Burt Lancaster: The last real action hero

Larger than life, both on and off the screen, Burt Lancaster richly deserves a new retrospective billing him as one of the greats, says Geoffrey Macnab

A 69-year-old Hollywood legend has just finished making his first film in Scotland. At the end of the production, the cast and crew group together to buy the star a special gift for the end-of-shoot party – a full Highland outfit, kilt, sporran et al. The star immediately strips to his underpants, in full view of his fellow guests, in order to haul his tartans on. "It was quite an amazing thing to see," the Scottish producer Iain Smith recalls.

The film is Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) and the star is Burt Lancaster. As a kid growing up in Glasgow, Smith had seen Lancaster appear in one of his favourite films: The Crimson Pirate, in which Lancaster played a roistering but very nimble Jack Sparrow type. "I saw it in the Saturday morning cinema in Glasgow. I tried to recreate being Burt Lancaster in that film. When I suddenly had the opportunity to work with him, it was very strange to disassociate the movie I had seen with the man I was now working with," Smith says.

Burton Stephen Lancaster (1913-1994) was one of the most paradoxical figures in Hollywood history. Depending on the account, he was either a vainglorious and very hammy movie star or a sensitive and subtle actor; a sports-loving jock or a man of culture who had once wanted to be an opera singer. Some contemporaries talk about how tough he was to work with. Others revere him and credit him with launching their careers.

There was something far-fetched about his life story. Lancaster was the Harlem street kid who (as former protégé Sydney Pollack put it) "had run away to join the circus". An athletic and physically imposing young man, Lancaster had won a sports scholarship to New York University but had dropped out to pursue a career as an acrobat at the Kay Brothers' Circus. When he belatedly made it to Hollywood in the mid-1940s, he quickly became known as an action hero. However, he was far more cultured than his image suggested.

"If you look back on my career, you'll see I never got stuck in a mould. Even when I was beginning, I was always trying to find ways to refine my talent and do something different," Lancaster once said. "Once the public decide what you are you might as well give up trying to be anything else."

Watch a film profile of Burt Lancaster









Lancaster was willing to take character parts as well as conventional leads. One moment he might be kissing Deborah Kerr on the beach (in From Here to Eternity), the next portraying an Apache warrior in a revisionist western. He worked with old-timers but also with New Wave directors like Louis Malle and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Intelligent, ruthless and ambitious, Lancaster set up his own production company in 1948. Sometimes, his performances were very overripe indeed. His Oscar-winning turn as the revivalist preacher in Elmer Gantry (1960) is far from subtle. Whether nursing a huge hangover, collecting for nuns in a speakeasy or sweet-talking the demure Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons), he is brash in the extreme. The character is supposed to be a crude, vulgar show-off but Lancaster plays Elmer with such wild exuberance that he makes even the noisiest and most narcissistic TV preachers of today seem restrained by comparison.

There are many other movies in which Lancaster soars way over the top. As the grinning, sadistic gunman in Robert Aldrich's western Vera Cruz (a film he also produced), we see him in psychopathic mode, threatening to kill innocent kids and spearing a Prussian officer through the throat with a spear. In The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), playing a prisoner who spends 40 years in solitary confinement and stays sane by keeping canaries, he is self-conscious in the extreme. We are always aware that we are seeing a big star playing an introspective character.

If he could appear brutal and peremptory on screen, he sometimes seemed that way behind the cameras too. He was the boss as well as the star and British directors often seemed to fall foul of him. Charles Crichton (the ex-Ealing comedy director whose credits include The Lavender Hill Mob and A Fish Called Wanda) was sacked a few weeks into the shooting of Birdman of Alcatraz. Lancaster was equally savage with another Ealing comedy director, Sandy Mackendrick, firing him from the George Bernard Shaw adaptation The Devil's Disciple (1959.)

"Sandy was a very clever director and a very nice guy but he took one helluva lot of time," Lancaster later said. At least, by then, Mackendrick had directed Lancaster in one of his greatest performances, as the columnist JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957.) Ironically, that film seemed remarkable precisely because of Mackendrick's inventive camerawork. It helped, too, that Mackendrick made manifest an aspect of Lancaster's persona that had hitherto only been hinted at: his malevolence and his capacity for bullying.

Contemporaries' accounts of working with Lancaster often make him sound just like Hunsecker. Pollack recalls him as "a very intimidating man". Lancaster had spotted Pollack coaching the child actors on John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages and had taken an interest in Pollack's career. When there were problems on Lancaster's John Cheever adaptation, The Swimmer, the star instructed Pollack to come in and direct some sequences uncredited. "He [Lancaster] said: 'dear boy, I need you to do some work on the picture'. He didn't ask me... he told me."

The Swimmer boasts probably the most poignant performance that Lancaster ever gave. He plays Ned Perrin, a middle-aged American who has lost his wealth and family. We see Ned embark on an epic, cross-country journey home, via his neighbours' pools. Only slowly do we realise that he is a damaged, mentally fragile figure who has been cast out of his "golden pen" and can't cope with the loss of status. The film is an eccentric but moving allegory about a yuppie in decline. Lancaster plays Ned beautifully, conveying the defiance and the vulnerability of the character. Toward the end of his bizarre journey, we see him shivering and forlorn, still in his swimming trunks, trying to cross a busy freeway and seemingly oblivious to how odd he appears.

In the latter part of his career, he excelled at playing avuncular patriarchs falling on hard times. One of his most famous parts was as the aristocrat Don Fabrizio, struggling to come to terms with the social and political changes in 1860s Sicily in Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963).

Lancaster's performance in Local Hero was equally magical. He played the American oil magnate Felix Happer, who discovers the beauty of the northern lights when his company tries to buy up a Scottish village. The twist here was that the American oil men were dreamers while the Scottish villagers were the ruthless money-grabbers.

Lancaster is so familiar to most viewers that they think they can pigeonhole him. However, contemplate his films a little more closely and you realise that he was a far more protean figure than his reputation suggests. He may not have been the greatest actor, but he was certainly one of the most adventurous.

A Burt Lancaster season runs at BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) until 24 March

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'