When Catherine Burns first entered show business, she showed incredible promise. She was praised for practically every role she played and quickly went from television to Broadway and then on to Hollywood. However, her rise to the top was not a smooth one, and while she was heavily lauded for her talent, she was equally criticized for her looks (if not more). Her time in the limelight was cut short, as she chose to disappear from the world of acting altogether.
She wanted to be an actress
Catherine Burns was born in New York City on September 25, 1945. She was raised in Manhattan by Polish and Irish parents and attended the prestigious Hunter College High School, as well as Hunter College. Following this, she pursued her dream to become an actress by enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
She got her professional acting debut in a role in the television production of The Crucible in 1967. Burns soon transitioned to Broadway, joining the year-long production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1968. For her acting, she earned the Clarence Derwent Award. This production would also serve as the gateway into movies, as filmmaker Frank Perry discovered her after attending one of the Broadway shows.
Last Summer was her film debut
Her debut film appearance would come in the form of Perry’s Last Summer, released in 1969. Burns played the soft and conservative Rhoda in the film, which centered on a group of upper-middle-class kids spending a summer on Fire Island alone and left to their own devices. For Burns, the entire filming process was difficult.
During filming, members of the cast became friends and had a joyful experience on set. However, they excluded Burns. “For Cathy, there was the intense frustration of being alone. She was nervous, tense,” said Perry, but he also admitted this helped her acting for the film. “Actually, it was very useful; it enhanced her feeling as an outsider,” he said. “I just wanted to get it over with,” Catherine recalled of filming. “The sitting around, worrying about it, was bad. I trusted Frank, but it wasn’t easy to do.”
Critics were ruthless about her appearance
Burns received critical praise for her role as Rhoda in the film, but that didn’t stop the media from heavily criticizing on her appearance. One columnist wrote that despite her acting chops, “Twenty years ago, they wouldn’t have let her inside a studio gate” strictly based on her looks. Another commented that she had a face “like an intelligent marshmallow” and was “shaped like a fat mushroom.”
American critic Gene Siskel once referred to her as “the homeliest” member of the film’s cast, adding, “Cathy Burns: Not prettiest … but the most talented.” All of this discussion about her appearance took its toll on Burns, causing her to be extremely hard on herself. She became critical of both her looks and her acting skills. She once said, “The worst thing about being a fat pig is the feeling of being grotesque.”
She hated Last Summer. “When I saw the film, I did see certain things about myself, and it hurt to see them revealed so plainly on the screen,” Burns said. “There were things in that character that were me and that represented areas or emotions I had tried never to let anybody see.” She said she disliked her mannerisms. “My mouth looks like a Post Office slot. My head moves too much; it shakes. When I stand still, I vibrate,” she explained. “My speech is wrong. I sound like I’m being played back at 78 instead of 33.”
The infamous eye-roll at the Academy Awards
“It hurt so much to play that role,” Burns said of her part as Rhoda. “I don’t remember ever having to do anything so painful.” At the end of it, she said she would want to be nominated for an Academy Award, “if only because of the effort.”
Burns did earn a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Last Summer after receiving such high praise from film critics. Roger Ebert wrote, “You know you’re in the presence of greatness. That feeling came to me twice during Frank Perry’s Last Summer, and both times the actress onscreen was Cathy Burns.”
However, it seems her distaste for the film and her acting in it had spread over to her nomination at the Academy Awards. Rumors were spreading that she wasn’t likely going to win it, and when her name was called for nominations at the ceremony, she infamously rolled her eyes. “It was so idiotic,” she said of the entire process. That year, it was Goldie Hawn who won the award for her role in Cactus Flower.
She disappeared from Hollywood altogether
Following Last Summer, Burns had only two other film credits. The first was in 1969 in Me, Natalie, and the second was in another film by Frank Perry, released in 1971 and titled Red Sky at Morning. Regardless of her obvious talent and the recognition she earned because of it, Burns disappeared from Hollywood in 1971 at the young age of 26.
Instead of continuing her career in acting, Burns turned to writing. That same year, she published a children’s book called The Winter Bird, and went on to write several stage plays and screenplays. She also wrote and sold scripts for the CBS opera Guiding Light in 1989. However, after a while, it seemed she had disappeared from the public altogether.
“I could not find a trail. Even in this age of Facebook and Google, she was impossible to track down,” shared screenwriter Larry Karaszwenski, a fan. “I became so obsessed that a friend gave me a framed picture of Cathy, which hangs in my office.” The only lead was found decades later when public records showed she had moved to a retirement community with her husband in Lyden, Washington.
Her husband opened up about Burns after her death
When Burns and her husband were first rediscovered, media outlets reached out via letters to try and make contact with the actress who’d vanished. However, the couple were very hesitant to speak to the media. Burns’ husband replied in his own letter, saying, “My wife has been out of the business for decades. She is not old news. She is ancient news. We are in our 8th decade.”
He continued, “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.” He did give a glimmer of hope about the public possibly learning more about Burns’ personal life when he said, “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.”
Unfortunately, not much came following this correspondence. In 2020 it was discovered Burns had died in 2019 at the age of 73. She suffered from complications after a fall at home when she hit her head.
Following her death, her husband opened up a bit more about Catherine Burns. “She hated the movie [Last Summer]… and most everything that came with it. She wanted to be remembered as a published writer of novels.”