Ellen Burstyn for Requiem for a Dream (2000)

2000 was the year of Julia Roberts. There was no stopping her from winning the Best Actress Oscar for her dominating performance in Erin Brockovich. It was a performance that deserved the award due to Roberts’ ability to completely become the title character. Unfortunately, Ellen Burstyn also delivered a transformative performance that year and got close to no Oscar traction due to the hype surrounding Julia Roberts. Ellen Burstyn was unlucky in that her performance came in the same year as another great performance. Any other year, Burstyn would have gone home with her second Oscar in her hands.

Requiem for a Dream is a multiple-character film that focuses on four individuals and their descent as a result of drug addiction. The primary character is Sara Goldfarb (Burstyn), a lonely Manhattan widow who receives a phone call one day announcing that she has won a chance to be on television. Suddenly inspired to look her best for her eventual television appearance, she decides she wants to wear her red dress, which has sentimental value to her. The red dress symbolizes everything she is proud of from her past, only…she’s too overweight to fit into it. Upon a suggestion from a friend, she goes to a doctor for diet pills. Unbeknownst to her, the pills can be equated to speed, which causes her to become highly energetic with horrific crashes whenever the pills wear out in her body. Even worse, she starts to become dependent upon the pills, taking more than prescribed and descends into a tragic conclusion.

Burstyn showed audiences that despite an actress’ age (she was 68 when she made this film), it is about what one does with the script that makes their role extraordinary. Requiem for a Dream was a film made with the intention to shock and mortify its audience. However, Burstyn took that very shock value associated with her character and weaved extraordinary strands of sympathy with her character. She is able to make the character naive, thus allowing for the audience to feel hurt whenever she is on-screen. If this character was not done without careful consideration of her motivations, very easily audiences wouldn’t have been able to identify with her plight and aspirations. Burstyn also establishes compassion for the character by representing her as so lonely that this prospective foray onto television becomes the only thing she truly has to live for. Before, she was someone invisible, and now, she feels worthy of being noticed. This resonates with audiences because mortality and legacy are themes that all can identify with. However, Burstyn’s performance shows how determination can be one’s undoing, and in her case, her ending is one of the most tragic scenarios ever to be put into a film.

Lost to: Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich (2000)

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