Ellen Burstyn received her first Oscar nomination (and only in this category) for her performance as Lois Farrow in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. Of the 4 performances nominated for acting awards for The Last Picture Show (Burstyn, Leachman, Jeff Bridges, and Ben Johnson), Ellen Burstyn's performance as Lois Farrow is probably the least important to the plot of the film. Burstyn plays the mother of Cybill Shepherd's Jacy Farrow who tries hard to stop her daughter from making some of the same mistakes she did when she was younger. She doesn't want to see Jacy marry her boyfriend Duane (Bridges), and would like her daughter to marry a wealthy man so she wouldn't have as hard a life as she did. The character is nothing particularly unique or special, it's what Burstyn does with her that makes this such a great performance.
As with the entire film, realism is a key aspect of this performance. Lois Farrow could easily fall into the category of being another overbearing monster mother (see: Margaret Leighton) but Burstyn and Bogdanovich don't take the easy route and instead make her a charming and rational woman. Burstyn's first scene is her scolding Jacy and telling her to be careful not to get pregnant and that she shouldn't marry Duane. It's abundantly clear that even though Lois is saying all these horrible things, she does it because she loves her daughter and they actually have a strong relationship. Burstyn's also very charming in this film, using her accent in a sort of 'aw shucks' type of way that makes her character endearing. Even when Lois is openly seducing other men I couldn't help but like her, and that's a testament to the charm and talent of Burstyn. For the majority of the movie Burstyn is the most luminous presence, imbuing wit and likeability into a character that seems like she should be more of an antagonistic one.
All becomes clear when we get to the funeral of Sam the Lion. Without having a single scene with Ben Johnson, Burstyn is tasked with creating a long ago romantic history real all by herself and she succeeds with grace and color. It's a testament to Bogdanovich that he never gave her a scene with Johnson because that would be the easy way out and it adds extra depth and hindsight into Lois's storyline if they never met in the course of the film. Her final scene talking to Sonny about her time with Sam the Lion is so emotionally powerful and moving especially because it comes from nowhere. You look back at why Lois is fighting so hard for her daughter to have an easier life and realize that she does it because she made a lot of mistakes in her life and her bitter harshness comes from experience, heartbreak, and person mistakes she has made. Until Sam the Lion dies Lois doesn't understand her daughter and we don't understand Lois.
Ellen Burstyn's performance is one of charm, deep seeded emotion, and depth. The script gives her so much to work with and Bogdanovich handles her character arc the best, at least as far as the women are concerned. I love that Lois Farrow is somehow simultaneously likeable, unlikeable, a romantic, and a realist all at once and Burstyn navigates these various traits in a very realistic way. I felt a real connection with her and that I knew her because all of her struggles in life were just so grounded in real emotions and experiences. She just mines gold out of the material she was given, and that's among the best things a supporting actress can do. 4.5/5 Wiests.