Tributes to Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland on the set of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971)

Over and over again, for more than half a century—from the time he made his breakthrough alongside Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) to his late-career period, when he played a patriarchal dictator in the Hunger Games franchise—interviewers asked Donald Sutherland to tell the same set of anecdotes. There’s the one about the sickly kid, taunted in schools in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, asking his mother if he was good-looking. “Donald,” she said, “your face has character.

Then there’s the one about auditioning for his first movie role in 1962. It went well, and in the version he relayed to Michael Hainey in a 2014 interview for GQ, on the following day, “they were all on the phone saying how wonderful the audition had been. And then the producer said, ‘We loved you so much, we wanted to explain why we weren’t casting you. We’ve always thought of this as a guy-next-door sort of character, and we don’t think you look like you’ve ever lived next door to anybody.’”

The point these interviewers aimed to hammer home was that Sutherland, who passed away last Thursday at the age of eighty-eight, was well aware that he neither looked nor sounded like any other movie star. “With a long face, piercing blue eyes, perpetually curled upper lip and arched, wary eyebrows,” writes Alissa Wilkinson in the New York Times, “he had the look of someone who knew something important—a useful characteristic in a career that often involved movies about paranoia and dark secrets.”

“And he was disarmingly sexy to boot,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, and at Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz, too, emphasizes that Sutherland was “sexy as hell, in that ‘What, really? Him?’ way that a lot of the hottest ’70s leading men were hot.” He was “one of the greatest oddball leading-man crushes in cinema.”

The voice helped. When he was fourteen, Sutherland landed his first job as a news reader on a local radio station, and in his later years, he was a popular hire for television commercials, perhaps most effectively for Volvo. Words like “sonorous” and “baritone” have been echoing throughout the many, many tributes that have appeared over the weekend.

Sutherland’s father insisted that he earn a degree in engineering, which he did, but the young man had caught the acting bug, and in the late 1950s, he left Canada to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He scored a few small roles on British television and appeared with Christopher Lee in Castle of the Living Dead (1964) and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). Roger Moore directed him in an episode of The Saint and showed a rough cut to producers who were putting together an all-star war movie, The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Which leads us to another one of those oft-repeated anecdotes. During a reading, Clint Walker objected to playing a soldier who dumbs down to impersonate a general, and director Robert Aldrich pointed over to Sutherland and said, “You with the big ears. You do it.” That moment, Sutherland often said, changed his life.

“Here was a guy mocking everything sacred about both the Greatest Generation’s legacy and the contemporary Army,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear, “the stand-in for every kid who worried about their draft number coming up and wondered ‘what are we fightin’ for?’ He was the fly in your father’s-war-movie ointment, and would play a similar anachronism in the Clint Eastwood men-on-a-mission goof Kelly’s Heroes (1970) a few years later.”

The surprising success of M*A*S*H was a crucial turning point in the careers of Altman and his two leads. Sutherland’s “Hawkeye” Pierce and Gould’s “Trapper John” McIntyre are surgeons sewing up wounded soldiers as they arrive at a medical camp not far from the front during the Korean War, a blatantly obvious stand-in at the time for the ongoing war in Vietnam. “The beauty of it was, they never got riled,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman of Sutherland and Gould’s performances. “The ’60s, which had just ended, were full of people shouting, ranting, protesting, speaking self-righteous truth to power. In M*A*S*H, Hawkeye and Trapper John didn’t shout. They chortled, mostly to themselves. They smirked truth to power.”

“I don’t know anyone like Donald,” Gould told the Los Angeles Times’s Mark Olsen on Friday. “I’ve never worked with better. He’s my brother.” Gould produced an adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s black comedy Little Murders (1971)—Jean-Luc Godard was initially slated to direct, but the job eventually went to Alan Arkin, who’d directed the 1969 off-Broadway production—and asked Sutherland to deliver a disturbing yet hilarious monologue as a hippie reverend overseeing a wedding ceremony. “Donald played that character beyond belief,” says Gould. “Donald Sutherland in Little Murders. Wow. It doesn’t get better.”

Olsen also passes along a statement from Julie Christie, who starred with Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and she nails it: “Donald’s unique intelligence and mischievous humor [are] what elevated him and rendered him so fascinating as an actor.” As Laura and John Baxter, the grieving parents of a young daughter who has drowned, Christie and Sutherland “give career-best performances, playing off each other instinctually, like a genuine couple,” writes David Thompson. “The humor and tenderness of their on-screen relationship balances the morbid aspects of Don’t Look Now, a necessary ploy in a story that confronts an audience (the parents in it, at least) with their worst fear.”

Charles Taylor’s beautiful tribute focuses on Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), starring Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels, a big city female escort who may be involved in the disappearance of a Pennsylvania executive, and Sutherland as John Klute, a private investigator determined to find out. “Bree is a heroine as hardboiled as the movie she’s in,” writes Taylor. “What’s remarkable—and what makes the movie not just Fonda’s but Sutherland’s—is that this sophisticated, brittle New York call girl finds herself unable to intimidate the man she’s ready to dismiss as some Hicksville flatfoot . . . What makes John Klute imposing is that he’s a man who knows so exactly who he is that he can’t be embarrassed or shamed by it.”

The year 1976 saw the back-to-back releases of two films by Italian masters featuring Sutherland in roles few other actors would dare to come anywhere near. Bilge Ebiri has called Bernardo Bertolucci’s decades-spanning epic 1900 “a film that is at once terrified of, and longs for, the brutal, horrifying clarity of a revolution that never came.” On Friday, Ebiri tweeted that his favorite Sutherland performance is “probably his demonic fascist Attila, one of the scariest characters in all of cinema.”

Sight and Sound has just republished Gilbert Adair’s 1977 review of Fellini’s Casanova, with Sutherland as the infamous libertine, “a vain but not unintelligent man suffocating beneath the multiple masks of an ideology of which he is more the valet than the master . . . Whether posturing to Nino Rota’s suitably tinny score or copulating with all the feigned energy of a movie jockey on a mechanical horse, Donald Sutherland commands a stunning array of gestures both precise and revealing. He manages to lend tension to a vacuum, and the final, magnificent close-up of his rheumy old eyes, alive nevertheless with a first faint glimmer of self-realization, is in the context unbearably moving. It is an extraordinarily physical performance and the gem of this flawed masterpiece.”

In 1978, Sutherland gave a brief but unforgettably endearing performance as a pot-smoking professor in John Landis’s Animal House and found a perhaps surprising camaraderie with Sean Connery in Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery. And he was “extraordinarily affecting” in Philip Kaufman’s “sci-fi paranoia symphony Invasion of the Bodysnatchers,” writes Stephanie Zacharek. “Once you knew Sutherland’s character, kind, intelligent, trustworthy Matthew Bennell, had been taken over by alien pod people, it was as if the sun had fallen from the sky. There are few more despairing endings in the history of movies: when Sutherland’s Matthew utters the piercing, hollow scream of the alien ‘duplicates,’ we’re left with no hope for anything, ever. Once they’ve got Sutherland, the rest of humanity doesn’t stand a chance.”

Nearly every tribute points out that, while Sutherland was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2017, he was never even nominated for a single performance throughout his career. He probably would have come closest for his turn as a father trying to hold his grieving family together in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), which won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Alvin Sargent), and Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton). Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch were nominated—but not Sutherland. While his costars “wear their pumped-up, tragic emotions on the surface,” writes Adam Nayman at the Ringer, “Sutherland submerges them in a role that suggests Don’t Look Now’s fugue of grief played without any supernatural elements.”

Another standout performance for Nayman is Sutherland’s X in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). The mysterious Deep Throat–like character is “a wryly cynical know-it-all who harbors no illusions about what his country’s power brokers are capable of, or even much hope that his efforts will come to anything . . . In a movie filled with superbly vivid cameos, Sutherland’s one-scene performance towers above the rest, refracting not only the actor’s radical politics but also his status as the patron saint of cinematic paranoia.”

“For me,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, Sutherland’s “most piercingly sad—and angriest—later role was the white South African schoolmaster in Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season [1989] who takes an initially diffident interest in the fact that his Black gardener’s blameless son has been taken away (and, we discover later, murdered) by the authorities—and he becomes radicalized realizing that his whole life has been in the service of a racist ruling class, who all turn on him for siding against his own caste. It is sensational when Sutherland’s character actually slaps the headmaster’s face for calling him a ‘traitor.’”

Robert Towne’s Without Limits (1998), starring Billy Crudup as record-breaking distance runner Steve Prefontaine—killed in a car crash at the age of twenty-four—and Sutherland as his coach, Bill Bowerman, may not be high on all that many lists. For Matt Zoller Seitz, though, Without Limits proves that Sutherland’s “instinct for the most honest way in to a moment was so keen that he that could even take an old Hollywood chestnut like ‘hard-ass coach who only wants the best from his athlete and secretly loves him like a son’ and crack it open in a way that could turn even the most cynical filmgoer into a blubbering wreck.”

As President Coriolanus Snow, facing down a rebellion led by Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies, Sutherland “refused to stoop to mustache twirling villainy,” writes Ty Burr in the Washington Post, noting that Sutherland once asked an interviewer, “Do you think Lyndon Johnson felt he was the villain, destroying a million Vietnamese? George W. Bush or Dick Cheney—they don’t think of themselves as villains.”

In his final years, Sutherland “took roles with a kind of flinty, evanescent grace,” writes Burr. “Dig up the 2019 art-world thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy and enjoy the actor’s rich supporting role as a legendarily reclusive painter. Or just re-watch Episode 4 from the 2020 HBO limited-series mystery-thriller The Undoing, in which his Manhattan power broker lets his grandson’s school principal know in no uncertain terms who’s boss.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Nardine Saad notes that Sutherland once remarked, “My career has been all downhill since the age of eleven. I did my first play, The Male Animal, at Toronto University’s Hart House theater. The audience laughed and applauded when I came on, they applauded when I went off, and they applauded when I came on again. I’ve never had it as good since.” For the Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer, he “possessed the extremely rare quality—call it a kind of alchemy—where he could disappear into a role and yet somehow remain Donald Sutherland at the same time.”

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