Catherine Burns: The Vanishing of an Oscar-Nominated Actress
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Catherine Burns: The Vanishing of an Oscar-Nominated Actress

Fifty years ago, her searing supporting role in 'Last  Summer' led to critical acclaim and Academy recognition, but the actress soon disappeared from Hollywood, leaving her fans and showbiz admirers searching for answers. The Hollywood Reporter attempts to solve one of Oscar’s great mysteries.

For years, screenwriter Larry Karaszewski has been obsessed with the 1969 indie film Last Summer, a dark teen drama about youthful passions, angst and cruelty. Karaszewski, a Golden Globe winner whose credits include The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood and Dolemite Is My Name, has long wanted to share the film with others. There was just one problem: Last Summer had all but disappeared in physical form. The limited number of original prints were lost or damaged, and the only scrap he managed to find was a beat-up 16mm print from Australia, which he describes as "a mashup of the censored TV version and the theatrical cut."

Last Summer isn't for the faint of heart. Its story of friendship gone horribly wrong culminates in a graphic rape scene, which landed it an X rating. But what stayed most with Karaszewski about the Allied Artists release was the work of one of its four young stars, Hollywood newcomer Catherine Burns. Her turn is highlighted by "one of the greatest soliloquies in the history of film," he says, referring to a three-minute sequence in which Burns' Rhoda shares the story of what became of her mother. "She's understated and real. Not a dishonest note in her performance."

Karaszewski wasn't alone in his appreciation of Last Summer— or of Burns. "Twice or three times a year, a scene in a film will absorb you so completely … And then you know you're in the presence of greatness," wrote Roger Ebert, then a young Chicago Sun-Times critic. "That feeling came to me twice during Frank Perry's Last Summer, and both times the actress onscreen was Cathy Burns."

Burns was so mesmerizing, in fact, that her performance as the youngest and most naive of the teens garnered her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination and set her, briefly, on the path to stardom.

Burns was actually the oldest of the film's four stars, and her acclaim was all the more unexpected because she possessed, in her own words and others' lacerating estimation, "a funny face." Five-foot-1 and freckled, she was not Hollywood's idea of a starlet. Dick Kleiner, a syndicated columnist, wrote, "Twenty years ago, they wouldn't have let her inside a studio gate." Kleiner noted that she had a face "like an intelligent marshmallow," while The New York Times' Vincent Canby said her body was "shaped like a fat mushroom." But even those who used such cruel and sexist language couldn't help but admire her acting. Ebert's future partner Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune urged people to remember "the homeliest" of Last Summer's stars come Oscar time, and the photo accompanying his article read, "Cathy Burns: Not prettiest … but the most talented."

When Karaszewski obtained the Australian print of Last Summer in 2012 and was making plans to show it in Hollywood, he tried to contact the film's stars to participate in a public Q&A. Barbara Hershey, who had gone on to an Oscar nomination for 1996's The Portrait of a Lady and played Natalie Portman's mom in 2010's Black Swan, attended. Five years later, when Quentin Tarantino's New Beverly Cinema was hosting a Frank Perry retrospective using the same print, Karaszewski got for a Q&A Bruce Davison, who had gone on to be nominated for an Oscar for 1989's Longtime Companion and star in the recent X-Men films. On neither occasion did he receive a response from Richard Thomas, who had won an Emmy for The Waltons and become a distinguished stage actor. As for Burns, he laments, "I could not find a trail. Even in this age of Facebook and Google, she was impossible to track down." He adds, "I became so obsessed that a friend gave me a framed picture of Cathy, which hangs in my office," a quiet reminder of an enduring Hollywood mystery.

***

Burns was born in New York in 1945, the only child of an Irish academic gown salesman and a Polish secretary, and raised in a four-room apartment on West 11th Street. After seeing George C. Scott in an off-Broadway production of Richard III, she began attending weekend acting classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She ended up enrolling at Hunter College, intending to become an English teacher, before dropping out during her sophomore year, having hired theatrical agents. She later said, "There's nothing worse than an English teacher who's a frustrated actor."

Her first professional credit, a 1967 CBS movie of The Crucible, was followed by a year on Broadway as one of the schoolchildren in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which netted her an Actors Equity Award for most promising female performer. It also brought her to the attention of Perry, a pioneering indie filmmaker — later the uncle of Katy Perry — who was casting Last Summer, which his then-wife Eleanor had adapted for the screen from Evan Hunter's novel of the same name. Like Perry's lauded 1962 film David and Lisa, it focused on teens — specifically, four upper-middle-class kids left to their own devices one summer on Fire Island.

Perry spent six months considering 1,000 candidates for the parts of three beautiful teenagers — two boys and a girl — as well as a fourth, a girl younger than the others who is welcomed into their company, at least for a time. Ultimately, Davison and Thomas, both 19, were cast as the boys. Hershey, 18, was the pretty girl, her first screen role. And Burns, the oldest performer at 22, was cast as the youngest character, more sensitive and less experienced than her new acquaintances.

The film was shot over the summer of 1968 at a cost of just $780,000. For the first week of production, Burns performed as Rhoda during the day and on Broadway at night. Then, for two months, she worked exclusively on the film. Burns tried to quit after the first week, but Perry convinced her to stick it out. "For the first 10 days, the other three young actors worked together as a unit, developing camaraderie," he told the Times back then. "For Cathy, there was the intense frustration of being alone. She was nervous, tense. Actually, it was very useful, it enhanced her feeling as an outsider." Because the film was shot in sequence, the rape scene loomed over her for the entire shoot. She told the Times, "I just wanted to get it over with. The sitting around, worrying about it, was bad. I trusted Frank, but it wasn't easy to do."

Apart from the rigors of the production schedule, the movie troubled Burns in other, more intimate ways. "When I saw the film, I did see certain things about myself, and it hurt to see them revealed so plainly on the screen," she told Ebert for a Sun-Times piece. "There were things in that character that were me and that represented areas or emotions I had tried never to let anybody see." Burns said that she was particularly self-conscious that her mother had seen the film. "It hurt so much to play that role," she continued. "I don't remember ever having to do anything so painful." And yet for all her ambivalence about the job, at least a part of Burns looked forward to the accolades that might come her way. "I'd like to get a nomination," she confided to Ebert, "if only because of the effort."

After her nom was announced, young film critic Rex Reed told TV host Dick Cavett that if he were a member of the Academy he would vote for Burns, "a wonderful little girl who I thought gave one of the most startling performances." He figured it was an unlikely outcome, though, because Hollywood "doesn't know who she is."

Meanwhile, even before Oscar night, Burns' enthusiasm had begun to wane. "It used to be very nice being recognized," she told the Times. "But not now. I find it disturbing … I'm becoming hard." The constant scrutiny about her appearance also seemed to gnaw at her. "The worst thing about being a fat pig is the feeling of being grotesque," she told the newspaper.

Burns had moved on to a new Broadway show but was given a night off to attend the Oscars at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. When presenter Fred Astaire read Burns' name as a nominee, the actress — sporting a pageboy haircut, aqua-blue dress and eyeglasses — appeared to roll her eyes. Moments later, he announced that Goldie Hawn, who wasn't in attendance, had won for her performance in Cactus Flower. "It was so idiotic," Burns later said of the night.

As the glow of the Oscars began to fade, Burns returned to a quieter existence in New York. For a while, she lived with friends in an apartment near Columbia University. Hal Wallis, the legendary producer of Casablanca and a Last Summer fan, reteamed her and Thomas, alongside Desi Arnaz Jr., in Red Sky at Morning, a 1971 film about high schoolers in New Mexico during World War II. But as she made the rounds to promote that movie, the harsh and persistent criticism about her appearance continued. It's little surprise that her confidence continued to plummet. She told Broadway gossip columnist Earl Wilson that she felt "sick" watching herself onscreen: "It's my mannerisms," she said, reciting a litany of blistering self-criticisms. "My mouth looks like a Post Office slot. My head moves too much, it shakes. When I stand still, I vibrate. My speech is wrong. I sound like I'm being played back at 78 instead of 33."

As her co-stars' careers began to soar, Burns' arc slowed, ultimately to a complete halt. In 1971, reports suggested that Brian De Palma might cast her in a film he planned to adapt from another Eleanor Perry script, but nothing came of it. She reunited with Thomas on a 1973 episode of The Waltons. And then she wound up back in repertory theater — in North Hollywood for several years and then back East, from off-Broadway to the Berkshires.

In 1989, 20 years after Last Summer, the Los Angeles Times found the 44-year-old Burns living in an Upper West Side apartment and reported that she had recently "emerged as a writer." In the intervening years, she had penned a children's book — The Winter Bird, about one bird who stays behind when all the others go south — and then two dozen plays and screenplays, selling scripts for the first time in 1989 to the CBS soap opera Guiding Light. She had also married a fellow writer in June 1989. As for a return to acting? She didn't rule it out. "I am one of a kind," she said. "Ah, but what kind?" It was the last the public would hear from her.

***

By the time THR set out to find Burns on the eve of the 50th anniversary of her nomination, her trail had gone cold. The unions she was once associated with no longer had any information about her. An internet search yielded only a website's claims, without sourcing, that she had worked as a receptionist in the '90s. There were no local news articles boasting about an area Oscar nominee, no social media account picturing her with her family, not even a mailing address via the online White Pages.

Eventually, an intensive public records hunt finally yielded a clue — an address in Lynden, Washington, population 14,000, nestled in a lush valley 5 miles south of the Canadian border and about 100 miles north of Seattle.

It seemed that sometime after marrying, Burns relocated there, to a retirement community. Attempts to reach her and the retirement center by phone failed, but a local resident familiar with Burns told THR she thought she had died over Christmas in 2018. If true, it had never been reported. THR contacted the Washington Department of Health, which was unable to locate a death certificate.

Hoping to get some clarity, THR visited Lynden. Unlike a traditional senior living home, this one has no lobby, game room or cafeteria. It's a series of gray condominiums lining a golf course on one side and a sparsely traveled road on the other. Inside, a neighbor's caretaker pointed to a door across the hall, where a typewritten sign had been taped up: "Tenant is either asleep or out. Please do not ring or knock or disturb in any way for any reason. Thanks for your consideration."

"Don't knock," the caretaker warned. "He won't want to talk to you." A THR reporter left a letter on the door, explaining why he was there and asking for a reply.

Others from the area filled in details. Though she was extremely private, some in the complex came to understand that the slight woman who lived at the end of the hall had been an actress in a previous life, though none were aware of the contours of her career. One person who knew Burns and her husband but had not seen her in about a year said, "She was a very sweet woman with a huge heart. They traveled a lot. They lived a very minimalistic life. They were always together."

The following day, Burns' husband got in touch with THR using a highly encrypted email service. He demanded to know how he and his wife — "an old woman long out of the acting game" — had been found. He claimed that they had fended off a stalker years before and were highly wary of any inquiries.

His email suggested that he and his wife were in the process of completing a novel. "My wife has been out of the business for decades," he wrote. "She is not old news. She is ancient news. We are in our 8th decade. We left that rotten business a long time ago. It's time for some peace. Maybe someone else wants this kind of reminder of who they once were, but we do NOT."

His missive did, however, leave a potential opening: "I'm the only person who can write an 'authorized' piece about Catherine, if that matters. So if you are the right person to be talking to, perhaps we can do business. It's in your court."

THR wrote back, offering to publish a piece that her husband would co-write with Burns about why she left the industry and what she has been doing since. Days passed without a response.

THR made additional calls to the Department of Health — which finally yielded a discovery. It did, in fact, have a public record for Catherine Burns, only the date of birth that has always been reported for her (Sept. 24, 1945) was off by a day from the one it had (Sept. 25, 1945) — on her death certificate. The document revealed that Burns had indeed died Feb. 2, 2019, after falling and hitting her head at home and then being rushed to the hospital. It named cirrhosis as another contributor to her death. Her body had been donated to medical research. Listed as her occupation: Actress/Writer.

When THR made Burns' husband aware of its discovery, he wrote back and acknowledged that she had died and that he was still grieving. "She hated the movie that made her well-known," he wrote. "Hated it and most everything that came with it. She wanted to be remembered as a published writer of novels."

When told of Burns' fate, Karaszewski said: "It's just all shocking. I would hope she would be remembered as a really strong actress whose realness came across on the screen. There was always a bit of pain in her performances. And clearly that extended to her real life as well."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.