' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Donald Sutherland

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

In Memoriam: Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland was too recognizable to be a That Guy. You can’t have starred in “M*A*S*H” and “The Hunger Games” with all manner of memorable movies in-between and be considered a That Guy. A Canadian, he helped carry the Olympic flag at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver; the world knew Donald Sutherland. And yet, he had an air reminiscent of a That Guy, nonetheless. Maybe it’s that he was never nominated for an Academy Award, an absurdity, only receiving a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2017 at age 82. Maybe it’s because despite his distinct bearing, the lanky 6’4” frame, long face, expressive eyes, and unmistakable baritone, he was also a chameleon. Maybe it’s because as he got older and received fewer leading roles, he still never stopped working, and ever the consummate professional, picked up so many paychecks with an idiosyncratic pulse. Sutherland, in fact, worked so hard for so long that I have never known a movie world without him. Until now, that is, because Donald Sutherland died on Thursday June 20, 2024, at the age of 88.

Demonstrating practicality and passion in equal measure, Sutherland majored in both engineering and drama at the University of Toronto, though the latter eventually won out, graduating and going to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before dropping out and deciding to learn by doing. He cut his teeth on the stage, and then in television, and then found his way to Hollywood. As chance would have it, I watched one of his first credited roles in 1968’s heist movie “The Split” for the first time this year. Though it was meant to showcase Jim Brown, he was upstaged by Sutherland’s quietly charismatic menace. “Although his role is not major,” wrote Renata Adler in her New York Times review, “Donald Sutherland is remarkable.” He stood out, too, in “The Dirty Dozen,” despite playing, in his own amusing words, “one of the bottom six.” That role led to his breakthrough in Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning black comedy “M*A*S*H” at the dawn of the 70s. If it foreshadowed his many counterculture roles, like “Animal House” and the weird, half-awful, half-awesome “Steelyard Blues,” Sutherland proved versatile, equally at home in thrillers like “Klute,” in horror like “Don’t Look Now,” and in traditional drama like “Ordinary People.”

Sutherland could steal a scene, as he did in “Space Cowboys” as one of four geriatric astronauts alongside Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and James Garner. In a scene on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, their hierarchy is established with how they are seated, but if Sutherland gets third chair, in his bawdy yet twinkly countenance, he emerges as first banana. He could steal a whole movie as he did with Oliver Stone’s “JFK” playing the mystery man X enlisted to deliver one epic mid-movie monologue. Sutherland had a gift for infusing his eyes, his whole face, really, with this sly good humor suggesting someone sitting on a secret he was weighing whether or not to share and this gift never manifested more than as X, spinning a conspiracy theory as campfire story. But he wasn’t just a scene stealer. In “Klute,” his square detective’s eyes are captivated by Jane Fonda’s call girl in every shot but in a way that always seems to refract the focus back on her. He did the same years later in “Pride & Prejudice” but with a paternal bent when his Mr. Benet consents for his daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) to be married. Fonda won her first Oscar for that role, and Knightley received her first Oscar nomination for hers, and I like thinking of Sutherland as their Tenzing Norgay.

Sutherland’s catalogue was so extensive and varied that I really think you could ask ten different people for their favorite Sutherland performance and get ten different answers. I’ve always retained a special fondness for his turn in Robert Towne’s “Without Limits” (1998) as Bill Bowerman, the titanic Oregon track and field coach (and Nike co-founder). It’s a biopic of the running prodigy of Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup), and though there are numerous characters, it’s spiritually a two-hander between coach and athlete. Sutherland plays Bowerman as a gently commanding old oak and Crudup plays Prefontaine as a cocky little shit and set as it is at the end of the 60s going into the 70s, there is an undercurrent of change, or attempts at change, made plain in their constant sparring. Coach tends to always know best in movies like these, but here coach’s council lets his charge down when Prefontaine loses at the Munich Olympics. Their hashing out that race is the movie’s best scene.

“If I’d gone out faster, I might not have gotten boxed.” 
“And you blame me?” 
“Do you blame yourself? 
“That’s a constant, Pre.”

And when Sutherland says that line, he chuckles, he smiles, he infuses it with this bemused weariness of a thousand condemnations pointed right back at himself. Indeed, then Sutherland does the most incredible thing – before saying his next line, he looks away and to his right...

Well, you can see it all in there, can’t you? You can see him going over every defeat, embarrassment, failure, loss, and regret and what’s more you can see him blaming himself for all of it all over again. It’s the vision of a whole life summoned in a split-second.

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