actors, Dear..., In My Opinion, movies

Dear Burt Lancaster,

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.




L13FC: From Here to Eternity

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club. With the Oscar results still ringing in my ears, the focal point today is on “Best”. Take From Here to Eternity, for instance. In 1954, the film won eight Academy Awards out of 13 nominations, including awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), and Supporting Actress (Donna Reed). This year’s winter project is studying Burt Lancaster. I thought he did a good job playing the disgruntled Sergeant who falls in love with his superior officer’s wife played beautifully by Deborah Kerr. In fact, Kerr and Reed were the standout performers in the ensemble. Montgomery Clift doesn’t move me much. Regardless, the principal actors were at the top of their game. Having watched From Here to Eternity with older eyes, I have to say I loved the film. 

Which ones are their best? 

Fred ZinnemannFrom Here to Eternity, High Noon, A Man for All Seasons, The Day of the Jackal? 

Burt LancasterBirdman from Alcatraz, Elmer Gantry, The Leopard, Sweet Smell of Success? 

Montgomery CliftA Place in the Sun, The Misfits? 

Deborah Kerr — An Affair to Remember, Black Narcissus, The King and I? 

Donna Reed —  It’s a Wonderful Life or From Here to Eternity? 

Frank Sinatra — From Here to Eternity, Manchurian Candidate, Guys and Dolls, Oceans 11, Man with the Golden Arm? 

What do you love about From Here to Eternity? 

Why is From Here to Eternity a satisfying drama?  I say because of the script written by Daniel Taradash and the acting of Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, and Donna Reed. 

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?