PIECES OF A WOMAN: (L to R) Ellen Burstyn as Elizabeth and Vanessa Kirby as Martha.
Ellen Burstyn’s most famous scene in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman comes as her character, Elizabeth, vents her frustrations at her daughter Martha’s (Vanessa Kirby) inability to move on after an unspeakable tragedy. Elizabeth knows tragedy, knows the struggle to survive. She was born a Holocaust baby under severely malnourished conditions and fought, even as a weak infant, to survive. Survival, of course, being the most basic human instinct.
To understand the brilliance of Oscar-winner (Best Actress for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) Burstyn’s performance in that moment, you have to understand how it came about. It’s a key moment in the film that could lead to Burstyn’s seventh Oscar nomination.
After extensive rehearsal with co-stars Kirby and Shia LaBeouf under Mundruczó’s direction, Burstyn used Kata Wéber’s screenplay as a jumping off point and ad-libbed key sections of the monologue.
“That monologue was written from conscious experience. From the beginning, it was something that we had to do right. So it kept getting rewritten. It had many versions. Before we went into Montreal to shoot, they came to my house for four days, Kata and Kornél and Shia and Vanessa, and we read the script and talked about it and worked on it,” Burstyn explained.
Through the process of understanding the characters, Kirby needed to understand why her character, once reluctant to seek closure for the tragedy through a courtroom, would change her mind. As Burstyn started rehearsing the monologue, Kirby told her to “make me go to court.”
Running through the monologue, Burstyn took those words to heart and pushed herself into a space where she felt Elizabeth’s story would force Martha to make that shift in perspective.
“All that just came out of me in the moment. The end of that speech was me in Elizabeth and Elizabeth speaking to Martha. Sometimes, those magical things happen when you’re in something. When you’re really in it, not doing it, but in it living. It has its own vitality and energy, and you end up writing it, and so that’s what happened.”
Burstyn’s stunning performance grew out of a close relationship with co-star Kirby.
To play Kirby’s mother, Burstyn wanted to personally bond with the actress to ensure the relationship felt real on screen. That involved having, basically, a pajama party with Kirby during which they bonded over dinner and breakfast. The relationship emerged from the film and remains a strong bond even today.
In fact, it was partially Kirby’s Emmy-nominated performance in Netflix’s The Crown that finally brought Burstyn to Pieces of a Woman. Other enticing factors included director Mundruczó’s earlier film White God (“It’s just a brilliant film. I just love this film.”) and the screenplay by Kata Wéber.
But walking away from Pieces of a Woman, even if she doesn’t get that Oscar nomination, Ellen Burstyn gained far more from the experience.
“Forming real relationships that last is one of the great pleasures in life. This time with Vanessa is one of those times,” Burstyn shared. “Especially in COVID time when we’re so isolated from people, it’s so good to have to someone you can text to say, ‘I’m sitting here by myself. What are you doing?’ and have an intercontinental conversation with someone you love. It’s a really wonderful, deep human experience. So I’m very happy.”