Why Ellen Burstyn Should Have Won the Academy Award for Best Actress



  • Burstyn’s performance in Requiem for a Dream is emotionally devastating and shows no false moments in portraying Sara’s pain and disillusionment.
  • Her physical dedication to the role, including wearing fat suits and undergoing a strict eating diet, adds to the authenticity of her portrayal of Sara’s weight loss and transformation.
  • She faced competition from a real-life portrayal by Julia Roberts and potential bias against previous Oscar winners, but her portrayal of Sara Goldfarb deserved recognition for its depth and emotional impact.

Throughout the almost 100-year history of the Academy Awards, there has been no shortage of controversial snubs and unworthy winners in the eyes of critics and general moviegoers alike. While acting awards and accolades are completely subjective and bear no real correct answers, the prevailing wisdom suggests that many all-time great big-screen performances have been vastly overlooked and criminally underrated by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. One of the most glaring examples includes Ellen Burstyn’s indelibly haunting turn in Requiem For a Dream, a towering performance nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 73rd Academy Awards.

In the film, Burstyn plays Sara Goldfarb, a loving mother and lonely widow who becomes unwittingly hooked on drugs in a last-ditch effort to slim down her physique ahead of her dream appearance on a TV show. In the end, Burstyn’s heartbreaking performance lost to Julia Roberts’ magnetic turn in Erin Brockovich, a decision that looks even more dubious nearly 25 years later. For those who remain unconvinced, here is why Ellen Burstyn should have walked away with an Oscar statuette for her searing performance in Requiem for a Dream.

A Performance of Pure Pathos

The number one reason why Burstyn should have won an Oscar for Requiem for a Dream relates to the devastating emotional impact Sara has on the story. The character arc is incredibly well-rounded and Burstyn never once gives a false moment in detailing Sara’s sense of pain and disillusionment. When the acclaimed Darren Aronofsky film starts, Sara is shown enabling her son Harry’s (Jared Leto) heroin addiction by obtaining her television set that he continuously pawns. Little does Sara know that she’ll be gripped by the same demons poisoning her son’s psyche as she soon becomes addicted to methamphetamine in hopes of making a TV appearance on her favorite self-help talk show.

In arguably one of the all-time great screen performances, Burstyn gives such an emotionally harrowing and achingly fraught performance that it made DP Matthew Libatique begin to cry during one of her most powerful scenes (via Vulture). The scene in question involves a heart-shattering conversation in the kitchen between Sara and Harry. Oblivious to her own spiraling drug addiction that Harry notices for the first time, Sara begins with a manically enthusiastic beam of energy as she expresses excitement over the possibility of fitting into her old red dress and making a grand and glorious TV appearance.

When Harry pushes back on her dream, Sara’s emotional state rapidly devolves into a sad, somber, bone-chilling confession about her sense of isolation, loneliness, and profound despair of living alone and longing for an unattainable past. The red dress signifies hope, nostalgia, and better times, intangible qualities Sara goes to the bottom of her heart and soul to recapture.

Burstyn’s Physical & Psychological Dedication

Oftentimes, the best screen performances require immense physical sacrifice and transformation. In Burstyn’s case in Requiem for a Dream, the superb actor went to great lengths to inhabit the mind, body, and tortured soul of Sara Goldfarb. For instance, to convincingly convey Sara’s weight loss and physical transformation in the film, Burstyn wore two “fat” suits while performing scenes on camera. One suit added 40 pounds of simulated weight while the other added 20 pounds to her diminutive frame. Meanwhile, Burstyn also engaged in a strict eating diet for two weeks in the middle of the film shoot, allowing her to lose roughly 10 pounds to perform the scenes of the emaciated Sara at the end of the film on the subway and in the hospital.

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According to The Evening Standard, Burstyn claimed, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this challenged in a role…it was harder than The Exorcist.” By her own admission, Burstyn has never been pushed to greater performative lengths than playing Sara in Requiem for Dream, including her Oscar-nominated performance in arguably the scariest movie ever made. The taxing physical toll of Burstyn’s transcendent performance is on par with the harrowing psychological and emotional wallop Sara’s arc gobsmacks viewers with. The internal pain Sara feels is mirrored by her external metamorphosis, with Burstyn’s bravura performance so palpable and poignant that it’s hard not to want to immediately call one’s own mother up and tell them how much they love them. The performance is that powerful and unforgettably affecting.

Competition & Recency Bias

Another glaring reason why Burstyn deserved to win an Oscar for Requiem for a Dream relates to her competition, the recency bias, and Academy politics. First off, it’s very possible that the Academy snubbed Burstyn in 2001 because she already won an Oscar back in 1975 for her hilariously heartfelt performance in Martin Scorsese’s critically adored movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. While there have been several repeat winners throughout history, the Academy tends to share the wealth and bestow honors and accolades with newcomers.

Moreover, the Academy loves to award actors who portray real-life historical figures. Whether it’s Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles, Austin Butler playing Elvis Presley, Cate Blanchett playing Katherine Hepburn, or Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, there are endless examples. As such, it’s easy to point to Julia Roberts portraying the real-life activist, Erin Brockovich, as one of the main impediments to Burstyn winning the Oscar for Requiem for a Dream.

It’s not that Roberts is necessarily undeserving of the award, it’s just that the political trends of the Academy Award voters once again favored an actress who portrayed a famous figure in real life over a downtrodden fictional creation like Sara Goldfarb. Roberts is excellent as Erin Brockovich, but there’s no comparing her lively one-dimensional turn to the full gamut of human emotions that Burstyn brilliantly displays as the deeply disillusioned and hauntingly hurt Coney Island widow. Regardless of the motives of Academy voters, Ellen Burstyn clearly deserved to win an Oscar for her profound portrait of Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Stream on Peacock.

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