- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

LOS ANGELES — A troubled family history bedevils an eccentric, bourbon-sloshed Louisiana housewife in "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," particularly after she is cast in an unflattering light when a national magazine interviews her successful playwright daughter. The movie also causes the past to catch up a bit with actress Ellen Burstyn, who plays the tempestuous mother.
The movie pairs Miss Burstyn, 69, with actor James Garner, 74. The two had not appeared together in a production since the early 1960s. The last time was "John Loves Mary" in summer stock.
"I had seen James Garner once in 41 years," Miss Burstyn says during interviews to promote the film, which casts the actor as her long-suffering second-choice husband, Shep.
"James Garner was the most handsome man [when young]. He was dazzlingly handsome. He was like George Clooney is now," she says. "To see him now at this age we had a history when we looked into each other's faces.
"When I look at him, it's as though I can see all the years of his life, and I'm sure he can see mine."
Mr. Garner, arriving to conduct his interviews, embraces Miss Burstyn and inquires solicitously: "How's my baby?"
Miss Burstyn describes her character, Vivi, as "vivacious, neurotic, selfish, funny, deep and loving."
"She had youthful dreams that were never realized and a complicated relationship with her daughter," the actress says. The daughter is played by Sandra Bullock.
Shep, Miss Burstyn says, was someone Vivi "always took for granted, but during the course of the film starts seeing him more clearly."
Miss Burstyn shares the role of Vivi with two other actresses Caitlin Wachs as Vivi the child and Ashley Judd as Vivi the young mother in some of the movie's most emotionally wrenching scenes.
The three actresses got together before shooting to work on giving Vivi continuity, such as using similar gestures, she says. Miss Burstyn praises Miss Judd's performance but notes some "drawbacks" in role sharing.
Drawbacks?
"Artistic greed, wishing you could have done it all yourself," she explains.
Three seasoned actresses play Vivi's lively, lifelong friends, the "Ya-Yas." (As one explains, "ya-ya" means "talk" in Louisiana or, perhaps, too much talk). The friends, who are determined to make things right between the angry mother and the estranged daughter, are played by the English actress Maggie Smith, Dublin-born Fionnula Flanagan and Kansan Shirley Knight.
The "Ya-Ya" actresses had some off-set adventures together, too including a food-poisoning bout, Miss Flanagan tells reporters during her interviews. The film was shot in the Wilmington, N.C., area.
New to her job is director Callie Khouri. Miss Khouri, who won an Oscar when she made her screenwriting debut with "Thelma & Louise" in 1991, also did the screenplay.
The director's newness didn't bother Miss Burstyn. "A lot of directors I worked with were second-time directors. It's more creative if there's a new director," she says.
The actress doubts that "Secrets" will alienate men. Thinking of it as a "women's film" is more acceptable to her than the term "chick flick."

The Detroit-born Miss Burstyn got her first big break in the movies in director Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show" in 1971, for which she received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Her career hit a peak in 1975 when she won a best-actress Academy Award for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and also a Broadway Tony Award for "Same Time, Next Year."
Miss Burstyn has worked in television and films, and her career has had its ups and downs amid six Oscar nominations, the most recent for 2000's "Requiem for a Dream," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Her work activity seems to be on the upswing. She will be doing another film with Mr. Aronofsky this fall, a science-fiction flick with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt playing the main characters.
She also will do a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production in July, "The Girl in Hyacinth Blue."
She expresses disappointment that CBS canceled the dramatic series "That's Life," in which she starred with Paul Sorvino and Heather Paige Kent, but she qualifies her feelings: "I loved working with Paul Sorvino, but I'm glad not to have that schedule."
Miss Burstyn, who lives in New York City, says she spends time reading her spiritual books (she practices Sufism, a sect of Islamic mysticism) and enjoying her 3-year-old granddaughter.
She also displays a sense of humor when a reporter asks how she felt when Steve Martin attempted humor at her expense at the 73rd Academy Awards show. He joked: "Ellen Burstyn did something that not many actresses would do for a role in a movie. She made herself look 30 pounds heavier and 20 years older [in "Requiem for a Dream"]. And Russell Crowe still hit on her."
Her rejoinder: "And why not?"

The outspoken Mr. Garner also has suffered the recent cancellation of a TV series, CBS' "First Monday," in which he played a Supreme Court justice. "It was a good series. I don't think the network knew what it had. If they had left it on for a year, it would have lasted for five or six," he says.
Mr. Garner's hits on TV came as action heroes, but the roles took their toll. "'The Rockford Files' kept me busy for six years. I almost worked myself into the ground. I had six major operations on my knees and legs. My stomach was going, everything," he says. "'Maverick' was a killer, too. But I was young then."
His most recent movie was Clint Eastwood's "The Space Cowboys" (2000) in which he played an over-the-hill former astronaut who gets a second chance.
Mr. Garner doesn't know what lies ahead for him: "I'm out of the business again."
He says he was drawn to "Secrets" because of a "wonderful script" with some "good scenes" for him. He also knew the actresses in it.
"I've had some friends like the Ya-Yas. They're not so crazy," he says of the characters.


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