The role of Maryse Holder, the middle-aged intellectual who self-destructs on a sordid, sexual blowout in the film A Winter Tan, is one to make any Hollywood glamor queen shudder. She wears no makeup and a haircut that looks as if it had been executed with kitchen shears. Her wardrobe is a slightly outlandish collection of revealing T-shirt dresses and rickety high-heeled shoes. And the script makes no attempt to sugarcoat the truth. “My skin hangs from me like yellow, melting wax,” says Holder about her attempt to seduce a 25-yearold scuba diver in Acapulco. “I mean, they know how old you are, right?” Indeed, what has really shocked viewers of the controversial Canadian film is not the sex. It is the bare-all performance of Jackie Burroughs, a leading lady who is middle-aged, looks it, and flaunts it in the face of a contemptuous young stud who sneers, “You want me to tell you you’re beautiful? You’re not.” The question arises—as it often does with this great and utterly singular actress—how does she dare?
In a sense, Burroughs’s adult life has been one extended dare, a giddy flight from her privileged WASP background and anything that smelled remotely of compromise or cant. Once a priggish, overweight head girl at Toronto’s Branksome Hall, an exclusive private school, she said that she discovered men at the University of Toronto and ran away with the one calculated to offend her mother most. Seven heady years with Lovin’ Spoonful guitar player Zalman Yanovsky, during which Burroughs studied acting and dancing in New York City, produced a daughter, Zoë, a stormy divorce and an actress of unusual promise.
Distinguished is a pompous way to describe a career filled with experimental romps, commercial clunkers and a lot of time out for private pursuits. Yet distinguished she is, a winner of every kind of acting award that the country has to offer, with a remarkable range that encompasses the aristocratic heroine in Robin Phillips’s 1975 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford, the dowdy Newfoundland housewife in Gordon Pinsent’s 1987 John and the Missus, and the role for which she is best known, the emancipated Victorian photographer in Phillip Borsos’ 1983 The Grey Fox. As a raunchy, boozesoaked adventuress in A Winter Tan, Burroughs gives her most powerful
performance ever. “If Jackie Burroughs wanted to be as famous as Meryl Streep, she probably could have done it,” said Grey Fox producer Peter O’Brian. “But that is not her priority in life.”
The fact that scripts have never
poured through the door of her Toronto apartment—a modest, light-filled space made exotic with garden furniture, luxuriant plants and bright Indian carpets—is partly a function of working in Canada. “This is not a country where people pursue you, sexually or professionally,” Burroughs recently noted with a laugh, leaning forward on a colorful makeshift sofa and lighting up another Benson & Hedges in her three-pack-a-day chain. But it seems that she would rather make A Winter Tan, an offbeat, abrasive film that is never going to bring her mainstream recognition, than go to Hollywood. In an extraordinary labor of love, Burroughs adapted the script, based on the letters of New York femi-
nist Maryse Holder, who was murdered by a lover in Mexico in 1977.
She also codirected the low-budget film—and even bought props and supplied her own wardrobe. Burroughs drew no salary from the project but she says “that was part of the fun and
the dare of it.” It would be tempting to tag her as an eternal flower child, but she is more complex than that. “There is no working at being unusual,” said Phillips. “She simply is.”
Her looks alone force a rethinking of conventional notions about beauty. In repose, she bears the ravages of a life lived closer to the edge than most, with a weathered face that has made her a natural for old-lady parts since she was 30, and a skeletal gauntness in which the bones seem about to burst through the skin. But Burroughs is a creature made for motion rather than for stillness. Her five-foot, four-inch, 107-lb. dancer’s body, rigorously toned in daily classes at Toronto Dance Theatre, is as light and fluid as a teen-
ager’s, and her posture is as erect as the Queen’s.
Even in A Winter Tan, she has an oddly regal presence, her head of golden, tousled hair poised on a long stalk of a neck like one of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. “I don’t walk around with this big age thing on my shoulders—I like my body,” said Burroughs, looking appealingly waifish in a white T-shirt and overalls. “Usually, I hate my face, but in the film I thought, ‘God, I don’t look so bad.’ ” John Frizzell, her codirector on the film, observed: “There is a violent life-force in that tiny frame. I think what the camera shows is a beautiful soul shining through.”
Indeed, so intense is Burroughs’s immersion in Holder’s character that it is easy to conclude that she is playing herself. Like Holder, she is obsessed by the quest for love (“With Jackie, sex comes first, art second,” said Frizzell) and she has a few bones to pick with feminists.
“We make sensitive, liberated men and then we don’t want them,” said Burroughs. “It is a real contradiction for the women’s movement.” And the actress says that she thoroughly identified with Holder’s flagrant attempts to be shocking in her letters. “I love that schoolgirl thing of being so terrible and self-styled,” she said.
“That is what I grew up with.” But unlike Holder, she is not a self-destructive narcissist. “Jackie is a wonderful person, loving and gentle, but she would hate to hear that,” said O’Brian. “She wants to be stormy and unfathomably interesting, which she is as well.”
Burroughs’s generosity of spirit is legendary. She can be gracious to a fault, friends say, leaping into the breach of conversational awkwardness when few would bother, flourishing a funny story like a bright flag to dispel the gloom. As an actress, too, she rarely gives less than 100 per cent—but she expects a lot in return. “Her intelligence is a bit scary,” said Phillips, a director for whom she has great respect. “You can’t let a half-sentence of
sloppiness go or she will pounce on it.” Her artistic vision largely governed the making of A Winter Tan, but the stormy battles on the set were about issues rather than ego, said Frizzell. “That addiction to perfection is awesome. It makes you wonder, ‘Who is she performing for?’ ”
She wonders too these days, with no new project on the horizon. “It’s terrifying,” the actress said. “I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll just mess around.” Maybe. But the odds are that whatever challenge Jackie Burroughs sets herself next, it will be worth watching.
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