Apr 2, 2011

Donald Sutherland —  An Appreciation

The director's cut of my run-down of Donald Sutherland's career for Intelligent life:—
M.A.S.H. (1970) – ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce. No war-zone had seen anything like him: lanky, lugubrious, his pursuit of the nearest piece of ass matched only by his quest for the perfect Martini. Sutherland had made two war pictures before M.A.S.H, Kelly’s Heroes and The Dirty Dozen, but it was Robert Altman’s raucous, Rabelaisian barnyard comedy that plucked him from the ranks of character actors and made him a star. The director never found a more Puckish front man for his own deep instincts for mischief. All the picture’s looseness seems to flow through Sutherland’s 6’4” frame, all the mordancy pooling in those powder blue eyes, all its lasciviousness lodged in that cock-eyed grin. Despite his height, there’s nothing upright about his Hawkeye, a man made for the great horizontals: sex, death, booze.

Klute (1971) — John Klute. Sutherland has to be the least pushy private eye in the history of movies in Alan J Pakula’s mesmeric masterpiece. He’s all ears and eyes, boyishly impassive, a soft empath who lets Jane Fonda do the talking. It’s Fonda’s picture, no question; she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the high-end call girl, Bree Daniel, brittle with boredom at the maulings and pawings of men, glancing at her watch mid-fake-orgasm. “Did we get you a little? Huh?” she taunts Klute. “Just a little bit? Us city folk? The sin, the glitter, the wickedness?” Sutherland just listens, and watches and pushes her hair back from her face. He makes love to her like a man defusing a bomb. Soon, she tags along behind him, tugging at the hem of his coat like a daughter. A lovely performance drawing on seemingly bottomless reserves of gentleness.

Don’t Look Now (1973) — John Baxter. After training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Sutherland started his career in British horror films such as Castle of the Living Dead (1964) and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), which shouldn’t surprise: that elongated face, with its outsized features, is never far from dawning horror, or outright terror. The key is not to push him. Both Fellini and Bertolucci squeezed Sutherland into bug-eyed caricature; Nic Roeg uncovered a much subtler disquiet in his Borgesian thriller about a bereaved couple haunted by glimpses of their dead daughter around Venice. Not that Sutherland doesn’t show range, from inchoate grief to mortal transfixation, but best of all is the portrait of a marriage he and Julie Christie rustle up: soft, warm, weary, fond. Roeg cuts back and forth between their sex scene and its post-coital aftermath: the ravishing of bodies and the dressing of those bodies for dinner. It’s tender and spooky in equal measure. They could almost be ghosts themselves.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) — Matthew Bennell. Given the premise –—alien pollen seeking to replicate and replace human beings with pod-grown versions of themselves — the appearance of Sutherland as a sardonic public health inspector seems less a matter of casting and more an urgent moral imperative: of all the human beings the aliens could have run into they get the elegant Canadian with the indolent smile, long lashes and excellent stir-fry technique. Try replicating that. The first time we see Sutherland he’s removing a rat turd from a soup tureen. “Peppercorn,” insists the restaurateur. “No, rat turd,” replies Sutherland, taking great pleasure in separating his ‘t’s. Pauline Kael found the film perfect proof of Simone Weil’s thesis that it wasn’t the upright citizens that resisted the Nazis — it was the dreamers, the cranks and the kooks. In one scene, Sutherland finds a whole vegetable patch of pods growing in his back garden, but can’t quite bring himself to destroy the ones that look like his friends, only the one that looks like him — an inspired, unexpectedly touching detail.

Ordinary People (1980) — Calvin Jarrett. Sutherland is easily the best thing in Robert Redford’s dreary Oscar-winner about a family attempting to recover from the death of their eldest son. It’s one of those films where everybody takes turns to feel terrible about themselves: a self-boxing bout. The winner by a mile is Mary Tyler Moore, almost unwatchable as the emotionally repressed mother who cares most about who wears what to the funeral; Timothy Hutton is the pale, sleepless younger son, fighting his way through a fog of guilt; Sutherland is the jovial peace-maker, trying to draw everybody back together and finally — thankfully — giving up. His startling night-time admission to Moore, followed by his scene with Hutton on the porch, are the one-two punch that took the audience down and earned everybody but Sutherland their Oscars.

Backdraft (1991) – Ronald Bartel. The eighties were not kind to Sutherland, as they were not to many actors. In Hugh Hudson’s misbegotten Revolution, he seemed upstaged by the huge hairy mole plastered to the side of his face; opposite Brando in A Dry White Season, his performance was, said Kael, “one long whimper”. No wonder his hair turned white, but what a beautiful snowy white it turned, one of the best things to happen to him as an actor. His arsonist in Backdraft seemed to have petrified himself with his own thoughts. “What did you do to that little girl, Ronnie?” de Niro’s cop asks him. “I burned her,” says Sutherland, with a bashful bat of those lashes. “What do you do to old ladies Ronnie?” asks De Niro again. Sutherland grins. “Burn them.” “What would you like to do to the whole world?” Pause. “Burn it,” he says, giggling like a schoolboy boasting about his stamp collection. Svelte malevolence, expertly done.

Pride And Prejudice (2005) — Mr Bennet. Mr Bennet is one of those Austen characters who changes with the season. We’ve had bullying, authoritarian Mr Bennets; we’ve had warm, rosy-cheeked Mr Bennet’s closer in spirit to Dickens than to Austen — a frequent misattribution on Hollywood’s part. Opposite Brenda Blethyn’s chatterbox in Joe Wright’s 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, Sutherland gets the balance of warmth and world-weariness — the “mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice,” as Austen put it — exactly right. His hair long and snowy white, his jaw unshaven, his soft voice so soft he seems to be speaking from somewhere deep inside his chest, Sutherland’s Bennet is a picture of mordant long-sufferance, a man who married foolishly and has since resigned himself to sitting out the household skirmishes that erupt around his heels, nevertheless rousing himself to save his daughter when threatened with a similar fate.


  1. Such a weird, wonderful actor. I always loved Joss Whedon's observation that Sutherland ruined the original "Buffy" movie because he was too good, i.e., he rewrote his own dialogue, elevated the role, and purportedly threw the entire film out of synch. (Honestly, I think it had other problems, but it's a great observation.) Even in bit parts, like his in the no-big-deal "Italian Job," he supplies the emotional resonance the movie needs.

  2. He's always meant a great deal to me. I can remember seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a teen and feeling actual physical relief that this long stringbean of a human being was a movie star. I was going to be okay. The fact that he had such a bashful, loping, lugubrious manner was an added bonus.

  3. Donald Sutherland has simply been my #1 favourite actor for about 20 years now. Highlight of 'The Eagle' was seeing him looking so well at 75.

  4. To really round out the "best of," I would have included Eye of the Needle. You wouldn't think Sutherland had it in him to play an evil Nazi assassin, but there you go.