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
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments