Burt Lancaster as Elmer and Birdman

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? 



33 thoughts on “Burt Lancaster as Elmer and Birdman

Add yours

  1. Long time since I saw this, and wasn’t one of my favourites, also for some reason I never liked Karl Malden in anything! In the video clip you posted above for some reason the sound goes off about 1/3 of the way in and doesn’t come back.


  2. I haven’t watched either film for close to 50 years. I don’t remember much about Elmer, but Birdman stayed in my memory for the bleakness of the prison, and that it was a true story. You mentioned The Leopard, which I was very impressed with. I also recall The Swimmer, a strangely compelling film indeed.
    And regarding Trapeze, I have vivid memories of that film, will Tony Curtis, and the sultry Gina Lollobrigida. Strange how some films stick in the mind, and others don’t…
    Best wishes, Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with your love of Elmer Gantry, from the novel by Lewis to awarding of the Oscars. What a story, what a movie, what a cast, even if Patti Page never sang any of her hits.
    As far as Birdman is concerned, I never saw it. I find prison movies too ‘confining’ . (A little humor, very little.)


  4. Elmer is undoubtedly a classic. Birdman I found interesting from a scientific point of view. Watching him mature, increase his knowledge about the birds, his interaction with the guards and even knowing about the outside world as shown by his explanation for no longer wanting to live on the other side of a prison wall. Burt (to me) always gives a command performance.


  5. Wow thank you for all the great info on an actor I have a huge blindspot on. I didn’t know Burt was in The Leopard, that’s the one with Alain Delon too right? I’ve been wanting to check that out!


  6. I’ve not seen that many Burt Lancaster films but I’m glad that he agrees with me that his best performance was “The Leopard”. The film is well worth buying. Best to purchase the version with Italian dialogue and English subtitles, as that is how the film was made.


    1. That’s how I should watch it. Looking at the trailer, it looks like Lancaster spoke English. Hmm.. So there’s two versions? One Italian, one in English? The trailer is good old-fashion fun…


    2. that is not quite true. in italy, the dialog is post synched and dseperate authroized versions are made for each country. the trouble with the italian version is that burt is dubbed, by a italian actor while his own voice is heard in the endlish language version. the trouble with the english version is that it is consiierably shorter.yadvice is to watch both the italian and english versions, the latter for burts performance and the former for the uncut print.


  7. these are two of my formative movies. after seeing elmer gantry, i came home and sermonized my whole family to hell. i always wanted to be a preacher after that , and did a stint on the street dragging winos to a christian coffeehouse, but never made it to seminary school. i did play priests four times on the stage..most notably .in marat sade and portrait of the artist as a young man, having little religious upbringing, elmer gantry was my introduction to churchy things, and a retrospective of luis bunuel films at the university of washington rounded off my religious education. i also loved the novel elmer gantry and the characters of priests in other novels such as les miserables and zolas the sin of abbe mouret. and films like bressons the diary of a country priest. ……………………..i notice that you prefer extroverted performances to those more introverted. i am the opposite. i love the brooding intensity of burts robert stroud, and think a more overtly expressive performance would have been ludicrous..especially for a character in solitary confinement. overall, i find frankenheimer a much better director than brooks, and his ability to sustain interest in a story of such spacial confinement is a testament to his skill. the last bit, which you disliked, is a rather common device of contrasting a major event with a minor complant, and i thought it worked. at least i fiction, which incudes movies, the relationship between lifetime prisonors and the gaurds is a standard. trope, so i didnt find anything odd about the relationshop between them in birdman. although ive seen the movie several times, i dont remember enough about maldens performance to defend it, but i have always liked him. his priest in on the waterfront was another character who inspired my desire to preach.


    1. Hiya, Bill. So happy you stopped round to voice your opinions and recollections. I like religious roles — goodness, did you see ‘The Two Popes’? A MUST SEE on Netflix.
      Anyway, I think it’s natural to be on the quiet, pensive side if you are spending your life in solitary confinement. However, I thought Lancaster erred on the side of wooden. You have given me an idea for the Monday L13FC. I want to discuss subtle but expressive roles vs. the wooden. That should be fun.
      Also, I’m liking Mr. Franenheimer. I’d like to watch more of his films. The scores for both were wonderful.


      1. frankeheimers best..all fall down manchurian candidte sevevn days in may, seconds, and 52 pick up, but this last one will be too rough for you i have a copy of the 2 popes but havent seen it yet. i loved the series the yung pope.


  8. You are definitely too hard on Birdman… 😉 I think it was a great change of pace for Burt, especially after the charismatic turn in Gantry. Anyhow, we agree on Gantry, a truly brilliant performance. The film also contains my favorite Jean Simmons performance (I still don’t understand why she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar). By the way, my favorite Burt performance is the aging, two-bit gangster in Atlantic City (I can’t wait to read your review — hope you agree with me 😉 ).

    Liked by 1 person

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