Though this actresses career was largely based on her early 1970’s success and her CV in cinematic terms is at best minimal! I will estimate that there will be many actors/actresses envious of never actually achieving their lifetime performance goals, by either design or retrospective luck. It is clear to many an intelligent genre fan that when the name Marilyn Burns is mentioned in conversation, she becomes quickly noted by her achievement in the acting roll of a lifetime, a roll that would make her synonymous with a particular cult movie classic and certainly put her upon a pedestal as that of horror cinema royalty and fan based worship… and rightly so! If however I put aside such adoration and simply concentrate on her most famous and outstanding performance for just one moment – I wish to categorically announce now that her portrayal in the film that made her famous, is quite extraordinary, I meaning; by placing it on a par with any acclaimed cinematic performance either before, since or even after Marilyn Burns came to the fore in her uncompromising screen debut, be that in a mere – silly little independent horror movie or even outside of its specific genre. Sadly in making this statement and the very mention of her in topic obviously means only one thing?… yet another “In Memoriam” tribute unfortunately.
“Run sally, run!”
Never has a female actress been tasked to go through such an emotional roller-coaster performance with quite as much physicality and steadfastness as the girl from Erie, Pennsylvania had to endure during the 1973 on location shoot of the renowned horror classic that made her one of the most enduring movie heroines of 20th Century cinema. To call her one of the most famous “Scream Queens” – though doubtless a honorary tag to be bestowed upon a genre actress playing a fictional character, those whom understand its attached terminology will also appreciate fully its sweeping connotation. This noted salute often belies the fact that attaching this symbolism of fan immortality upon its recipient, may also detract and even underestimate her otherwise stunning performance in the greatest horror movie ever conceived. Marilyn Burns is not only the blood spattered face that came to define Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece and its iconic closing cinematic pop culture status, but clearly and unreservedly it marks down The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as a movie experience that changed a great sway of cinema in general terms, including having a female lead character that becomes often belligerent when pushed to the bitter and brutal end credits!
Sally’s lunatic farewell to Leatherface
It is also safe to suggest that without the presence of Marilyn Burns; the film would have lacked the powerful central performance needed to bounce the madness and mayhem portrayed in this cinematic onslaught. Her enduring survival instincts throughout the films dreadful ongoing terrors are majestically displayed with an acting performance that is surely one of cinemas true defining (often unsung) moments. The contrasting moods displayed of her character throughout are there in full glory, every physical and mental sinew tested and pushed beyond the limits of a person in potential peril. Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty epitomises everything glorious of an all or nothing acting, tour-de-force performance. She was able to convey so much with her pained expressions of disbelief and those often haunting and unrelenting screams for mercy, they often echoing in the unclean soul of audience participation long after the film concludes. It is also noteworthy that unlike many films we the audience must partake of this victims ordeal like invading voyeurs, becoming immersed and ever present during her on-screen deconstruction. In one of the films defining landmark moments, our invitation to the dinner table as audience members along with Sally as guest of honour surely brings home the associated impact and our nervous understanding that this women has been placed in a hell not of her making. We become heavily invested in her fight to survive, we like flies-on-the-wall witnessing not only Sally being victimised in some macabre and extended atrocity. Despite her brief lapse into possible surrender, Burns is quick to highlight that under the sobs and screams lies a person who will take every survival bound task placed before her and with stoic attributes aplenty, she will unknowingly reach depths of reserve that will push her forward even beyond normal human capacity and without having time to find any solace or rational during her forced confrontation with the unrelenting obstacle of the evil Sawyer clan. This is a sordid death squad that in total contained four central characters of an insane predisposition. The main antagonist amongst this tribe of deathly terror will be the menacing and murderous Leatherface. Not only will she attempt on numerous occasions to escape from his torment and murderous intent, but she must also put up with his horrifying visual persona as the behemoth, masked lunatic whom will willingly use his trusty tool of the trade – his chain saw in order to curtail his would-be victim(s) of their lives. This is melodrama at its highest point, Marilyn Burns its hard-hitting performance pull.
Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty in TCM
True to her characters fervent and heightened female spirit and determination, Marilyn Burns – Sally Hardesty was probably one of the first true heroines of modern genre cinema. Her characters survival instinct unravels in layers based on a spectrum of doubt, despair, mistrust and eventually the will to continue her very existence, this despite the dreadful odds stacked against her! Not only did Marilyn Burns; the actress set the bar high for future generations of wannabe actresses to dream of perhaps one day becoming a heroine of the silver screen, but this performance was clearly a watershed moment that recognised the potential of having female leads for something other than looking pretty and merely filling the screen with the usual churned out damsel-in-distress waiting to be rescued by the male lead. Tobe Hooper allowed Marilyn Burns in her portrayal as Sally Hardesty to immediately and symptomatically destroy that old Hollywood force-fed image of female pacifism. This character portrayal became a significant, possibly a defining moment, when she as the lone survivor of Hooper’s realised cinematic nightmare ordeal redefined a new character liberation for future reference, while the male contingent were slain by the stories unrelenting madman. Not only like the movie itself did the Hardesty character smash down many stereotypical conveniences of women in cinema at that time, but is it not also true that this performance showed a steely determination by an innocent bystander of dreaded misfortune to become the very positive figurehead of the more noted heroines of future cinema thereafter! Maybe I am taking my fan emotions too far and perhaps I am delving to deeply into a character that is indeed a mere victim of circumstance, I would like to think not in all honesty. In my respectful bow and farewell to Marilyn Burns the fine actress whom allowed an audience to venture along side her while she suffered for her art (quite literally) in the making of TCM. This fan has taken personal note of her iconic and everlasting filmic signature to the world and I thank her for it. E.D. Leach.
Marilyn Burns R.I.P.
1949 – 2014