Saturday, November 2, 2013

This Day in Film History (Burt Lancaster, 'Modernist Movie Hunk,' Born)

November 2, 1913—Burt Lancaster, who used his athleticism to get his foot in the movie industry, then his intelligence and drive to build a versatile, Oscar-winning multi-decade career, was born into an Irish Protestant household in the East Harlem section of New York City. Yet, though he sometimes appeared in films with a Big Apple setting, he never exuded the aura of a “New York actor” the way that James Cagney, John Garfield or Marlon Brando did, nor did he follow any modish acting tradition. He was simply, in the words of Time movie critic Richard Corliss, “the first modernist movie hunk.”

Like Cary Grant, Lancaster was a circus acrobat before becoming an actor, and a beefcake physique was his primary asset when his film career began in his thirties. Perhaps that particular athletic skill gave the two men the ability to land on their feet even after taking a major risk: seeking roles without the backing of a major studio.

Unlike Grant, however, who frequently acted in comedies (and often, improbably enough with his Cockney background, in the sophisticated, drawing-room kind), Lancaster tilted heavily toward drama. In addition to his job in a circus, he had also worked as a refrigerator repairman, engineer in a meatpacking plant, firefighter, salesman, and singing waiter. That varied background fed his hunger to distinguish himself, but it also probably gave him the confidence to believe he could act believably in any role once he set his mind to it.

The actor would need that self-assurance after he first secured attention as a doomed boxer in the 1946 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers.” He could have traded on his raw physicality, with eventual diminishing returns, the way that Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have done recently. But he prized the kind of range that would assure endurance. 

While Grant essentially worked as a free agent, choosing from whichever part came his way, Lancaster took the extraordinary step of developing his own projects. So, in 1948, linking up with agent Harold Hecht, he became one of the first actors to become an independent producer. Together with James Hill, they would create some of the most popular or critically acclaimed films of the Fifties: Come Back, Little Sheba, Sweet Smell of Success, and Marty (the last not starring him, but nevertheless winning Best Picture). These movies would also serve as a launching pad for a wider career that resulted in Oscar nominations for From Here to Eternity, Birdman of Alcatraz, Atlantic City, and Elmer Gantry (the last, as a corrupt minister, giving him his victory in the Best Actor category).

While blessed with all the glamour of an old-fashioned studio star (as late as the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, critic Kenneth Turan remembered, the “spectacularly fit 58-year-old actor” made a dramatic appearance just before an interview with a preluncheon dive off the rocks into the Mediterranean, in full view of a hotel restaurant), Lancaster seemed ideally positioned to capitalize on film noir, a movie genre that sprang from the grimness of postwar America. He could certainly be cast credibly as a romantic lead. But those “great white Chiclets flashing” (critic Pauline Kael’s words) could alternately be used to grin, or nearly to devour, as in his deeply chilling portrait of a Walter Winchell-like columnist in Sweet Smell of Success.

That, in a way, gave him a crucial advantage in a fierce competition among an entire generation of actors—friend and frequent costar Kirk Douglas, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman. All of them wanted the same kind of anti-hero roles becoming increasingly common in the postwar era. Especially the last four of these were associated with method acting. Lancaster for much of his career was heavily opposed to “The Method.” What he could not bring to a scene by dredging up from his own pit of emotions, he would summon through massive rehearsing and discussions with directors. That preparation could translate into interference with directors, but also a passion that to make the best product, as well as growing daring in choice of roles (e.g., even playing an Italian aristocrat in Luchino Visconsi's 1963 The Leopard).

Athleticism allowed Lancaster to project, in different degrees, energy, strength, and a sense of command. But his gaze radiated intensity--frequently related to love, but many times to cruelty. You can feel that ice-cold sense in Sweet Smell of Success. Lancaster had initially resisted director Alexander Mackendrick's suggestion that he wear glasses. Just what a mistake that was can be seen onscreen, where the spectacles transform the magnificent physical specimen that was Lancaster into what Vanity Fair contributor Sam Kashner termed a "tense, bespectacled ghoul" with the possibility of latent violence. Kashner's article from 13 years ago, on the making of this cult film, mentions that Orson Welles had been co-screenwriter Ernest Lehman's initial choice to play the role of J.J. Hunsecker, but it is hard to see how the former enfant terrible of Hollywood--already experiencing terrible weight problems--could have conveyed the sense of coiled menace brought by Lancaster.

Ironically, while disdaining The Method for much of his career, Lancaster succeeded by bringing the entire range of his own complicated personality to the screen. A man who played a multitude of parts, he contained multitudes himself. Generous, idealistic and deeply committed to causes (he was one of the early advocates for AIDS victims), he could also convey threat. "People were frightened of Burt," recalled partner Hill, "and he never did anything to make people unfrightened of him.” Lancaster was not above lifting the small Hecht into the air and threatening to throw him out the window. The father of five children, an actor who played the title role in the 1970s mini-series Moses the Lawgiver, he was also an atheist and compulsive womanizer who had trouble adhering to the commandment about not committing adultery.

(The image accompanying this post was, of course, the famous beach love scene between Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in his first Oscar-nominated role, From Here to Eternity, used in that film’s trailer.)

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