I watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in class today. There’s a line where the Jewish doctor/potato peeler asks 8-year-old Bruno, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It made me think about the span of human life in general. Youth is for daydreams and imagining your life ahead of you. We dream. We learn. We keep calm and carry on. As adults, beyond responsibilities, one dares of mastering a skill or flowering into something unique.
Burt, you had one Broadway play under your belt and Hollywood talent agent, Harold Hecht, persuaded producer Hal B. Wallis to sign you to an eight-movie contract. The move made you an instant star in 1946 with The Killers. Your lucky break turned into a 45-year career during which you were a four-time nominee for Best Actor, (winning for Elmer Gantry), two BAFTA Awards, and one Golden Globe (Elmer Gantry). Ah, what does this have to with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?
I finished Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster by Gary Fishgall last night. I saw many of your movies during the Winter Project featuring your life and filmography. The Sweet Smell of Success, Come Back, Little Sheba, The Killers, Elmer Gantry, Seven Days in May, and Field of Dreams are my personal favorites. Thinking about your life, I can see that you did your best to become something special in the field of acting. You had a voracious appetite for life. You wanted to be your own man, call your own shots. You picked your roles, and started a production company. Lost it in the 1960s. You stayed in perfect shape and loved a lot of women in and out of wedlock. It bewilders me that you needed a wife. Monogamy was impossible. What did matter to you were your five children. You had several close friends who were loyal to you to the end. Passionate, argumentative, virile, you embodied the physical looks that made women swoon and men shiver with intimidation.
I think you were unselfish as an actor, Burt. Your passion was to be a part of a great picture. You took an active part in films by suggesting to the director what to do. You revised scripts and allowed co-stars to have the limelight. I think of many films where you stood there tall and broad and your costars flushed with extraordinary performances. Are you wooden? Or did you have that ability to inspire others to go deeper and express themselves by standing next to you?
When I think of you, I will remember a man at the end of his days whose eyes expressed wisdom and affable charm. I suppose that’s why I liked your bit part in Field of Dreams. I swear you weren’t acting on the screen. It was you. That’s how I like to remember you. You rose out of poverty from Harlem, became a circus performer, and transformed into a bonafide classical star. You didn’t stop. You lived true to your personality.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Well, obviously little Bruno and the life span of millions of Jews were severed tragically. I take life seriously, to a fault. I feel obligated to those who didn’t get the chance to chase after dreams or exist to enjoy the pleasures of nature and love and friendships. I admire people who live actively and with passion.
Burt, your children, and your friendships are a testament to your character. Your faults didn’t overcome you. What a tough act to play. You passed at age 80 in 1994. What more did you need out of life?
Thanks for the films, Burt. It was fun to get to know you this winter.