biography, Film Spotlight, movies, oscars, Winter Project: Classic Male Actors

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? 

 

 

1950s, actors, biography, books, Film Spotlight, movies, Winter Project: Classic Male Actors

Burt and Tony: The Sweet Smell of Success

New York City newspaper writer J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) can make or break a career with his column. He needs the sycophant publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to dig in the dirt and find him leads. Hunsecker is a power-driven egomaniac who can’t control his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), who has fallen for a jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Hunsecker orders Falco to smear Dallas’s image and ruin his career.

Falco and Hunsecker. A perfect example of a symbiotic relationship. I read the film was a loose cover for the hated New York gossip columnist Walter Winchell. In the film, J.J. owns the town as he moves from booth to booth in NYC hotspots while Sidney Falco licks the heels of the big dog.

Falco: J.J. Hunsecker is the golden ladder to the place I want to get.

In the ruthless world of journalism, Ben Franklin’s adage holds true. “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”

Related image

My favorite character is the cigarette girl, Rita, played by Barbara Nichols. Manipulated by Falco who traps her into prostituting herself, I cringed with sympathy. First, she is soft with the anticipation of a rendezvous with Falco. Next, she is hurt to discover Falco tricks her. Then, to anger and finally, to the “good sport” that she is, putting on a smile for Falco’s client. It is a quid pro quo exchange at her expense. The scene demonstrates how low Franco will go to get J. J. Hunsecker a story.

Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis have great chemistry. Curtis’s quick movements, his alert eyes, and snappy delivery of lines make a believable Sidney Falco who is morally bankrupt. Lancaster’s performance is cool and confident. He plays the sly king of the night with his tall stature and broad shoulders convincingly. The two were a dynamic duo off the screen, too. In the biography, Against Type by Gary Fishgall, Lancaster and Curtis hit it off when they first met in Criss Cross in 1947. Both were from the mean streets of New York. Both were virile and athletic, both were conceited and difficult, and both loved pranking one another on the set.

The Hunsucker one-liners worked for me. “You’re dead son, go get yourself buried.” Or, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re like a cookie full of arsenic.” It’s that 1957 lingo in a movie that makes me smile. The storyline of The Sweet Smell of Success is about obtaining news, even if it’s fake, at any cost. Not much has changed, has it? 5/5

actors, authors, biography, movies, Winter Project: Classic Male Actors

Good bye, Richard

Winter has come and gone, so I say Adieu to this year’s focus, Richard Burton.

I finished the entertaining biography, Furious Love, by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger. Diving into his private journals, letters and exploring artifacts and associations, they created an in-depth portrayal of Richard Burton and honored him as a legendary stage and screen actor. When Elizabeth Taylor entered his life, their scandals and private life were broadcasted around the world. Critics and adoring fans couldn’t get enough of them. They lived in hotels, on their yacht, or beach home in Puerto Vallarta. They shared their children, their pets, and their money with family members and a huge entourage of help who followed them under the constant pop and crackle of the lights of the paparazzi.

Such conspicuous wealth enflamed their critics and created an intoxicating fairy tale story that allured and raised curiosity. According to his letters, Burton was proud of his rags to riches story. “Not bad for the son of a Welch miner!” when confronted with reports of yearly expenditures and costs to cover their flamboyant lifestyle. I think most of us would prefer to be wealthy to the alternative. To live in their shoes would be a dream come true, right? Celebrity stories are frequently repetitive. Scandal. Tragedy. Abuse. Highs and lows. Death. In the end, are you surprised to know that Richard and Elizabeth were human beings whose insecurities frequently got the better of them?

After watching many Richard Burton films, what did I discover? Well, he’s not my favorite movie star. Forget about several of his films, I say. It was his stage performances that were meaningful.  The best films he ever did were play adaptations. Maybe you knew that all along. For me, it was fun to find out.

Burton received many awards and nominations for his acting in movies, Broadway and television. He received two Golden Globes for his movies My Cousin Rachel and Equus. He received a BAFTA for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

He received two Tony Awards. One for the musical Camelot and a life time Special Award in 1976. He was also the winner of a Grammy Award for The Little Prince in the category of Best Children’s Recording.

His 1977 performance in Equus as Dr. Dysart is the last great performance.

In the film 1984 based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Richard Burton seemed wooden. In fact, I learned a botched neck surgery forbade the use of his arms. I revisited the film and conceded the contrast of the cold torturer O’Brien to Winston Smith (John Hurt) was fitting. John Hurt’s emotional performance was breathtaking. So, too, was Suzanna Hamilton playing Julia. Seeing the film today is as relevant as when the 1949 novel was published and the film released in 1984.

Burton died of an aneurysm a few months after filming when he reportedly spent time with John Hurt at Burton’s Switzerland home. The two went into the village to drink at a bar and Burton got into a skirmish and was pushed. He fell and hit his head. The next day he complained of a massive headache and his wife Sally Burton took him to the hospital. He died on August 4, 1984, of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was 58 years old.

I believe Richard Burton had a God-given voice and a fascinating personality.