Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in The Exorcist 1973
Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973)
Stories & Ideas

Mon 16 Oct 2023

"That thing upstairs isn't my daughter..." – Chris MacNeil, Ellen Burstyn and The Exorcist

Film Retrospective
Lee Gambin and doggo
Lee Gambin

Writer, author & film historian

Burstyn's powerful, vulnerable performance defined The Exorcist and transformed the portrayal of mothers in horror films.

Much-loved and much-discussed, The Exorcist (1973) undeniably remains one of cinema’s most treasured films. Not only one of the most successful motion pictures ever made and a classic of the horror genre, this demonic chiller also helped usher in a new age of Hollywood – an era of groundbreaking cinema with a distinctive, youthful voice burning with the intelligence and edginess of confrontational auteurs.

This era of the New Hollywood – which would proudly come roaring in at the dawn of the seventies – introduced audiences to innovative filmmakers such as William Friedkin who had made his mark with solid documentaries as well as diverse projects showcasing his varied talents as a storyteller and visionary – from the Sonny and Cher vehicle Good Times (1967) to the landmark gay entry The Boys in the Band (1970). After massive critical and box office success with The French Connection (1971), Friedkin would take on the bestselling horror novel The Exorcist and bring it to the screen, terrifying audiences in droves. Written by comedy screenwriter turned dramatic novelist William Peter Blatty, the novel told the story of a famous actress who discovers that her pre-teen daughter is possessed by demonic forces. Heading the cast of this Satanic-themed saga and embodying the role of Chris MacNeil, the successful working star of the silver screen who has her life turned around by the supernatural, would be one of the decade’s most influential, versatile and multitalented actresses – the remarkably gifted Ellen Burstyn.

After leaving home at eighteen years old, the Detroit native worked hard all her young years as a bit actress and model before she finally got the meaty role that sparked Friedkin’s attention when casting The Exorcist became a point of vital discussion. The part in question was Lois Farrow, the bored but sophisticated diamond-in-the-rough in Peter Bogdanovich’s coming-of-age classic The Last Picture Show (1971). Burstyn’s wonderful back and forth with her on-screen daughter Cybil Shepherd and her uncanny ability to finely walk between the balance of a self-possessed adulteress and a fragile, vulnerable woman consumed by loneliness, inspired William Friedkin.

Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show (1971)

Ellen Burstyn as Lois Farrow in The Last Picture Show (1971)

The energetic director kept Burstyn in mind for The Exorcist 's Chris MacNeil – a much sought after role among legendary (and soon-to-be legendary) actresses falling into that age bracket of the time.

However, interestingly enough, Friedkin had his eyes set on comedy legend Carol Burnett for the role, an option that Warner Bros. pushed back on instantly, in fear audiences would not be able to take Burnett “seriously” or welcome her as a “dramatic actress”. Burnett by this time was a very well established comic master who had a top rating variety comedy show five years in, and Warner Bros. rejected Friedkin’s very inspired first choice – Burnett would most certainly wow audiences with dramatic turns later in her career, not only in feature works, but also in many sketches from her beloved series that allowed her to showcase her versatility as an actress. However, Warners pressed on with casting the lead for their soon to be massive hit, The Exorcist .

Before writing his “game changing” novel (which incidentally was partly penned at the summer house of famed actress Angela Lansbury – linking the conception of the story within the realm of the entertainment industry from the get-go), William Peter Blatty had never written a woman as his protagonist (albeit working on something like the doomed wartime diegetic musical Darling Lili (1970) with Julie Andrews in the lead), however, he had a great source of inspiration for Chris MacNeil in one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars, the gifted and beguiling Shirley MacLaine.

A good friend and neighbour of Blatty’s, MacLaine was reportedly one of the first people he let read his manuscript and subsequent screenplay. MacLaine was the basis of major attributes to the character of Chris MacNeil – both of them being actresses from humble beginnings who started off as “unknown chorus girls”, both having a young daughter, both achieving great success, both having a married couple who worked as housekeepers, right down to even having Chris MacNeil drive the same car MacLaine owned. Adding to all this, Blatty was a regular visitor on the set of the controversial lesbian-themed drama The Children’s Hour (1961) that MacLaine starred in alongside Audrey Hepburn. During the shoot, Blatty would take photos of MacLaine and her young daughter Sachi Parker; with one of the pictures of Parker winding up being used for the cover of the first edition of the novel of “The Exorcist”.

Because the spritely actress knew the material very well, there was talk of MacLaine taking on the role of Chris MacNeil. However, Warner Bros. who had optioned the rights to the novel by 1972, felt that MacLaine was out of the running since she had recently turned in an excellent performance in another occult-centric horror film the same year with Paramount’s The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972).

Shirley MacLaine as Norah Benson in The Possession of John Delaney (1972)

Shirley MacLaine as Norah Benson in The Possession of John Delaney (1972)

More actresses popped up as possibilities to play the coveted role: Jane Fonda, who, while riding high on her Oscar-winning performance as the cautiously confident call girl in Klute (1971), had strong political views regarding Western culture which led her to refuse to have anything to do with Hollywood pictures at the time. Audrey Hepburn, who lived in Rome in the early seventies would only do the movie if the location shifted from Georgetown, Washington to Italy and Anne Bancroft was also offered the part but had to turn it down because she was pregnant. Another actress who was in consideration for the part was the very popular Barbra Streisand, who had inspired some casting agents upon revisiting some of her scenes from the metaphysical-themed musical On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) – when her character slipped into trances under hypnosis, there was talk that Streisand might make an interesting choice playing a character who is suddenly faced with supernatural activity. Streisand however was in pre-production for The Way We Were (1973), which incidentally pitted her against Ellen Burstyn for the Best Actress Academy Award for the following year’s Oscars.

Ultimately Chris MacNeil would come to life thanks to the magnetic energy and centred beauty that generates from a performance only given by Ellen Burstyn.

Burstyn delivers a dynamic take on a successful and famous working actress trying to comprehend the demonic possession of her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Her frustration with authority figures such as absentee fathers, drunken movie directors and then more importantly doctors, psychiatrists and priests are expressed in a forthright zeal, with Burstyn’s masterful control of her voice being utilised to break through the stillness and stoic low tones of these aforementioned men who are all fumbling in the dark and impotent in ability. Her desperation becomes the fundamental core of the second act, and Burstyn powers through the film with emotional sturdiness, frailty, fear, compassion, anger, tenderness and bewilderment, all in acute precision and generosity. She brings to life a woman who has transitioned from glamorous movie star with comfortable (if not completely halcyon) surroundings to a person whose faith is put to the test, desperate to save her only child. For Burstyn, acting is the true revelation of the human soul, and used to embody the human condition and tell the human story.

The actress was determined to get the part of Chris MacNeil from the time Warner Bros. put out feelers around the time of pre-production; feeling that The Exorcist was a very important story to be told. Understanding that the piece had such an intense psychological effect on the audience, Burstyn truly believed that one of the main reasons this was the case, was because it was a beautifully composed, complex tapestry made up of a combination of many things. Dealing with religion, faith (gained and lost), motherhood, childhood, alienation, class, alcoholism, show business, mental illness, the mistreatment of the elderly, science, medicine and the devil, this combination was blended all so beautifully, which in turn made for a profound and poignant horror film.

The movie was also controversial and broke many taboos, something that Ellen Burstyn has discussed in follow up interviews regarding the impact of this cultural phenomenon. For a film to deal with something such as the perversion of a parent/child relationship there is a sense of a forbidden door that has been thrust open revealing something truly terrifying – that is also somehow illuminating – expressing the manifestation of extremities in the concepts of evil.

In addition, portraying an actress on screen in a positive light appealed to Burstyn, who was used to seeing such unfavourable representations as the ghoulish grand dames who haunted films such as Sunset Bvd. and All About Eve (both from 1950). Flamboyant and almost otherworldly actresses as seen in the movies were usually depicted as monstrous divas types, and what appealed to Burstyn was the fact that she could play a woman who happened to be an actress and play her as an earthy practical woman. Burstyn fuelled the role with a measured reasonability, and as someone who is just doing her job, which happens to be in show business.

Another major contributing factor to the character being a vitally important one for the period was the influence of the Second Wave Feminist Movement of the early seventies in that Chris MacNeil is a successful self-made woman and on her own and in total control of her world. One of the many roles for women at the beginning of the decade who had total agency and drove the story, Chris MacNeil was an influential figure in film and a forerunner for a multitude of truly refined roles for women in horror – notably, women playing mothers who are forced to protect their young from dark forces or monstrous antagonism.

Burstyn herself would be a solid member of the Women’s Movement, marching for the rights to health care, reproductive rights, equal pay and more while carting around her young son in a pram and balancing work with activism. Something of interest in relation to feminist readings into The Exorcist is that there is a surprising conservatism to the demonic forces that inhabit Regan MacNeil. In the novel it is explicitly clear – the monstrous malevolent entity speaking through Regan, taunts Chris with lines such as “You with your career before your child!” as if her independence and being a working woman has inadvertently helped “cause her child’s possession”. Some critics have gone on the record to say that the film imposes a notion that Chris, an atheist who is a single working woman who has built a very successful career has “strayed from the domestic path”; therefore her punishment is her daughter’s suffering. When she is hopeless in getting help for her child (with all the privileges of wealth and access to the best medical treatment) she has to resort to calling upon the penultimate in patriarchal institutions, the church, in order to relieve Regan of her demonic possession.

Chris and Regan The Exorcist 1973

Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (1973)

Outside of varied readings into the film from a political and social landscape, Burstyn gives Chris MacNeil strength but also within that strength a complexity and a multi-faceted level of insecurities and flaws, which in turn makes the character very human. As aforementioned, the influence of Burstyn’s performance in The Exorcist would be completely tangible and palpable in regards to follow up portrayals of mothers fighting for their children against the supernatural. Marsha Mason in Audrey Rose (1977), Jo Beth Williams in Poltergeist and Barbara Hershey in The Entity (both from 1982) – all of these films, and many more, would be direct (and superlative) derivatives of Burstyn’s turn as the actress/single mother facing Satan himself. Outside of the film industry, the performance would also spark an influential force among movie fans that truly understood the plight of Chris MacNeil, inspiring many young women (and men) in throes of turmoil to manoeuvre varied coping mechanisms.

The ability of an artist to be a positive force was brought home to Burstyn via interactions with one fan. Not long after appearing in The Last Picture Show, she received a letter from a troubled young boy who lived in Texas, who told her that he was extremely suicidal and couldn’t cope with life. He had thoughts of self-harm for a long time, but when he saw The Last Picture Show, he somehow related to Burstyn’s character and decided that he’d stick it out and learn to live. The actress had kept in touch with him for a little while after, and in one of her letters she had suggested the boy move to Los Angeles where she could get him an interview at a studio to get a job in the movie business because he was such a film buff. Time went by, the boy worked as a script reader, and he and Burstyn lost touch. In the early eighties, just after Ellen Burstyn starred in her personal favourite film Resurrection (1980) (a film where she played a miracle healer), the now seasoned and incredibly successful actress wanted to visit a Los Angeles hospital treating young men living with AIDS. During her visit, Burstyn came across a young man who was racing towards her. His arms extended, smiling. It was the young boy from Texas, now an adult and sadly diagnosed with the horrible disease. She had gotten to know him at the start of his life when he wanted to end it, and now saw him during a period where he wished he could live but sadly he was dying. She threw her arms around him, held him tight, and right there both of them would realise how important movies are to people – not only as a form of entertainment, an escape, a stylised reflection of the human condition, but also as life affirming and even life changing.

Lee Gambin

This essay was first published in Diabolique on 24 Jan 2019.

The Exorcist (1973), the original theatrical cut, will be screening at ACMI on 28 October with a pre-film introduction.

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