The 1960s started off great for Burt Lancaster as an actor. He won an Oscar for the Best Actor Award for his performance in Elmer Gantry (1960) and was nominated for his performance in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Against Type, written by Gary Fishgall is a good biography with plenty of research and details to give one a sense of the man and his accomplishments. What can I say about this classic actor who I knew so little about?
*He grew up on the mean streets of East Harlem, NY, to a strict mother and a postal supervisor dad. He was the baby of three other siblings, 2 brothers, and a sister. Elizabeth was a proud woman in the neighborhood who owned rental properties. Fishgall suggests it was his forceful, proud mother that instilled his self-confidence.
*Burt became close friends for life with Nick Cravat. As teenagers and young adults, they traveled together performing acrobatic tricks on the trapeze in a variety of circuses. Burt was 6’2, with strong wide shoulders (44 inches, waist 30) and athletic physique which defined his appeal to audiences throughout much of his career.
*Burt joined the Army in 1942 and performed at USO shows.
*After the war, he headed to NY and starred in a play A Sound of Hunting. That success got him an agent, Harold Hecht. Their union landed Burt an audition for his breakout role in The Killers. He was 31 years old and an instant star.
*Burt was difficult and possessed high energy. He insisted upon being a part of the creative process. He questioned every director he worked with, suggested what should be done. He felt it was imperative to his individuality to have a say.
*When Burt made Elmer Gantry, he said that was the character most like him off the screen. Burt’s favorite acting performance was The Leopard.
*When Burt made Bird Man of Alcatraz, he advocated for Robert Shroud’s parole release, so taken was he by the genius and efforts of the prisoner who for over 40 years in solitary confinement became the leading authority figure on bird diseases.
*In the 1950s, Burt formed variations of his film company because he wanted control of his work. Burt’s company, Hecht-Hill, and Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions company dissolved in 1960 after Hill ruptured his relationship with both Hecht and Lancaster. They were spendthrifts having lost control of too-many offices, too many staff, and high-cost productions. As an actor, he was on top. As a producer, he felt disappointment.
*Making films that showcased a wrong in society mattered to him. He wanted his films to be important. He was politically active and part of the actors’ group in the 1940s who spoke out against McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities.
*He was married three times and had five children.
I’m halfway through the biography. Stay tuned for more information about Burt…
Below is the train scene showing Lancaster’s intensity (and white teeth). I loved the film Elmer Gantry. Andre Previn’s score was a highlight. Shirley Jones as a prostitute was a surprise since I’ve only seen her as a singing queen for studio musicals. Shen won Best Supporting Actress for her performance. Jean Simmons was perfect. The ending scene of the fire and the dissolution of religion/dreams were magnificent. 5.5 Did you have a favorite scene?
The Birdman of Alcatraz was unusual and interesting. Not because of Lancaster’s acting which was lackluster to me. The movie was interesting because of the incredulity of the man behind the film, Robert Stroud. He ran away from home from an abusive father at the age of 13 and hitched his way to Alaska. By 18, he was a pimp and murdered a man who was with his mistress. In jail, his reputation was hard and onery. Stroud killed a prison guard with a knife and was sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement. The prison at Leavenworth has a reputation for being a maximum-security prison. Interesting that Shroud was able to create a long-time friendship with the prison guard who watched over him; he kept canaries in his cell, conducted scientific experiments and eventually had the cell walls expanded to make space for more birds and equipment. He was a self-taught ornithologist with a third-grade education. He was allowed to possess a lighter, chemicals, alcohol (180 proof) and so if it really happened, I’m shocked. Guards open the doors and allow the prisoners to walk behind, beside and around them in tight proximity. One major complaint: I just didn’t think Lancaster and Karl Malden had chemistry.
The climax was disappointing. After Lancaster’s Shroud says his peace to the warden Harvey Shoemaker about rehabilitation, his response to Shroud is to timidly complain about an arthritic shoulder. I wish the script had developed the progressive warden and his relationship with Shroud. Otherwise, the several minute filming of a baby bird hatching from his egg was original. Director John Frankenheimer had interesting angles and compositions. The best acting performance goes to Telly Salavas who played a grimy, dumb hoodlum perfectly. 3.5/5
Maybe I’m too harsh? Did you like it more than I?