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Burt Lancaster

     It would be lovely to affirm that the wonderful actor Burt Lancaster was actually the gracious artist-performer we probably imagine him to have been, someone who, because he didn't break into movies until he was 32, listened obediently to his directors and passed on to the less experienced on the sets his craft and wisdom.

     Such a scenario did happen occasionally, as on the Scottish set of Local Hero (1983), where Lancaster and filmmaker Bill Forsythe clicked, and where the American star, available to every minion in the cast, entertained with glorious Hollywood tales. Most of the time, as author Kate Buford shows persuasively in her well-written, well-researched biography, Burt Lancaster - An American Life (Alfred Knopf), the actor who charmed the world with his wide, toothy, friendly grin, was a screaming, intimidating bastard.

     He bullied and disrespected even his best directors - John Frankenheimer for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Louis Malle for Atlantic City (1980), as examples. Though he was a life-time political liberal who fought McCarthyism, gave to civil rights causes, protested the Vietnam War, and was an early anti-AIDs spokesman, he was fearful all those years of personal intimacy, and put up a wall between himself and his several wives and children, and also other performers.

     Born in 1913 in the slums of New York, Lancaster remained as scrappy and venomous as his powerful Irish-American mother had been, forever an alienated, paranoid outsider in LA whose best (and only?) actor friend was the ex-Bronx Jew, Tony Curtis, and whose most meaningful love affair in Hollywood was with another Eastern-based Jew, Shelley Winters. His closest pal by far was a high-school chum, Lancaster's acrobatics partner during lowly barnstorming years with one-ring circuses.

     The press for decades liked to write of the off-screen friendship between Lancaster and his frequent co-star, Kirk Douglas, but Buford's book makes clear that it was Douglas alone who was desperate to make their amity real, that he was jealous of Lancaster, that he wanted to be Lancaster.

     And Lancaster? He played hurtful, disdainful jokes on Douglas, such as hiding Douglas's lifts just before an important "macho" scene in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). In turn, Lancaster was jealous of Marlon Brando.

     He'd wanted to play Stanley on stage in Streetcar Named Desire, and he begged Coppola for naught to arrange a Don Corleone audition for The Godfather.

     Is it reasonable to say that Lancaster could have executed either role above? There are equivalent parts which Lancaster played smashingly: the muscular truckdriver in the movie of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo (1955) and the Italian nobleman-patriarch in Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963). If there was ever a film to demonstrate the almost-mystical charisma of the Hollywood Star, it's the latter. What on earth is more compelling and moving than beautiful, elite Burt Lancaster on screen lording over this great, feudal, foreign-language picture?

     Not every Hollywood biographer possesses aesthetic taste. Credit Kate Buford with realizing which Lancaster pictures are the really good ones, the lasting ones, not only the obvious choices such as From Here to Eternity (1953) and his Academy Award-winning Elmer Gantry (1960) but
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Ulzana's Raid (1972), and Go Tell the Spartans (1978). Happily, Buford makes a strong case for a flawed, disparaged movie which, with years passing, is being rediscovered as a stirring near-masterpiece: Frank Perry's The Swimmer (1968), from a Cheever short story, in which Lancaster, barechested and in trunks, travels swimming pool from swimming pool across his Connecticut burb, a quixotic journey against conformity and for his being (impossible!) ever-youthful, ever-vigorous, sexual forevermore.

     The photo on the back of the bio is from The Swimmer, Lancaster bare-assed about to make the plunge.

     Shame on the publisher Knopf for not identifying the picture, because it looks like a clandestine snapshot from Lancaster's real life. By innuendo, this homo-looking photograph becomes a visual support for Buford's shaky speculation that he-man Lancaster was probably bisexual. Wouldn't Burt Lancaster - A Life have been just as successful without a protagonist who swings gay? Buford certainly doesn't prove it with her Hollywood Babylon-like rumors herein of Lancaster orgies with Rock Hudson and bevies of U.S. Marines.

     For an honestly gay, Knopf-published show-biz saga, there's Arthur Laurents' spill-the-seed autobiography, Original Story - A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood. See Laurents' bit on scripting Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), a fictionalization of the Leopold-Loeb murder. Laurents remembers Hitchcock desiring to cast Hollywood's two most famous closeted actors, Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift, as his closeted homosexual criminal leads, but they refused. Too close to home? So the principals were lesser-known gay actors, John Dahl and Farley Granger. Laurents wrote Rope specifically for Granger, his long-time off-screen partner, who starred again in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951).

GERALD PEARY
(April, 2000)

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