Monday, June 15, 2009

Favorite Actors, #5: Burt Lancaster

Now we enter that special place: The Top Five. This is where the appreciation for each actor grows exponentially with every entry.

First Movie I Saw Him In: Gunfight at O.K. Corral (1957; circa 1984, age 13)

Three Favorite Movies: From Here to Eternity (1953); Sweet Smell of Success (1957); The Swimmer (1968)

Honorable Mention: Lawman (1971)

Favorite Performance: Elmer Gantry (1960)

Why I Like Him: With sixty-four teeth instead of the traditional thirty-two, unparalleled athleticism, and distinct speaking mannerisms, Burt Lancaster was one of the 1950s’ most magnetic on-screen personalities. He was brash, cool, belligerent, and charming. I’ve already scribbled a couple of entries on Burt’s career, but what I didn’t touch on was his ability to change with the times. After a tentative period in the mid-1960s, Lancaster evolved into elder statesman status with a series of gritty, bleak, and violent films beginning with 1971’s Lawman. He continued on that track with Valdez is Coming (1972), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), and Scorpio (1973). These movies weren’t masterworks like many of his 1950s films, but they’re fascinating to see how Lancaster was able to use the harshness of his own personality to full effect once the Production Code and Studio System were dead. Sometimes it’s off-putting to see the “old timers” in the early 1970s performing in such graphic films, but Lancaster took the challenge and was able to be believable in movies with graphic material. Burt Lancaster would’ve been a star during any time in film history.

Maybe it was all those Noir roles early in his career, but for me Lancaster’s best movies are the ones where he’s morally shady: Come Back, Little Sheba; Vera Cruz; Sweet Smell of Success; Elmer Gantry; The Birdman of Alcatraz; Seven Days In May; and Lawman, for example. Burt’s characters inhabit the gray area of morality or they can just be downright bad. When Lancaster gets parts like these he’s the most mesmerizing figure in films. When Burt is cast as a regular movie hero, the performance is fine, but lacks the depth (and interest from me) that he brings to the morally ambiguous characters which typify his best performances. I think the real Burt Lancaster, for better or worse, comes out in those roles, and he’s a knockout when he does. You'd also be hard pressed to find another leading man from Burt's era who so willingly chose unconventional projects with which to stretch his acting range. Would Gary Cooper ever play a cold-blooded killer? Never. But Burt would do it and do it well.

Random Info: Though raised in a humble family, Burt became a learned, wealthy, and highly-cultured man after fame found him. He boasted a large art collection, and loved opera.


  1. Great choice here... Lancaster was outstanding and it's amazing how this guy did everything from noir, to westerns, to working with a director like Visconti.

    My personal favorite Lancaster film (not necessarily my favorite role): Criss Cross. Such a great noir.

  2. Lancaster is one of those actors who can subdue his larger than life personality when he needs to, such as in the excellent “Sweet Smell of Success.” It is a tough choice to pick some of my favorite Lancaster roles but a few are “From Here to Eternity”, “Brute Force”, “The Killers”, “Elmer Gantry” and “The Professionals.” One of his later films (1978) that I admire much as one of the best films about the Vietnam War which is the little known “Go Tell the Spartans.” I should add the films he made with Frankenheimer which are also some of his best work. An amazing career.

  3. As you can see, we Lancastrians are a small, loyal, and dedicated bunch.

  4. C.K. I don't understand the lack of ove for Burt. So many great films!

  5. Too bad I cannot type. The previous post should read "I don't understand the lack of love for Burt."

  6. Well I love Burt...he's in my top ten!

    What's this about his extra teeth, though? Is that really possible??

  7. I remember Burt Lancaster from great scenes from some of the best films ever made, viz., the closing scene with Yvonne DeCarlo in "Criss Cross", the repartee in the rain at the door of the home of Deborah Kerr in "From Here To Eternity," the wooing of a spinsterly Katherine Hepburn in "The Rainmaker," the remorseful husband phoning Barbara Stanwyck near the end of "Sorry, Wrong Number," as the disappointed son with Edward G. Robinson in "All My Sons," and as the old German war criminal on the stand before Spencer Tracy in "Judgment At Nurenberg." All excellent.


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