Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Golden Age of Sutherland

     Poor Donald Sutherland. He had the misfortune of giving one of the best performances of his career the same year that featured Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Robert Duvall in The Great Santini, Jack Lemmon in Tribute and Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man. I say "poor" because his quiet portrayal of a repressed but devoted husband/father in first-time director Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980) seems to be one of the last things he gets remembered for these days, as well as being one of the biggest nomination snubs in Oscar history.

The truth is, with the exception of De Niro, Hurt and Duvall, Sutherland's performance was the most award worthy one that year, and certainly more than deserved a place amongst best in show. Prior to the crisp and sobering tone of Ordinary People, Sutherland was mainly known for his more kooky, offbeat parts ranging from the lovable: MASH (1970), Kelly's Heroes (1970), and National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) to the perverse: The Day of the Locust (1975), 1900 (1976) and Fellini's Casanova (1976). Two of my favorite Sutherland performances from this period found the actor in more subdued waters: Klute (1971) and The Great Train Robbery (1979).

above left: Redford directing Sutherland in Ordinary People (1980); above right: Sutherland and Jane Fonda in Klute (1971)

Then of course there were the two bona fide cult classics: Don't Look Now (1973) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Both of them arguably brilliant. John Sturges' The Eagle Has Landed (1976) has also acquired a small, devout following over the years. Alex in Wonderland (1970), Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Steelyard Blues (1973) and The Disappearance (1977) have yet to attain their true cult status. He even made a cameo in The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and played a Victorian basket case in fellow Canadian Bob Clark's underrated Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper mystery Murder by Decree (1977).

above left: Sutherland with co-star Federico Fellini (playing himself) in Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland (1970); above right: Fellini and Sutherland collaborate again, this time with Fellini behind the camera in Fellini's Casanova (1976): below: as the endlessly quotable Sergeant "Oddball" in Kelly's Heroes (1971)

Sutherland is one of those rare actors who can make even a thoroughly reprehensible character seem likable, and more importantly, relatable. He appeared in over a dozen films (including The Dirty Dozen, 1967) before playing a set of twins in Bud Yorkin's Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), but it was this specific period, mainly the Seventies (up to 1980's Best Picture winner Ordinary People), that constitutes the golden age of Sutherland's oeuvre as a film actor.

above top: Robert Altman's MASH (1970); above bottom: Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973)

In the following years, he's done some equally compelling work: Eye of the Needle (1981); Threshold (1981); Heaven Help Us (1985); A Dry White Season (1989); JFK (1991), Backdraft (1991), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Without Limits (1998); Panic (2000) and the cable movies: Citizen X (1995) and Path to War (2002) among others. He received praise for a small role in 2005's big screen adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and has more recently been recognized by a new generation as the corrupt President Snow in The Hunger Games (2012 - 2015) film series. 

 above left: John Landis' Animal House (1978); above right: Stuart Cooper's The Disappearance (1977): below: Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery (1979)

There have been a few genuine head-scratchers along the way: Gas (1981); Crackers (1984); Revolution (1985) and I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Space Cowboys (2000) in this last category. I'm positive I left out several of the more questionable and curious ones. Here's hoping that one day, when he's perhaps reached the appropriate vintage for such a thing, the Academy finally decides to hand him a long-overdue trophy for his entire body of work (he does turn 79 this year!). In all honesty, it's the least they could do.

above left: Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976); above right: John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975); below: Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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