiritual psychobabble that seems to have influenced her own writing. By the '70s, she describes herself as being "in the embryonic stage of giving birth to my own self in life." With her acting career at its peak in that decade, her inner life was focused on spiritual concerns, especially the nature of a feminine god. Ashrams, psychic nutritionists and healers, channeling, fasting, meditation-they all come into play in Burstyn's continuing search for self-knowledge, which has involved not just domestic retreats but journeys to England, Switzerland, Turkey, Ireland, Bhutan and Cambodia. Among details she provides of her acting career,perhaps the most revealing concern her filming of The Exorcist. The actress proudly describes her refusal to say scripted lines because as an actress, she has created a living character and knows better than anyone what that character would and would not say. Movie buffs, Burstyn fans, would-be actresses and perhaps fellow seekers of self-realization may relish this self-absorbed narrative. Agent: David Vigliano/David Vigliano Associates