Hollywood is filled with stories of unrealized potential, dashed dreams, and overnight sensations that disappear just as quickly. Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski was obsessed with one such story: The tale of Catherine Burns, who was nominated for an Oscar for her film debut in 1969’s Last Summer. In “Catherine Burns: The Vanishing Of An Oscar-Nominated Actress,” The Hollywood Reporter relays its considerable efforts to track down the actor, who was relegated to mainly TV movies and guest spots after that impressive debut.
Last Summer is the tale of three attractive, close-knit teens (Richard Thomas, Bruce Davison, and Barbara Hershey) and a younger, more insecure girl (Burns) who attempts to infiltrate their group one pivotal summer. That attempt ends in tragedy, but as Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, it was Burns’ vulnerable performance that helped make the coming-of-age film so effective: “She forces herself into the group, her loneliness overcoming her shyness. And although she seems the most insecure of them all, she is the only one who knows her own mind and whose decisions are not determined by insecurity… Cathy Burns, as Rhoda, clearly deserves an Academy Award nomination.”
She got one, but lost to Goldie Hawn. But as The Hollywood Reporter story points out, Burns soon tired of fame as well as the constant remarks on her appearance, which was unconventional by Hollywood standards. Per the piece, she guest-starred on shows like Cannon and The Bionic Woman (including an appearance on The Waltons, featuring her Last Summer co-star Thomas) and went back to the stage where she’d gotten her start. Burns eventually published a children’s book, The Winter Bird—about “one bird who stays behind when all the others go south”—while also submitting scripts and screenplays.
For this 50-years-later update, THR traced the once-remarkable actor to an unremarkable retirement home in Washington State, where she lived with her husband. In a statement to THR, Burns’ husband maintained, “We left that rotten business a long time ago. It’s time for some peace.” Her longtime fan Karaszewski acknowledged, “There was always a bit of pain in her performances. And clearly that extended to her real life as well.”
Read more about this fascinating saga here.