Yin to Ellen Burstyn’s yang, Paula Poundstone pokes fun at her tabloid woes in wry — and occasionally pointed — tales about life in the comedy trenches as a single mom. Styled as a series of monologues pairing her experiences with historic figures such as Joan of Arc, Helen Keller and Beethoven, the tome is best consumed in pieces. Burstyn takes a more conventional, if overly New Agey, approach to her autobiography, recounting her struggle to conquer private demons — difficult childhood, reliance on beauty and unfortunate choice in men — through spiritual enlightenment. As different as they are, both make a case against the price of celebrity.
Poundstone ruefully jokes that the media exaggerated her success after she was arrested on child molestation charges in order to make a more dramatic falling from grace story.
“I was a little jealous of myself when I read how big I was, but it was certainly the first I had heard of it,” she writes.
The comedian addresses her infamy right away, outlining her June 2001 arrest for drunk driving and assorted child abuse charges on page 2. Poundstone, who had five children in her charge at the time, lost custody of the two she had not adopted, and underwent rehab and all manner of humiliating court-supervised treatment.
She never really delves into these woes, dropping clues about her feelings almost in passing as she compares her life to the historical figures, each apparently selected because he or she is a hero of the comedian. Or so pal Mary Tyler Moore says in the foreword; Poundstone herself doesn’t provide any insight into their selection or the organizing structure of the book.
That omission may frustrate readers looking for a broader message or underlying narrative. Though clever, the conceit grows wearying: At some point, readers want to know more about her quirky life — Poundstone has a lively sense of the absurd and clearly loves her children — and less about the famous figures she surrounds it with.
By comparison, Burstyn is an open book, sharing her feelings in depth as she recounts her spiritual journey. Where Poundstone jokes about her asexuality, Burstyn grapples with the power of her sex appeal.
The thesp learned how to trade on her looks from her mother, who lied about her daughter’s existence to prospective husbands and competed for the attentions of her beaus. Her father figures were no princes, either: One stepfather beat her and her absentee dad put the moves on her when she paid him a visit.
With role models like these, it’s no wonder Burstyn got pregnant by a married man before leaving town, kicking around a bit before landing a lead Broadway role.
Burstyn is very honest about her less enlightened days, and her unstudied acting at first. By the time she graduated to mom roles in “The Exorcist” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” in the early ’70s, however, she vowed never to lie about her age. Sadly, however, the thesp still struggled on the home front, coping with an unstable ex-husband who eventually killing himself.
The thesp eventually found solace in faith, though predictably she had a fling with a spiritual leader along the way. But she ends the tome on a happy note, discovering a new soul mate after 25 years alone.
Here’s hoping it lasts.