Burt Lancaster’s greatest performance? That would be as Prince Fabrizio in “The Leopard” (1963), also his greatest film, or as elderly numbers runner Lou Pascal in “Atlantic City” (1981). But to appreciate what made Lancaster’s career unique, begin with “From Here to Eternity” (1953). All three are in the Harvard Film Archive’s “Burt Lancaster: A Centennial Celebration.” It kicks off Friday, with “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), and ends Aug. 30, with “The Swimmer” (1968). (Titles in the series are in boldface.)
It’s not “From Here to Eternity,” per se, that shows what made Lancaster a figure to reckon with for nearly half a century, starting with his 1946 debut, in “The Killers,” playing perhaps the most fatalistic murder victim the movies have known, to his last role, in the Emmy-winning HBO movie “Separate But Equal” (1991). It’s a single moving image — and Lancaster isn’t doing the moving. The motion comes courtesy of the Pacific Ocean. The sight of surf pounding Lancaster and Deborah Kerr as they lie on a Hawaiian beach locked in an adulterous embrace is among the most indelible images of carnality in Hollywood history. Sixty years after the movie’s release, it still packs a wallop.
Part of that wallop is that this embrace has nothing to do with love and everything to do with libido — adult libido, at that. These aren’t horny kids. The impact wouldn’t be the same if the ones necking on the sand were Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed, who play the other couple in the movie. Lancaster and Kerr are grown-ups doing the ultimate grown-up act (or prelude to it) in a medium where that act had heretofore barely been hinted at. There have been stars more physical than Lancaster, and others more sophisticated. But none before or since have so combined physicality and artistic ambition.
That ambition took multiple forms. Lancaster was one of the first stars to form his own production company. Among Hecht Hill Lancaster’s credits were “Sweet Smell,” the best picture Oscar winner “Marty” (1955), and “Cat Ballou” (1965). Lancaster directed two films: “The Kentuckian” (1955) and “The Midnight Man” (1974). And few Hollywood stars have been as willing to take on venturesome projects: from “The Leopard,” for Luchino Visconti, to “A Child Is Waiting” (1963), a problem picture directed by John Cassavetes about mentally handicapped children, to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Marxist epic, “1900” (1976).
The ambition was political as well as artistic. A liberal stalwart, Lancaster earned his place on the Nixon White House enemies list. Lancaster took part in the 1963 March on Washington, which adds no small irony to his character in “Separate But Equal” arguing before the Supreme Court against the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education. “Sweet Smell” is a not-so-veiled attack on red-baiting. Twenty years before Oliver Stone made “JFK,” “Executive Action” (1973) presented the Kennedy assassination as a right-wing conspiracy. “Go Tell the Spartans” (1978), which Lancaster’s participation enabled, is easily the most unflinching of Vietnam War movies.
Diversity is another form of ambition. There’s no such thing as “a Burt Lancaster picture,” the way there is, say, a Clint Eastwood picture or Cary Grant picture. Among the more than 80 titles he appeared in are prison movies (“Brute Force,” 1947; “Birdman of Alcatraz,” 1962), westerns (“Vera Cruz,”1954; “Ulzana’s Raid,” 1972), political thrillers (“Seven Days in May,” 1964; “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” 1977); and stage adaptations (“All My Sons,” 1948; “The
Devil’s Disciple,” 1959).
Several factors accounted for the diversity. Lancaster was 33 when “The Killers” opened. So he was making up for lost time. He also fell between generations: slightly too old for Studio Era stardom, not quite young enough for the Method generation of Clift and Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. Lancaster never quite fit in. He was a school of one.
Maybe that’s why there was such a restlessness to his screen persona. More often than not, Lancaster’s characters seem on the verge of striding out of the frame. And his physical attributes were so imposing that they lent themselves to pretty much any genre. He wasn’t matinee-idol pretty, but no one ever called Burt Lancaster ugly. His inverted-trapezoid face could have been hewn by a sculptor. A thick head of hair topped it. Lancaster had deep-set eyes that lent themselves equally well to melancholy and wariness. Technicolor revealed those eyes to be a striking gray-blue. Their color was almost as impressive as the gleam of his gunboat teeth. Is enamel bulletproof? Lancaster’s certainly seemed to be.
“A great specimen of hunkus Americanus,” Pauline Kael called him. Who else could have plausibly played the title role in “Jim Thorpe — All-American” (1951)? In “From Here to Eternity,” a fellow NCO says that Sergeant Warden, Lancaster’s character, is the best soldier he’s ever known. The words make perfect sense. Lancaster’s Warden is that efficient, that stalwart, that formidable. Lancaster doesn’t so much act the part as embody it, emphasis on body. A real presence on the screen, he carried himself with a remarkable bearing — something as true walking into that cornfield in “Field of Dreams” (1989) as four decades earlier, robbing an armored car, in “Criss Cross” (1949).
Lancaster’s background wasn’t in acting but athletics. He played on scholarship for New York University’s basketball team, dropping out after sophomore year to form an acrobatic duo. He performed with circuses from 1932-1939 — “Trapeze” (1956) was a nod to his past — then, as a soldier, he entertained troops during World War II. The closest thing to a counterpart to Lancaster may be Sean Connery, another star who started out as an athlete (a body builder) and became a fine actor as well as a fine physical specimen.
Consider “The Swimmer.” It’s based on the John Cheever story in which a man goes from backyard pool to backyard pool, swimming his way across an affluent suburb. Has any actor spent an entire movie wearing nothing but bathing trunks? Actually, at one point, Lancaster sheds the trunks, and we can see that his glutes were as marvelously ropey as the rest of his muscles. What a Tarzan Lancaster would have made. When his character announces, “I’m a very special human being, noble and splendid,” there is irony there, but it’s faint, very faint.
That announcement is made in that distinctive Lancaster diction: clipped and slightly fussy. This piece of beefcake always sounds like a butler. He has Brando’s musculature but not his mumbles. Lancaster bites off syllables with an elocution-school enunciation. He starred in seven movies with another syllable-biter, Kirk Douglas. But where Douglas’s line readings are emphatic in a stainless-steel way, Lancaster’s are emphatic and velvety.
Douglas is so confident it can make your teeth hurt. Watching him act, you’re the one who could use bulletproof enamel. Lancaster is different. This is a man who knows doubt, who is no stranger to sorrow. That hurt that could come through in his eyes was one reason he could age so well on screen. Underneath, there’s so often an air of sadness. That’s true even when he’s prancing around in a movie like “The Crimson Pirate” (1952) — which makes the prancing all the more striking. It’s a quality his action-hero forebears, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn, lacked. There’s a crucial difference between them and Lancaster: Where they’re playful, he’s strenuous. Knowing perfectly well that their exploits flirt with ridiculousness, they glory in it. Lancaster, suspecting it, works all the harder in hopes of ignoring it.
Lancaster could be good at certitude, which made him a natural to play authority figures ranging from fictive generals to Wyatt Earp and
Moses. Yet he’s no less good at bewilderment. Disbelief requires no suspension when Ava Gardner plays him for a sap, in “The Killers,” or Yvonne De Carlo does the same, in “Criss Cross.” The combination on display of physical strength and emotional confusion is startling.
Not really a romantic leading man, Lancaster is better onscreen with men than women. When he is with a woman the dynamic invariably owes more to sex than romance. Emotional modulation doesn’t come easily to Lancaster. He’s not an inward actor, and least of all with female costars. He either overpowers them (poor Jean Simmons ends up incinerated, literally, in “Elmer Gantry,” 1960) or is subservient to them (“Sorry, Wrong Number,” 1948, and “Come Back, Little Sheba, ” 1952, no less than “The Killers” and “Criss Cross”).
His willingness to defer to a female costar is most evident in “The Rose Tattoo” (1955). Lancaster stays away until more than halfway into the movie. This is wise, since Anna Magnani, who won a best actress Oscar, doesn’t so much chew the scenery as inhale it and belch. Lancaster tries to match her in overplaying. Not a good idea. Going too far, for better or worse, is what Magnani is all about. Watching Lancaster trying to keep up is a lesson in how much better suited he is to underplaying.
Lancaster’s at his best, perhaps, in repose: threatening to leave the frame without quite doing so. “Elmer Gantry” won him an Oscar, but it didn’t do him any favors. Lancaster plays the part as vigorously as he does any of his action heroes of the ’50s, but here the muscle-flexing is spiritual and emotional. With all due respect to the Academy, the results are painful to watch. So physical an actor could rely on potential energy even more than kineticism. Motion with restraint suited him so well. It’s there in the famous waltz with Claudia Cardinale, in “The Leopard,” or on the beach with Kerr.
Maybe the clearest example occurs toward the end of “The Train” (1964). Lancaster plays a French railway worker trying to keep the Nazis from shipping a trove of priceless art to Germany as Paris is falling. There’s a shot of his hands in tight closeup as he attaches a charge of plastic explosives to a piece of track. The simplicity and directness of the image is breathtaking. It’s hard to think of another actor whose hands — and, by extension, entire body — so wonderfully combine physicality and expressivity. Oh, and does he stop the train? Of course he does. He’s Burt Lancaster.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.