Catherine Burns dies: The Vanishing of an Oscar-Nominated Actress

Actress Catherine Burns, recognized for her standout performance in the Oscar-nominated film “Last Summer,” passed away at the age of 73 on February 2, 2019. Based on records from Washington state health officials, her death can be attributed to complications from a fall, with cirrhosis cited as a contributing factor.

Catherine Burns, an American actress and acclaimed children’s book writer of Irish and Polish descent, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her powerful portrayal of rape victim Rhoda in “Last Summer” (1969) showcased her exceptional acting abilities.

Born in New York City in 1945, Burns received her education from Hunter College High School, Hunter College, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In 1967, she landed her first professional credit in a CBS movie adaptation of The Crucible. Afterwards, she spent a year on Broadway as one of the schoolchildren in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Her performance earned her the Actors Equity Award for most promising female performer and caught the attention of indie filmmaker Perry (who later became Katy Perry’s uncle). Perry and his then-wife adapted Evan Hunter’s novel, Last Summer, for the screen and cast her in the film. Similar to Perry’s previous work, David and Lisa, Last Summer focused on the lives of four upper-middle-class teens left to their own devices on Fire Island for a summer.

Actress Burns began her career in “The Crucible” (1967) TV movie about the infamous Salem Witch trials (1692). She portrayed Mary Warren, an 18-year-old servant girl and one of the accusers in the historical trials. It’s worth noting that Burns herself was 22 years old when she took on the role.

In 1968, Burns took her first step onto the theatrical stage, appearing in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. Based on Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel, the play revolves around the character of Jean Brodie, a fascist teacher who forms a close-knit circle of privileged female students. Burns delivered a standout performance, earning both critical acclaim and a prestigious Clarence Derwent Award.

The coming-of-age teen drama “Last Summer” was Burns’s flim debut. She played Rhoda, a delicate, traditional, and lonesome adolescent. In the movie, Rhoda tries to fit in with a tight-knit group of older teens (one girl and two males), who at first tolerate her. Rhoda’s new “friends” become more irritated by her actions, so as payback, the group helps arrange for a savage rape of Rhoda .Burns garnered positive reviews for this performance and just one Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Instead, rival actress Goldie Hawn (1945-) took home the prize.

The movie only cost $780,000 to make, and it was shot over the summer of 1968. Burns performed as Rhoda during the day and on Broadway at night for the first week of the play’s run. After that, she focused solely on the project for two months. After the first week, Burns attempted to stop, but Perry persuaded her to continue. He then told the Times that the other three young actors “worked together as a unit for the first 10 days, developing camaraderie.” “Cathy experienced extreme loneliness-related frustration. She was tight and anxious. Actually, she felt more alienated as a result, which was extremely helpful. Since the movie was shot in order, the rape scene followed her around during every take. 

In addition to the demands of the production schedule, Burns experienced other, more personal problems with the movie. She told Ebert for a Sun-Times article, “When I saw the movie, I did see certain things about myself, and it hurt to see them revealed so plainly on the screen.” There were aspects of that character that were me and reflected feelings or areas I had sought to keep hidden from the public. Burns admitted that she was particularly embarrassed that her mother had watched the movie. She said, “Playing that character hurt so much. I can’t recall ever having to endure something so terrible. Despite having mixed feelings about the position, Burns did have some anticipation for any awards that would be bestowed upon her. She told Ebert, “If only for the effort, I’d like to get a nomination.”

Burns was granted a night off to attend the Oscars at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion despite having moved on to a new Broadway production. The actress, who had a pageboy hairstyle, an aqua outfit, and eyeglasses, looked to squint as presenter Fred Astaire announced Burns as a nominee. He made the announcement that Goldie Hawn, who wasn’t present, had won for her role in Cactus Flower a little while later. Burns later recalled the evening as being “so idiotic.”

Burns returned to a quieter existence in New York as the glory of the Oscars faded. She shared a flat near Columbia University with friends for a time. Hal Wallis, the famed producer of Casablanca and a Last Summer enthusiast, reteamed her and Thomas in Red Sky at Morning, a 1971 picture about high school students in New Mexico during World War II, opposite Desi Arnaz Jr. But, as she promoted the film, the harsh and relentless comments about her appearance persisted. It’s no surprise that her self-esteem continued to deteriorate. When she saw herself on TV, she admitted to Broadway gossip columnist Earl Wilson that she felt “sick”: “It’s my mannerisms,” she added, giving a long list of harsh comments of herself. “My lips has a post office slot appearance to it. My head rattles from all the movement. I vibrate while I’m still. I speak incorrectly. I appear to be being played back at 78 RPM rather than 33 RPM.

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