Obituary: Burt Lancaster

Gilbert Adair
Saturday 22 October 1994 00:02

Burton Stephen Lancaster, actor: born New York City 2 November 1913; married 1935 June Ernst (marriage dissolved 1936), 1946 Norma Anderson (two sons, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1969), 1990 Suzy Scherer; died Los Angeles 21 October 1994.

ROBERT SIODMAK's The Crimson Pirate is prefaced by a brief pre- credit sequence. In it Burt Lancaster, resplendent in striped crimson pants, silver dripping from his ears, with a grin as wide as a Cadillac's radiator, swings out from the rigging of his brig to the very foreground of the screen, so close that one half expects him to leap through it as gracefully as if it were merely a paper hoop in a circus ring and alight in the auditorium, breathless but upright. Directly addressing the audience, he asks them to believe everything they are about to see in the film. Just a moment later, however, following a second, equally implausible leap and a second, equally irresistible grin, he amends this to 'No - believe only half what you see]'

Yet the paradox of the film is that Lancaster's prodigious acrobatics, which find him, accompanied by Nick Cravat, swinging from balcony to wall, from wall to window, from window to rooftop and from rooftop right into the audience's laps, were entirely authentic. Lancaster, already the recipient of an athletics shcolarship to New York University, actually launched his show-business career in the Thirties as a professional acrobat, partnering the wiry, diminutive if not quite dwarfish Cravat (as 'Lang and Cravat') in third- rate circuses, night clubs and vaudeville theatres. And in such early swashbuckling movies as Jacques Tourneur's The Flame and the Arrow (1950), The Crimson Pirate (1952) and Byron Haskin's His Majesty O'Keefe (1954), in Carol Reed's melodrama Trapeze (1956) and also in numerous westerns, he was one of the rare Hollywood actors to dispense with stuntmen.

Though he would subsequently extend his range to the point where it became impossible to imagine a genre to which his personality was unsuited, and at the close of his career he would appear totally at ease in films (specifically of European origin) which succeeded in eluding the tentacular influence of genre altogether, the essence of Lancaster's presence as an actor continued to reside in this intense, if increasingly introverted, physicality - the physicality, so to speak, of the acrobat in mufti. Nor was it without latent sexual connotations. At an era of film-making when moral convention required that bodies be 'masked', like faces in a carnival, his glistening, muscular, irremediably proletarian physique tended to remain disturbingly indiscreet.

Lancaster, who had been raised in the violent East Harlem area of New York, mooched around for years after the failure of his circus act. In 1940 he enlisted and saw action with Special Services in the North African and Italian campaigns. Then in 1945, according to the sort of Hollywood legend of which one should probably believe only half, he chanced to share an elevator ride with a theatrical producer who assumed that someone so rugged, virile and good-looking could only be an actor and who consequently invited him to audition for a leading role in a Broadway play, The Sound of Hunting.

Whatever the truth of that, it is a fact that, by virtue of his performance, he was almost at once cast opposite Ava Gardner in Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946), a tight, atmospheric, low-budget thriller that established Lancaster's reputation in Hollywood.

Lancaster's career spanned 40 years and encompassed more than 50 movies; and, at least until the Seventies and Eighties (ungrateful decades for stars of his generation) when Hollywood utterly capitulated to the Fordist (Henry, not John) assembly-line ideology of remakes and premakes, sequels and prequels, he had the good fortune to make fewer outright duds than most of his peers.

His natural extroversion and ebullience were seen to advantage in westerns, of which some memorable examples were Robert Aldrich's Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954), John Sturges's Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), in which he played Wyatt Earp to the Doc Holliday of Kirk Douglas (a not dissimilar actor whose career has run oddly parallel to Lancaster's), John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960), Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972), which was widely read as an allegory of the Vietnam War, and Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

By what is only an apparent paradox, however, his physicality was intensified when, chafed and trammelled and internalised, it was left to coil in upon itself. In Brute Force (1947), a repellently grim prison melodrama by Jules Dassin, the sweaty glitter of his bared torso was transformed by William Daniels's high-contrast cinematography into an Expressionist icon not unworthy of O'Neill's Hairy Ape. In Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953) he made love to Deborah Kerr in a beach scene that set a standard in romantic soft-core eroticism for years to come and represents (as many parodies bear witness) the filmic equivalent of an oft-fingered page in some faintly risque bestseller. In Daniel Mann's The Rose Tattoo (1955, from Tennessee Williams's play) and Joseph Anthony's The Rainmaker (1956), his brawny volupte caught the eye of, respectively, a volcanic Italian widow played by Anna Magnani and a simpering, strait-laced American spinster played by Katharine Hepburn.

As was clear from his performance as Sinclair Lewis's evangelist in Richard Brooks's glib, florid, effective adaptation of Elmer Gantry (1960), a performance for which he won his sole Oscar, Burt Lancaster and ham were no strangers to one another. In most of his dramatic roles, though, he was not the common type of ham whose characterisations are all surface. In his case, the bias was reversed: he would contrive rather to suggest that too much was going on underneath the surface, even in fairly innocuously written exchanges. He possessed what might be called an obtrusive inwardness, which, if not reined in, would occasionaly blister out in an irritating rash of tics and mannerisms. Yet he was the kind of actor, too, who was seldom capable of disguising his own intelligence, irrespective of the film's, thereby conferring an unwarranted toughness and integrity on routine westerns, thrillers and war movies.

That intelligence also served him well as a producer. In 1948, along with his agent Harold Hecht (the man who spotted him on Broadway) and the producer Harold Hill, he founded one of the movie industry's very first independent production companies, responsible for, notably, Marty (1955), The Bachelor Party (1957), Separate Tables (1958), The Devil's Disciple (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962, for whose title-role Lancaster won an award at that year's Venice Festival). The best of all Hecht-Hill-Lancaster films was one of the masterpieces of the Fifties, Alexander Mackendrick's squalid, glitzy Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which starred Lancaster, in his own finest performance, as the megalomaniac newspaper columnist JJ Hunsecker, remembered for the phrase with which he would ask a toadying press agent (played by Tony Curtis) for a light: 'Match me, Sidney.'

In 1962, when his initial choice, Marlon Brando, had the temerity to decline, Luchino Visconti amazed his court of collaborators by offering Lancaster the role of the elderly, disabused Prince Fabrizio in his film version of Lampedusa's The Leopard. The film is a masterpiece, and Lancaster's performance is part of what makes it so, but Visconti could only achieve what he sought from Lancaster by rendering him, in the words of the director's biographer, Laurence Schifano, 'so docile that he became (his) admiring shadow'. Somewhat euphemistically, Visconti himself described the reign of terror he felt obliged to impose in order to turn an ex- athlete and swashbuckler into a Sicilian prince as a 'gradual development, hard to achieve, that benefited the film'. And he and Lancaster were to work together again, 13 years later, in the director's penultimate film, Conversation Piece (1975), about an ageing professor whose monastic fastness is abruptly invaded by the external world. Referring to Visconti's own undoubted identification with the role, Lancaster said, 'I knew the old man I was playing was him. In fact, he told me so.' The film is thus not merely about a lonely, egocentric old aesthete but by one, and it is precisely its narcissism, its forgivable solipsism, that makes it so moving an experience.

From the last years of Lancaster's career two performances will be fondly recalled: that of the gentle gangster adrift in Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980); and that of the Texan oilman who, from a private helicopter silhouetted against the very image of a Celtic twilight, descends on the tiny Scottish fishing village of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983). It was the then relatively untested Forsyth who in a humorous aside to his producer, David Puttnam, spoke what might be the actor's epitaph, 'I've just seen Burt Lancaster in my viewfinder. Now I know I'm in the movie business.'

(Photograph omitted)

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