Tuesday, June 25, 2024

An Ode to the Elastic, Electric Donald Sutherland

I first knowingly encountered the late Donald Sutherland in 1968, in an odd little British film called Joanna. Then and now, I’ve been unsure if Joanna was intended as an ode to Swinging London (the miniskirts! the casual sex!) or a morality tale or a spoof. It did have a very pretty leading lady, a score by Sixties fave Rod McKuen, and several hunky young men. It also had Sutherland as the wealthy but terminally ill Lord Peter Sanderson, who hosts Joanna and her groovy friends at his sumptuous home in Morocco. When he came on screen, I thought I had never seen such a weird-looking person. There was a fey quality to him that had me completely baffled: was there some sort of comment being made about his sexuality? I didn’t know, but I didn’t much care. Joanna was a movie that didn’t invite hard thinking.

 It took a while to realize I’d seen Sutherland a year earlier in a vastly different role, that of a not-too-bright Southerner named Vernon Pinkley who hilariously steps in to impersonate a general in a World War II action drama, The Dirty Dozen. That was the thing about Sutherland: you couldn’t pin him down. Even his nationality seemed flexible: the Canada-born Sutherland played British and American roles with equal conviction.

 It was in 1970 that Sutherland had his big Hollywood breakthrough. Though for fans of the long-running TV series, Alan Alda will always be the REAL star of M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s original film starred Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce. He and Elliott Gould as best buddy Trapper John McIntyre found stardom as two young battlefield surgeons who cope with the horrors of the Korean War by way of outrageous antics. One year later he played the title role in Klute, a neo-noir thriller best remembered for Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning role as a prostitute being stalked by a killer. Sutherland’s role is that of a detective who becomes Fonda’s protector and then her lover. The powerful connection between Fonda and Sutherland,  which allegedly spilled over into their personal lives, led to Sutherland’s deep involvement in Fonda’s crusade against the Vietnam War.

 Another intensely dramatic role for Sutherland was opposite Julie Christie in 1973’s psychological thriller, Don’t Look Now. The eerie Venice-set drama, brilliantly directed by Nicolas Roeg, focuses on young parents trying to get past the accidental death of their young daughter. In the midst of their all-consuming grief,  there’s a sex scene that raised many eyebrows for its convincing eroticism, leaving some viewers certain that the intimacy on screen was genuine.  (Sutherland has staunchly denied this.) He was also a grieving father in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People (1980), though most of the film’s accolades went to Mary Tyler Moore and young Timothy Hutton, who played his wife and his surviving son. But none of this should imply that Sutherland only took on somber roles. He played everyone from heroes to goofballs, like the pot-smoking professor in National Lampoon’s Animal House. He was even a stuffy British patriarch (and Keira Knightley’s father) in Joe Wright’s 2005 version of the Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, as well as the chief villain in The Hunger Games. Though Oscar nominations eluded him, the Academy in 2017 granted him an honorary Oscar “for a lifetime of indelible characters, rendered with unwavering truthfulness."

Today son Kiefer (named after Donald Sutherland’s very first director) carries on the family commitment to screen acting. But it’s unlikely he’ll ever top his father’s long and varied list of achievements. 


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