Ah, Burt Lancaster, that all-American he-man! Though with more than a touch of Alsatian dog….it’s those perfect regular white teeth and canine jaw – he called his smile, “The Grin”)
His rise to fame was as romantic as a Hollywood movie – the child of an Irish immigrant family, he was a street fighting New York kid who worked as a circus acrobat before joining the army. He had no formal acting training but was “discovered” in an amateur stage production and his very first film role made him an instant star.
“I woke up one day a star. It was terrifying. Then I worked hard toward becoming a good actor.”
He did become a good actor but always felt overshadowed by some of the other actors of his milieu, particularly Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. Brando was a friend but a competitor throughout his life and got many of the roles that Lancaster would have liked, including Don Corleone in “The Godfather”.
Not as clean cut as the grin and the athletic physique might suggest, he was rumoured to be well known amongst Hollywood’s gay and bisexual underworld. He did later stand up against AIDS prejudice in the 1980s, and also put great energy into producing and publicising the prison drama “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, originally planning to play the transvestite role eventually taken by William Hurt.
But he was supposedly a great womaniser too, on and off screen, famously rolling in the surf with Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity” which became one of the highest grossing movies ever, largely on the strength of that scene.
Shelley Winters tells a nice story about a dinner date with Burt. Although he was married, they had a steaming love affair during her Actors’ Studio days, with that pesky Marlon Brando as occasional love rival.
The story goes that Shelley, Burt and another friend went out to a fancy restaurant where the maitre d’ insisted that the men wear ties. If they hadn’t brought a tie they could hire one. Burt and his friend duly paid for the ties, put them on, and then carefully removed their trousers (as there was no rule about that), sat down, and ordered a three course dinner, in their underwear – but with impeccably tied ties. There wasn’t much the staff could do, although they did eventually get thrown out when members of the party got too drunk. At which point Lancaster insisted on having his $2 deposit for the tie.
His early films were often “beefcake” roles, showing off his fabulous physique. The circus films were brilliant vehicles for his acrobatic skills, while “From Here to Eternity” had that beach scene. As he got older, however, and formed his own production company, his left wing political views became more vocal and began to colour his choice of role and theme.
Many of the films became darker and more complex – just as the national mood in America did the same, post-Pearl Harbour and pre-Vietnam. He also took on more “character” roles.
“The Swimmer”, for instance, features again the marvellous all but naked torso and starts off like a 1950s TV commercial but ends up as a strange, psychedelic movie.
He made “Gun Fight at the OK Corral” “Elmer Gantry” “The Leopard” and “Conversation Piece” (the last two for Visconti, moving to live in Italy, which again was unusual for a Hollywood actor of his stature at that time). He continued to win awards. One of his most unforgettable roles was the splendidly monstrous JJ Hunsecker in “The Sweet Smell of Success” – fully clothed, and wearing specs, but still with that Alsatian grin.
Towards the end of his life he appeared in a number of blockbusters such as “Airport” and “Raid on Entebbe” but continued to champion more independent productions for much lower pay if he liked the film; he had starring roles in “Atlantic City”, “Field of Dreams”, and of course “Local Hero”.
But to get back to the film that made him an overnight star. That would be Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers“, one of the great film noirs of the late 1940s. Without giving away any any spoilers, Burt isn’t even in it for very long, but his screen charisma is unmistakeable. It’s one of those must-see movies, and rightly made him famous. We are proud to present it in glorious 16mm as part of September’s Scalarama celebrations of independent cinema. Do come along and see the film that began the career of one of the mid century’s great movie stars, and – just as the older Lancaster might have wanted – exercise your mental muscles with the plot twists and turns.
“The Killers” Robert Siodmak 1946, will be screened at 5pm, Sunday 13th September, Picture House Social, Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S7. £5 on the door.