Donald Sutherland: The “O Canada” Blogathon
Nearly an hour into The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich’s WWII movie about the title group – American army prisoners, on death row or with long sentences – and how they’re trained for a mission behind enemy lines, Maj. Reisman (Lee Marvin) takes the platoon to a base run by Col. Breed (Robert Ryan), where they’re to train in parachute jumping. Except Reisman and Breed hate each other’s guts – Reisman thinks Breed is too much of a stick-in-the-mud in regards to rules and regulations, while Breed thinks Reisman is an undisciplined troublemaker – and to get Breed off his back, Reisman tells Capt. Kinder (Ralph Meeker), who’s been working with Reisman on behalf of their superior, General Worden (Ernest Borgnine), to tell Breed Reisman’s group is part of a secret mission and is being accompanied by a general traveling incognito. What Reisman doesn’t realize is Breed has set up a welcoming committee for the general, complete with military band (playing “National Emblem”, of course), and with his troops ready for inspection. Once Reisman does realize that, he tells Breed he’ll check to see if the general is willing to do the inspection (telling Breed about the “general” traveling incognito, which Breed understands), going to the back of the truck carrying the others, and asking who wants to imitate a general. He finally settles on Pinkley, and while the somewhat slow-witted Pinkley is reluctant at first (“I’d rather be a civilian, sir”), he eventually agrees to do it. As the others fall into formation behind him, Pinkley, wearing an Army helmet, joins Reisman, and turns around to make a funny face at the others, who all laugh at what he’s doing, to Breed’s surprise. Breed and “General” Pinkley salute each other, and Pinkley walks ahead of Breed and Reisman past one line of soldiers, turns, and starts walking between that line and another line of soldiers. He slows down and says, “They’re very pretty, Colonel, very pretty…but can they fight?” “Yes, sir,” Breed responds. “I hope you’re right,” Pinkley responds. He starts to walk again, but stops in front of one soldier (Reisman and Breed have to stop and fall back). “Where you from, son?” he asks, smiling. The soldier says proudly, “Madison City, Missouri, sir!” The smile leaves Pinkley’s face, and he shakes his head and drawls, “Never heard of it.” Reisman is pissed (when they’re alone a few seconds later, he threatens to beat Pinkley’s brains out if he ever does that again), and Breed is starting to wonder if he’s been had, but the others in Pinkley’s platoon are laughing hysterically.
Pinkley doesn’t figure much in the narrative after this (originally, he had very few lines), and ironically, his character wasn’t supposed to be the one who imitated a general at all; it was Posey (Clint Walker), the soft-spoken soldier who only got violent when pushed around, who was originally supposed to play it. However, Walker felt the scene would be ridiculous for him, and asked Aldrich not to do it, so Aldrich assigned it to the actor playing Pinkley instead. That actor, Donald Sutherland, had been studied to be an engineer, but dropped that to pursuit acting. Though he had worked steadily on the stage in London, his on-screen appearances were mostly in TV (he had played a villain on an episode of The Avengers – the show involving John Steed and Emma Peel, not Iron Man and Thor – modeled on Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”), with only occasional film roles (bit parts in Promise Her Anything and The Bedford Incident, among others). However, he hadn’t made much headway in his acting career to that point; according to him, he was once turned down for a “guy next door” part – even though the powers that be loved his audition – because he was told he didn’t look like he lived next door to anybody. He had only gotten his role in Aldrich’s film because another actor dropped out. Yet that one scene in Dirty Dozen ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the movie (Phil Kaufman, who would direct Sutherland a decade later in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, told American Film everyone he knew said about Sutherland, “Who is that guy?”), and while Sutherland has never been a “marquee” actor – though he’s been in box-office smashes, he’s never been the guy who “opens” a movie, and though he’s appeared in Oscar-winning films, he himself has never even been nominated – he’s enjoyed a long and distinguished career.
Directly, Sutherland’s performance in The Dirty Dozen led producer Ingo Preminger to cast Sutherland in what proved to be his breakout role, as maverick doctor Captain Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. As fans of that movie know, Sutherland, as well as co-star Elliot Gould (as “Trapper” John McIntyre), wasn’t immediately receptive to director Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking (using overlapping dialogue, depending on actors coming up with their own methods, focusing on character and vignettes more than story), and he and Gould went to their agent (who handled both of them) and the studio (20th Century Fox) to complain. Preminger stuck by Altman, and Gould eventually went to Altman and apologized once he understood what Altman was trying to achieve, but while Sutherland would later regret his actions, he never went to Altman directly, and the two never worked together again. That’s ironic, as Sutherland seems quite at home in the movie. The whistle he gives when he’s either lost in thought or making a joke (as when he reveals to Duke (Tom Skerritt) and Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) that he’s a doctor and not the driver), the way he convinces Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) to bless Painless (John Schuck) as he’s about to kill himself (or so Painless thinks), or the imitations he does (when Marston (Michael Murphy), the gas passer on an operation Trapper and Hawkeye are doing on a senator’s son in Tokyo, asks Hawkeye who he thinks he is, Sutherland puts on a creepy voice to say, “I’m Dr. Jekyll, and this is my assistant Mr. Hyde”) all are in sync not only with the style, but also the message of the movie; in an atmosphere as crazy as war (though nominally set in Korea, many understood Altman and writer Ring Lardner Jr. were really talking about Vietnam), decorum doesn’t matter, only professionalism. To that end, Sutherland also handles well the closest thing the movie has to a thesis statement, when he tells Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), with whom he had a run-in earlier in the movie, “You may be a pain in the ass, but you’re a hell of a good nurse”.
M*A*S*H was one of five movies Sutherland appeared in that year (1970), which also saw him as a worried director in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (which I’ve never seen, but which was inspired by Fellini’s 8 1/2), as one set of mismatched identical twins (Gene Wilder plays the other) in Bud Yorkin’s uneven but funny French Revolution War spoof Start the Revolution Without Me, as a priest with an unusual relationship with religious fanatic Genevieve Bujold (like Sutherland, a Canadian, though she was from Quebec and he from New Brunswick) in Act of the Heart (which I’ve also never seen), and as an anachronistic hippie-ish soldier in Brian G. Hutton’s WWII adventure film Kelly’s Heroes, co-starring Clint Eastwood (with whom he would work again 30 years later). Sutherland didn’t appear in that many films in one year again (he had done it in 1968), but he would work steadily throughout his career, especially in the 70’s. It also showed how varied his choices were. Alan Arkin’s film version of Little Murders (with Jules Feiffer adapting his own play) is an uneven but often biting and hilarious black comedy, with Sutherland a highlight as the somewhat eccentric priest who marries Elliot Gould and Marcia Rodd. That same year, he played the title character in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a detective trying to find his missing friend. The film works best as a character study of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), the prostitute Klute ends up falling in love with, and less well as a thriller/mystery, but while Sutherland’s role and performance are essentially passive, he shows how well he works with other performers. Look, for example, at the famous scene where Bree reacts angrily to Klute after she finds out he spied on one of her clients (an elderly garment factory owner who’s never been anywhere; all she does for him is pretend she’s just gotten back from some exotic vacation, and strip for him); while Fonda (who’s terrific) alternates between angry (“And what’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You a talker? A button freak?”) and seductive (after Klute quietly asks her to zip her dress back up, she purrs, “Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie”), Sutherland remains quiet and focused, yet the focus is always on Fonda and nothing else. Sutherland and Fonda had a brief affair during and after the making of that movie, and they shared the same passion for left-wing politics (they appeared in the “anti-Establishment” comedy Steelyard Blues two years later – which I’ve never seen – and they were also part of a tour of towns near military bases – which also included Peter Boyle and singer Holly Near – to play for soldiers who were against the Vietnam War, later documented in F.T.A., which stood for either “Free The Army” or “Fuck The Army”), which also probably inspired Sutherland’s appearance in Dalton Trumbo’s heavy-handed anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun, with Sutherland, as Jesus Christ (he appears in dream sequences), being the best part.
Don’t Look Now, the 1973 horror/thriller adapted by director Nicolas Roeg from the short story by Daphne Du Maurier, was not only another big hit, it was another turning point in Sutherland’s career. According to that American Film article I mentioned above, he quarreled with Roeg over a particular scene (Roeg insisted on doing it his way, Sutherland wanted to try another way), and it was that experience that led him to see that the director was the captain of the ship, and should be the one people defer to. Other actors have come to the conclusion that the director holds the power in movies – it’s a major reason why many actors say either they want to direct, or that they prefer the theatre – but few have put it into such stark terms (Sutherland called himself the director’s “concubine”, claiming his job for a good director was to be submissive to him), or in favorable ones (in that article, he gave credit to the director for all of his good work, and blamed himself for all the bad work). Whatever you think of Sutherland’s methods or feelings, they work for the film. I must say I’ve never been the fan of this other people are – for a film about the trauma from the loss of a child, it feels curiously detached, as if Roeg saw the story more as an intellectual exercise – but it is a film that stays with you and bears repeat viewings (as do all of Roeg’s best films), and Sutherland is again very good as the methodical character (he restores ancient architecture and paintings) who thinks in terms of logic, not realizing until too late just what it is he sees (he’s implied to be a seer, though he rejects that notion).
The Day of the Locust, director John Schlesinger’s adaptation of the notorious Hollywood novel by Nathanael West, is another film that doesn’t completely come together, but Sutherland was nevertheless very good in it. Fans of a certain long-running animated TV show will, of course, get a chuckle out of his character name, Homer Simpson, and it’s a part that may seem unplayable (an accountant who seems to be the one “pure” character in the cesspool of 30’s Hollywood). But Sutherland makes believable his Homer’s naiveté, his devotion to Faye (Karen Black) – the aspiring starlet who damages the lives she touches – even as he realizes she doesn’t love him and never will (the scene where he reveals that is touching, and all the more powerful for being one of the few scenes in the movie that’s still instead of frenzied), but also the danger behind him, as when, near the end, he attacks his child tormentor (Jackie Earle Haley), which starts the climactic riot at the end of the film. Homer’s especially short haircut and height (in real life, Sutherland stands at 6’4”) make him look out of place as well, yet Sutherland never overdoes it. The same can not be said, unfortunately, for the Fascist character he plays in Bernardo Bertolucci’s unwieldy epic 1900, where his overacting threatens to derail the movie (once again, Sutherland blamed himself rather than Bertolucci, even as he acknowledged the performance was all wrong for the film).
1978 saw two of Sutherland’s biggest hits, National Lampoon’s Animal House and the remake of the 1956 low-budget sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Michael Crichton’s film version of his novel The Great Train Robbery, which saw him, Sean Connery and Lesley-Anne Down rob a train in mid-19th century England – inspired by a true story – was a more modest hit, and a modest though entertaining film). In the former, Sutherland played another character out of step with the others, here a literature professor who professes contempt for what he’s teaching (he calls Milton boring, but says teaching it is his job), and is more interested in smoking pot (which he does with three students, played by Karen Allen, Tom Hulce and Peter Riegert, and he later has an affair with Allen’s character). This is another film I’m not as much a fan of as others – fratboy comedies are not my style – but Sutherland helps ground the movie in his few scenes. The latter, according to that American Film article, represented another turning point in his career. Tired, as he said, of being typecast as “weirdo” characters, he lobbied hard for the role of the film’s hero, a health inspector who at first doubts his partner’s (Brooke Adams) assertion something strange is happening to people (insisting, yet again, there must be a logical explanation), only to realize it’s even more horrifying than he previously guessed. Director Phil Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter follow the lead of Don Siegel’s original film in using the story as metaphor (placing it within the self-help and cult movements of the time, especially in big cities like San Francisco, where the movie is set), but go beyond the original by upping both the humor (upon told the object he’s found in a soup pot is a caper, not a rat turd as he claims, Sutherland deadpans, “If it’s a caper, eat it”) and the viscera (we actually see the pod bodies being formed, as well as Sutherland smashing his clone, though he can’t bring himself to smash the others). And again, Sutherland’s performance is crucial to why the movie works so well (though he’s not the only highlight; Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy are all terrific as well), as he again grounds the movie in reality. That reality is also what makes the ending – the only version of this story that doesn’t end on a triumphant note – so shocking.
Wanting to play, again, more ordinary characters naturally led him to a movie with “ordinary” in the title, Ordinary People, based on the best-selling novel by Judith Guest, and marking the directorial debut of Robert Redford. Sutherland plays Calvin, an upper middle-class man who is trying to connect with his troubled son Conrad (Timothy Hutton, in his film debut). Calvin at first may seem excessively cheery, but then you realize he’s the main one who’s trying to make sure Conrad is okay (as the film opens, Conrad’s just back from the hospital after trying to kill himself), and you also see how devastated he is when he realizes how much his wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) has cut herself off emotionally from him and Conrad. The picture is mostly remember today as the film that deprived Raging Bull of winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Director, and that’s unfair. The film is somewhat schematic at times, but it is ultimately touching, and features terrific work from Hutton, Judd Hirsch (as Conrad’s psychiatrist), M. Emmet Walsh (as Conrad’s swim coach), Elizabeth McGovern (as a student Conrad becomes friends with), and, of course, Sutherland. The highlights of his performance are his scene with Conrad’s psychiatrist, and the scene near the end of the movie when he tells Beth he doesn’t think he loves her anymore. Sutherland plays it both times as if the emotions roiling underneath were just occurring to him, making them all the more powerful. Yet again, it’s surprising how, considering everyone else in the main cast (Moore, Hutton and Hirsch) received Oscar nominations (Hutton ended up winning), Sutherland was ignored, as his performance, next to Hutton’s, is arguably the most crucial.
As I mentioned earlier, Sutherland was a prolific actor when his career got going (in The Eagle Has Landed, a rote 1976 adaptation of Jack Higgins’ novel about a Nazi plot to kidnap Churchill, he co-starred with Michael Caine, arguably the most prolific star at that time), but starting in the 80’s, for whatever reason, he seemed to take things easy for a while. In that American Film article, he mentioned how while he loved acting, he felt it had become a compulsion, and he wanted to get back to working because he wanted to, not because he felt he had to (this also may have had to do with an attack of meningitis he suffered in 1979). But as with many actors who came to prominence in the late 60’s and the 70’s, he wasn’t able to find as many good movies and roles in the 80’s. Sometimes, he’d be the best thing, or one of the best things, about a mediocre or bad movie, as in the leader of a group of would-be robbers in Crackers, Louis Malle’s indifferent remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street, as the firm but fair priest in Michael Dinner’s uneven comedy/drama Heaven Help Us (though, to be fair, he’s not the only highlight; John Heard and Mary Stuart Masterson are equally good), or as a doctor who tries to help troubled teen Adam Horovitz (aka Ad Rock of The Beastie Boys) in Hugh Hudson’s overwrought Lost Angels. However, he also seemed to show indifference, as when he played a British colonel in Hugh Hudson’s abysmal Revolution, or played the warden menacing Sylvester Stallone in the equally abysmal Lock-Up, directed by John Flynn, or was surprisingly flat, as when he played a South African who becomes radicalized in Euzhan Palcy’s well-meaning but heavy-handed A Dry White Season (to be fair, Marlon Brando and Zakes Mokae were the only ones who came off well).* The only films where he not only seemed engaged, but the film seemed to support that engagement, were Eye of the Needle, which is not a great movie, but sizzles when Sutherland, as a Nazi agent, is stranded on an island with lonely housewife Kate Nelligan, Threshold, where he and Jeff Goldblum shone as doctors who performed the first artificial heart transplant, and the Neil Simon-penned Max Dugan Returns, where he plays a police detective investigating con man Jason Robards. And while all three of those were watchable, none measured up to his best work in the 70’s.**
As the 90’s began, Sutherland started to work more again, but seemed no better off than he had been in the 80’s. For the second time in his career, he played Norman Bethune, a well-known Canadian doctor who helped the Chinese during their war with Japan in the late 30’s, in Bethune: The Making of a Hero (he had earlier played Bethune in a made-for-TV movie in 1977), but the film was somewhat stilted. John Irvin’s Eminent Domain was at least an interesting try – he and Anne Archer play a couple in 1979 Poland whose lives are turned upside down when he’s drummed out of his government position for what seems to be no reason – but the film runs aground after a suspenseful first half. As the psychotic arsonist in Ron Howard’s impressive looking but shallow firefighter drama Backdraft, Sutherland gives the movie its only charge, particularly in his scene with Robert De Niro (as the arson investigator who caught him), and he does it by underplaying. By contrast, while Sutherland’s hardly the only reason why the movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nowhere near as good as the subsequent TV series – director Fran Ruben Kuzui made the film campy and joke-filled, cutting out the emotion that helped make the show so memorable – he is completely bland as Merrick, the man who reveals to Buffy (Kristy Swanson) her destiny (fans of Joss Whedon, who wrote the script and created the show, know he and Sutherland clashed during filming). Only his cameo in Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK, as a “Deep Throat”-type figure who gives crucial information to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), seemed to not only fully engage him, but also be worthy of his talents. In 1993, however, he gave a terrific performance in Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John Guare’s Tony-nominated play Six Degrees of Separation. He played Flan, an art dealer who, along with his wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing, reprising her stage role), is charmed by Paul (Will Smith), a man who claims to be friends with their children, and the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. Understandably, he was overshadowed by Channing and Smith’s performances, but Sutherland is very good in showing the hypocrisies of his character without being condescending.
Sutherland hit his 60’s in the middle of the 90’s, and whether by happenstance or design, ended up playing mentors or authority figures. Often, the films ranged from mediocre (Disclosure, which was better than the Michael Crichton novel it was based on, but not by much, The Puppet Masters, adapted from the novel by Robert Heinlein, The Assignment, a fictional film about trying to catch the terrorist Carlos with a double) to awful (A Time to Kill, an overheated adaptation of John Grisham’s overheated novel, Shadow Conspiracy, a dopey governmental conspiracy movie), though it must be said he was good in all of them. However, he gave his two best performances of the decade – and two of his best performances ever – in mentor roles as well. The made-for-HBO movie Citizen X, directed by Chris Gerolmo (who wrote the screenplay for Mississippi Burning), is based on the true story of a serial killer that terrorized the former Soviet Union in the 1980’s. Sutherland plays Col. Fetisov, the one military officer who is sympathetic to the efforts of forensic specialist/detective Lt. Burakov (Stephen Rea) in trying to solve the case – the official Soviet position was that “serial killers” were an entirely Western phenomenon, and the government was more interested in locking up gays than in trying to find the real killer – though he does so by pragmatism and even blackmail while Burakov has no talent for dealing with bureaucracy, at least at first. Sutherland, of course, had played this type of part before, but what was especially notable was the sharpness and humor he brought to it (when Burakov, late in the movie, actually butters Fetisov up in order to get what he wants, Fetisov dryly notes, “I’ve created a monster”), and he also underplayed his character’s hidden decency as well. Arguably the best scene in the movie is after communism collapsed, and Fetisov tells Burakov they are now free to conduct the investigation the way Burakov has wanted to all along. Rea has the showier role here in that his character breaks down in tears – though it’s understandable, and he doesn’t overdo it – but Sutherland perfectly compliments him, especially when he’s retelling an FBI agent’s praise of Burakov. Sutherland deservedly won his first Golden Globe (for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Mini-Series, or Made-For-TV Movie) for his performance here. I’ve written about Sutherland’s performance as track coach (and co-founder of Nike) Bill Bowerman in Robert Towne’s Without Limits, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for that performance as well. Again, the role shows off his humor (as when Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup), frustrated by all the orders Bowerman is giving him, asks if he thinks there’s such a thing as over-coaching, and Bowerman deadpans, “Yeah…I’m against it”) and his ability to underplay (as when he tells Pre about his relationship with his wife (Judith Ivey), whom he doesn’t understand but loves anyway).
Nothing Sutherland did after Towne’s unjustly neglected film has been quite as memorable, although he has had a few bright spots. When Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, about four aging astronauts (Eastwood, Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner) who go into space on a mission, is a comedy, it’s on sure ground (it loses its way when it becomes an action movie in the second half), and Sutherland is a hoot as lech (when Blair Brown, as a doctor, comes in while the four are naked, the other three all try to cover themselves, while Sutherland stands still with a smile on his face and tries to flirt with her). Playing another mentor – albeit a twisted one – in Panic, another unjustly neglected film (written and directed by the late Henry Bromell), he’s quite chilling as the father of reluctant professional killer William H. Macy. Though he doesn’t give the standout performance in John Frankenheimer’s last film, the made-for-HBO road-to-Vietnam docudrama Path to War – Alec Baldwin, as Robert McNamara, has never been better in a dramatic performance, and should have received the Golden Globe Sutherland won – Sutherland is very good as Clark Clifford, the close adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Gambon), and one who, like many others, parted way with the President over Vietnam. Joe Wright’s adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel Pride & Prejudice wasn’t well received by many Austen fans for being grittier than Austen adaptations usually are, but Sutherland is very good as Mr. Bennet, especially in the scene near the end when Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) tells him she wants to marry Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), and Sutherland also brings a dry humor to the role. And whatever you think of the Hunger Games movies to date, Sutherland is appropriately creepy as totalitarian leader President Snow (I also liked the movies Cold Mountain, the remake of The Italian Job, and to a lesser extent, Reign Over Me, but admittedly, his work in those films was routine, if watchable). Whether he’ll find another role or movie as good as his best work (which, IMHO, is M*A*S*H, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ordinary People, Citizen X, and Without Limits) remains to be seen, but overall, Sutherland remains, after a career spanning nearly 50 years, one of the best actors working today. Not bad for someone who supposedly didn’t look like he lived next door to anybody.
*-One area Sutherland did sometimes struggle with in his acting was in expressing anger. He could either be merely self-righteous, as in A Dry White Season, or monotonous, as he was in playing an evil army general in Wolfgang Peterson’s disease thriller Outbreak.
**-For my money, the best thing Sutherland appeared in during the 80’s was Kate Bush’s music video for her song “Cloudbusting”, where he played Wilhelm Reich.