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"High-Wire Artist"

A book review of “Burt Lancaster: An American Life,” by Kate Buford.

New York Times
March 19, 2000

To fly through the air with the greatest of ease is what we expect of the young man on the flying trapeze; to enthrall women sexually in the name of the Lord is the dubious gift of the religious revivalist. Yet Burt Lancaster, onetime circus performer (see him swing through “The Crimson Pirate” in 1952 and “Trapeze” in 1956) and Oscar winner for his Bible-thumping evangelist in “Elmer Gantry” (1960), was neither a natural athlete nor a natural seducer. He had a great many qualities -- leonine beauty, acrobatic dexterity, physical strength, street smarts, serious ambition, a political conscience and, by the end of his career, a number of good and a few great performances under his belt. But ease, natural ease, eluded him; too often he had a deliberate, overheated quality on the screen, mirrored, it seems, in the way he played golf: he never managed the relaxed swing essential to the game that attracted and frustrated him.

He had charisma -- in many scenes, as Kate Buford points out in this splendid biography, he is the only person you watch on the screen. But not being able to blend in with one's fellow actors is hardly an unqualified asset. That sort of megawattage defines star cinema, and Lancaster, who had it in spades, almost could not not be a star. But charisma, with its overtones of divinity, is one thing; charm on the human scale is something else. A few stars have both, the blast of star power and the quieter lure of intimacy, but Lancaster was like those Olympians who bestrode the earth and laughed at puny mortals, whose gestures were larger, whose words were weightier and whose diction was more precise than anybody else's.

Indeed, and not just incidentally, in the many interesting descriptions quoted by Buford from friends, directors and journalists, phrases like “golem,” “Adam,” “young Sun god,” “sculptural,” “Greek hero,” “hyper-man” and “wounded colossus” are used, and the people most often doing the describing in this biography are men. Lancaster's was a male ideal of power and grace, classical in form: the sculptured physique, the exultation in the body, the sense of being complete without a woman.

At least that was how he appeared to us in the 1950's -- strenuously physical, preeningly patriarchal, decidedly uncool, almost an embarrassment, or, as Buford says in the prologue to her first book, “too earnest to be chic.” But as time went on, that earnestness paid off. In the retrospective view that “Burt Lancaster: An American Life” invites, his career now looks infinitely more interesting -- richer and more ambitious on the whole than Brando's, the more gifted contemporary who beat him out for coveted roles like Stanley Kowalski and the Godfather but languished in middle and old age. Lancaster used his autumn years not just to make a few bucks or stay in the game but to explore new facets of his character and come to terms with age itself, to risk losing his fans in wildly unconventional roles. Not only did he allow himself to be Luchino Visconti's alter ego as the Sicilian aristocrat of “The Leopard” (1963) and the fussy professor of “Conversation Piece” (1975) and, no less perversely, Bernardo Bertolucci's randy landowner in “1900” (1976), but he wanted desperately to make a film of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and play the gay hairdresser!

Descended from Protestant Irish immigrants, Lancaster (1913-94) grew up in a raffish East Harlem neighborhood like that of another pugnacious Irishman, James Cagney. Along with other kids in the area, he was a lucky protégé of the Union Settlement House, that extraordinary church-run institution that got young people off the streets with a range of activities, from sports to theatricals, and helped the immigrant poor organize within their communities. Encouraged by an artistic, opera-loving mother and two inspirational pastors, he discovered a talent for acting -- balanced always by the more “masculine” love of sports.

Preferring to express himself physically rather than emotionally (he would later block love scenes carefully, according to one co-star, in order to “hide his feelings from the camera”), he was disdainful of Stanislavsky's Method, which was overtaking the New York theater and its settlement offshoots, and felt that acting the same role night after night was “sissy.” He had “no intention,” Buford adds, “of playing dour Russian peasants when he could dream of emulating Douglas Fairbanks” in “The Mark of Zorro.” But from the settlement-house ethic he also developed the progressive and reformist impulses that would characterize his leftist politics, from his mostly staunch solidarity with the Hollywood targets of the witch hunt in the 50's to the underdog sympathies of his films to major personal and financial contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations in his later life.

Lancaster figured out what was needed in postwar Hollywood and was way ahead of the game as an independent, forming his own production company in 1945 with the agent and onetime actor Harold Hecht as his partner. Called Norma Productions after his wife, it was one of the first and most successful of its kind, boosting the fortunes of all concerned. With different studios (they eventually put United Artists back on the map), Lancaster and Hecht made offbeat movies like “Marty” (1955) and serious adaptations like “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1952) and “The Rose Tattoo” (1955), as well as more profitable adventure pictures. Lancaster always insisted he was making movies, not films, and if a picture didn't score with an audience it was by definition a failure. Yet best regarded today are not the ambitious ego trips, one-man shows like “Elmer Gantry” and “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962), but the less pretentious movies that did not become box-office hits. The cult classics and acknowledged masterpieces are the noirish pictures in which the smiles are few, Lancaster's “Chiclet” teeth are least visible and the endings bleaker than a cold moonless night.

In “The Killers” (1946), he makes one of the most dazzling debuts on film, lying in the shadow, awaiting death, his bare arms by his side, the muscularity in repose implying both strength and sensitivity. In “Criss Cross” (1949), also directed by Robert Siodmak, his bank guard gone bad greets death almost passively, the noir antihero as fallen idol. As J. J. Hunsecker, the malicious gossip columnist in “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), he scored a critical triumph and gave Tony Curtis the role of his life. As the hawkish and half-mad General Scott in “Seven Days in May” (1964), he played his own philosophical opposite. Closer to his real-life character was the shrewdly tolerant American Indian scout in Robert Aldrich's brilliant “Ulzana's Raid” (1972), who dies in the end, victim of a massacre, while lighting a cigarette.

There was gossip about his unorthodox sex life (on which the omnipresent Federal Bureau of Investigation kept a running file), and Buford reports the rumors as such. Through many affairs -- he was a compulsive womanizer but not a ladies' man -- he nevertheless remained dutifully with his alcoholic wife and their five children until circumstances finally drove them apart. However, by all accounts, he nevertheless lived on the wild side, took advantage of the multiplicity of offerings -- orgies, sharing women with his associate James Hill, forays into homosexuality. He was a man of broad appetites and black rages, difficult and sometimes impossibly rude. Siodmak was so disgusted with his behavior on location for “The Crimson Pirate” that he left Lancaster and Hollywood for good. Yet he could be kind and generous, loyal to friends and indifferent to the Hollywood power game, rarely cultivating the socially important and unconcerned with what people thought.

He could make fun of his own virility and though Mad magazine might parody him and Gary Cooper in “Vera Cruz” (1954) as “Lambaster” (who takes forever to die) and “Chickencooper,” the two stars were already halfway there in this entertaining buddy tale of two laconic he-men cowboys outhustling each other. It was his coming to terms with growing old and the loss of masculine power that makes his later films so engaging, even moving. In “Atlantic City” (1981), coming full circle back to his runaway felon in “The Killers,” he plays a has-been mobster who voyeuristically ogles, then befriends, Susan Sarandon's croupier-in-training. Sarandon describes how difficult it was for Lancaster, whose instinct was to take a woman by force, to accept the idea that the woman “gave herself to him.” The man who had shocked audiences of “From Here to Eternity” (1953) by making graphic love to Deborah Kerr on the sand had never really exposed his emotional vulnerability. Now that the famous torso was past displaying, and the emperor had to wear clothes, there was, after all, as Kate Buford's biography makes clear, more to him than met the eye.