I always wanted to meet him and one might say I came close. He lived four doors from a friend of mine on Linda Flora Drive in Bel Air. In the days before I drove, I would walk by his house and two or three times I heard him bellowing, the specifics of which I have long ago forgotten. I mentioned it once to my friend and she told me it was Lancaster who lived there. Then I really paid attention and often lingered a bit when I heard his distinctive voice but I was never to steal a glance. I knew I went to middle school with a couple of his kids, both of whom were rather shy as I recall.
Loud might be one adjective used to describe him. I think there are plenty more... demanding, argumentative, robust, cruel, enthusiastic, intense, difficult, cocky, promiscuous, learned, courageous, charming. He was also a mass of contradictions. Housed within him was a knack for being both arrogant and sensitive. He had the steam-roller constitution of a soldier and the grace of a ballet dancer. He could shout expletives to a wife, girlfriend, coworker or a buddy and just as easily shut it down and listen intently to an opera.
He was married three times and had scores of girlfriends, quite a number of whom were his costars. Rumors circled around Hollywood for years that he was actively bisexual. His love of receiving oral sex was well-known as was his apparent lack of caring who provided it. People thought his one shortcoming in the acting business was his discomfort in romantic scenes. Come to think of it, most of his films were without ardent romancing (although there is a famous exception). Once he became a successful producer, a partner asked him why he employed so many gays. His response was that they were the best. The best at what he didn't say but I suspect it was not better at filing or licking stamps. I mean we all had to lick our stamps in those days. (Shhh, I'm trying to throw some folks off.)
It was also said that women didn't mean much to him except physically. He was uneasy around them and it probably stemmed from his burdensome relationship with his mother, a strong and domineering powerhouse. Despite a lifetime of a difficult relationship with her, he was devastated at her death years later.
His father didn't figure as prominently in Lancaster's life although he was not missing. They all lived in East Harlem, poor as could be, a life of playing on the streets among the street vendors and neighbors gossiping out of their tenement windows. He would shoot marbles on the street and perform acrobatic acts with his tiny friend Nick Cravat and they would sometimes get a few coins for doing what they did. He said he wanted to be a gym teacher when he grew up. I can certainly see him in that profession... loved by some, hated by some, fair to all.
He could, however, be just as comfortable staying indoors reading or listening to his opera or most any music. He had a yearning to learn and reading took him on great adventures, a trait he would keep as part of him all his life. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that he would sing in a soprano voice in church.
As much as anything, he loved the movies. That dashing ahoy matey demeanor one would encounter in his early films like The Crimson Pirate, His Majesty O'Keefe and The Flame and the Arrow is exactly how Lancaster saw it himself. His acrobatic acts and other gymnastic skills along with a hunky, athletic bod (and Nick Cravat, who would make 10 films with Lancaster) led him into a life in the circus. He could do anything requiring balancing and it could be on high wires or bars. In 1956, well into his career, he would put this all to good use.
Through the circus he ended up on Broadway. It was just a brief visit but it led to a Hollywood contract with independent producer Hal B. Wallis, who was just beginning with a small stable of stars at Paramount Studios that included Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey. All four of them would soon be in the same film together, I Walk Alone.
That film would start a long working association with Douglas. Over a lot of years they would make seven films together. One thing they both had in common was a famous smile and that's about all they had in common. They were both very competitive with one another... perhaps Douglas more so since Lancaster was always billed over him.
Lancaster's debut was a stunner. His early career contained a number of film noirs but the best was the first... The Killers. The opening scene where he is awaiting a pair of thugs to arrive and do him in is as auspicious as any debut scene could be. His turns with Ava Gardner (in her first prominent role) were so hot that they hold up to this day.
Film noir was not normally in color but his next film, Desert Fury, with sultry Scott, was a glorious exception. It did not fare so well at the box office and I don't get it. At this same time, the eager-to-be-noticed young hunk also signed a contract with producer-director Mark Hellinger over at Warner Bros. who immediately put him into the gritty prison drama, Brute Force, a powerful film on the prison system.
By the early 50s Lancaster had made a lot of fluff and he didn't like the way his career was going. You needn't think these were bad films because they weren't at all bad. (Over a long career, he made very, very few bad films, although we will discuss one a bit later.) They were all very entertaining movies. Young teen boys latched onto Burt Lancaster in a big way. He was heroic... participated in so much derring-do... your eyes blinded by that sparkle from that toothy grin. The man exuded confidence and courage.
He longed to do something more serious, to be taken more seriously. In addition to forming his own company, he did something established actors are rarely willing to do... completely change their images by taking on roles they've never done before. It was a risk but Lancaster was always up to the task. He would play meek husbands in Come Back Little Sheba and The Rose Tattoo. Burt Lancaster meek? He was excellent in both. The two actresses in those films, Shirley Booth and Anna Magnani, would receive Oscars. He said Booth was the finest actress he ever worked with. Also in the 50s, he would costar with Deborah Kerr twice and she would receive nominations for both films and Katharine Hepburn would get a nomination for her turn opposite Lancaster. It was not a bad thing to be in a Burt Lancaster film... and I mean throughout his long career.
In 1953 he would go to Hawaii along with other prominent actors to make the mega-hyped, anxiously-awaited WWII drama From Here to Eternity. He played a tough sergeant carrying on an affair with his commanding officer's wife. He and Kerr rolling around in the sand kissing became one of the movie's all time most famous love scenes. This film is superior in every way. It would be Oscar's best picture (the only one of his films to win best picture) and all five stars... Lancaster, Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra were nominated. Lancaster was riveting and Kerr and Clift should have won Oscars. All three were far better than the winners that year, William Holden and Audrey Hepburn.
Like most big-name actors, Lancaster would not only find himself atop a horse, but he was an excellent choice for the genre. His physicality alone was to the saddle born. In the 1950s alone he made the excellent Apache, a film sympathetic to Native Americans and marred only by a flaky ending, and Vera Cruz, a rare turn as a bad guy teamed with Gary Cooper, and a couple of years later a very good Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He would go on to make some damned good westerns... The Unforgiven, The Professionals, The Scalphunters, Lawman, Valdez is Coming and Ulzana's Raid.
Lancaster's sets often had an ominous tone because he was constantly berating a director or the script or a camera angle or whatever displeased him and a lot did. He was very aware how he wanted to package Burt Lancaster and pity the coworker who got in his way.
In 1955 Mr. Control did something he only did once-- or officially so, that is--- directing. He made a fine film called The Kentuckian. He also starred as a trapper on his way west with his young son and the family pooch. Two women and a bad-tempered Walter Matthau gave the journey some bumps. I have often wondered why he didn't direct more. This was a fine beginning.
Two damned good films came in 1956. The first was one he was destined to make at some point... Trapeze. With his circus background and with Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida aboard, they played a high wire act that has internal problems because both men love her. He and Curtis appeared together in the 40s in a forgettable film called Criss Cross and would work together again in 1957. They were very fond of one another. It was hero worship on Curtis' part. Lancaster taught the younger actor all his bad habits.
His second 1956 film costarred another giant of the silver screen and another control freak, Katharine Hepburn. The film was The Rainmaker. Hollywood wondered how these two giant egos would get on. There were those who whispered he was afraid of her. True to form, when he was late on the first day, she berated him in front of the waiting crew. He took it, too, and respected her greatly. He played a con man in a very dry Kansas where he meets a lonely spinster and her all-male family. I thought his performance was the quintessential Burt Lancaster performance... showy, riveting, driven, toothy... his entire stockpile of physical business was employed. Watching these two great pros together was worth dropping out of acting class.
By the time he made The Sweet Smell of Success, Lancaster's production company, now called Hecht-Hill-Lancaster was going full speed. The company had a bad history with directors. They hired the little-known Alexander Mackendrick to sit in the director's chair but you can bet he suffered under of the watchful eye of H-H-L. Lancaster played a venomous Broadway columnist who persuades a sleazy gofer-press agent (Curtis) to break up the columnist's sister's romance using any means he finds necessary.
This was pure film noir with sensational dialogue co-written by Mackendrick, Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets that just crackles like a hefty steak on a grill. It was not too popular at the time because the wordiness, being nearly devoid of action, dark and sinister and to some, a total bore. Lancaster was livid that the film generated little revenue but he must have been thrilled to find it would ultimately receive cult status.
One reason Lancaster was dying to make Success was because it would again show that timid side of him. To think that the same actor was in Success and The Rainmaker is more than my brain can handle. He liked it when he downplayed and he received a lot of good notices for doing so. With this in mind and being on a roll, he accepted an acting role in Separate Tables, a film his company was already producing. It is about guests at an English hotel and their dramas. It was to have originally starred Vivien Leigh and her husband Laurence Olivier along with Rita Hayworth (Mrs. Jim Hill of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, thank you very much) and David Niven. The Oliviers dropped out and Burt stepped in, asking his Eternity costar Deborah Kerr to join the fun. It is another talky piece with some exciting acting. Niven and the fabulous Wendy Hiller won Oscars.
The 1960s proved a valuable decade for Burt Lancaster and it started with Elmer Gantry. Talk about quintessential Lancaster. Here he is playing another con man... back to those flashy parts he knew only too well. As Gantry he is a charismatic salesman looking for a gig, any gig, when he comes across an evangelist preaching the good book in tent revivals. She hires him and they electrify their audiences and one another. Lancaster richly deserved his Oscar for this film but Jean Simmons should have received one as well.
He then joined the all-star cast of Judgment at Nuremberg... Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and Maximilian Schell... holy (um) cow what a cast. We get another low key performance from Lancaster as one of the judges on trial for war crimes. More brilliant words, more brilliant actors.
He received another Oscar nomination for playing real-life Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz. This wasn't my favorite Lancaster film but it was quite popular in the face of criticism that Lancaster played Stroud as a real sweet guy when he was in fact a vicious killer. One couldn't go wrong with a supporting cast like Karl Malden, Edmond O'Brien and Thelma Ritter.
In the 1960s Lancaster tapped into another mode of film-making by starting to work with some of the great Italian directors. First up was Luchino Visconti's The Leopard with Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. He again worked with the director in Conversation Piece costarring a great favorite of mine, Silvana Mangano. Next was Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 with Robert DeNiro and Alida Valli. He would wind up making Guilano Montaldo's Control and Mind Control with Ben Gazzara and Liliana Cavani's La Pelle with Marcello Mastroianni and Cardinale. Some of these films were difficult to make for an American actor/control freak but overall Lancaster enjoyed the experiences.
Lancaster was very politically motivated, supporting every liberal cause he could. He had voiced strong opposition to the HUAC hearings in the early 1950s. He was involved in the great Civil Rights marches in the 1960s. He was often greatly at odds with conservative Hollywood but if there was ever an actor secure in his Hollywood standing it was Burt Lancaster.
In this vein he was happy to step into the intelligent political thriller 7 Days in May. It was highly favored as a film by JFK although it was not released until after his death. Lancaster was reunited with old buddies Gardner, Douglas and O'Brien. Another talky piece with Lancaster at his prowling, urgent, dashing best.
The only Lancaster film I truly hated was The Swimmer. This nutty film had him swimming from pool to pool in his neighborhood and having little dramas with those who owned the pools. They say it was a surreal, allegorical tale and I say it was a piece of crap that should have every copy burned. Let's never mention it again.
The 1970s started with the hugely popular Airport, undoubtedly the most financially successfully film Lancaster ever made. As head of an enormous all star cast, he and others looked like they couldn't wait for it to all be over. Obviously he did this one for the money. It could make up for those Italian films that made no money.
I've never seen Local Hero but I understand he was quite good in it. I must correct this. I did see Field of Dreams and while his role was little more than a cameo, it was an important one and he was sheer perfection. Finally, there was Rocket Gibraltar, a fitting finale for my long bromance with Burt Lancaster. He played the patriarch of a large family whom he invites to his beautiful seaside home for what will be the final visit. Just my kind of sentimental story.
I have spent so many hours watching Burt Lancaster tear up that movie screen and a few more watching him play against type as a Casper Milquetoast-type guy. There didn't seem to be anything he couldn't do. I might have felt a little warmer and fuzzier about some of my other favorites of the time (William Holden and Gregory Peck come immediately to mind) but old Burt was still a great favorite. For all his strengths in the acting business, he never was warm and fuzzy. The American Film Institute named him the 19th greatest male actor of all time. I probably think he should be higher but no doubt he needs to be on that list. And beyond the acting, the man was a true force. His footprints in the film world are deeply etched.
Favorite Movie #15