Burt Lancaster(1913-1994)

    Burt Lancaster's passing in 1994 left a huge gap in my love of Hollywood films. I grew up watching the versatile actor play a surprising variety of roles.  His screen choices left me off balance,  unsure about my own feelings about the star's persona.  He could be a hero, like Dardo in The Flame and the Arrow(1950), a spirited action film from Warner Brothers or a simple, lustful, worker, as in The Rose Tatoo(1955). Of course, in my youth, I appreciated the magnificence of Lancaster's athletic presence, the power of his smile to charm an audience from one corner of the theater to the other, and the sheer  physically of the actor. In later years, I learned to appreciate Lancaster's attempts to explore the darker side. Above all, the actor was unafraid to explore himself on the screen. 
    Burt Lancaster was 33 years old when he made his screen debut in The Killers(1946). Lancaster was a force from the get-go, with his powerful frame matched to strong dialogue delivery. There was nothing halfway about the actor. Audiences sensed danger and integrity. As a measure of integrity, I always think of Lancaster's partner from his acrobat days , Nick Cravat, who had significant parts in many Lancaster films once the star could use some of that screen power behind the scenes. Over the years, beginning in 1950's Flame and the Arrow and finally with the 1977 The Island of Doctor Moreau, the diminutive actor made seven films that starred Lancaster.
     One of the first actors to turn producer in a big way, Lancaster sought to create a varied screen presence through a lot of daring work. In 1948, he formed a producing company with his agent Harold Hecht. Lancaster was an active producer, often battling with the other artistic talent involved in his company's productions. He even directed two films, the less than memorable The Kentuckian(1955) and the underrated Midnight Man(1974). 
     Lancaster, clearly made of the stuff of matinee idols,  doggedly sought parts infused with character. Physical actors like Lancaster often get pigeon-holed into safe roles that maximize those physical assets. Lancaster in succeeded in creating an interesting and diverse body of work. For every Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at the OK Corral/1957) on his filmography, there's a  Doc Delaney (Come Back Little Sheba/1952). Critics often chastised the actor for a similarity of line delivery no matter what role he was playing, but it would have been foolish for Lancaster to fail to make use of one of his grand assets. His distinctive voice made believers of movie audiences.  No, he never seemed the same from role to role, despite almost never using an accent. 
     Maybe his best role of all is the darkest, most mean-spirited screen portrait of an entertainment personality ever, J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success(1957). Playing the manipulative and ruthless gossip columnist opposite Tony Curtis's sniveling press agent Sidney Falco, Lancaster overpowered everyone around him with brute force. Elmer Gantry in 1960 won the actor his lone Academy Award as Best Actor. Lancaster pulled out all the stops as the charismatic evangelist, calling on his great star presence for one side for one side of Gantry and exploring the the darker reaches of his soul to create a lasting character of the other side of the tent preacher. One of my favorite Lancaster roles is in Atlantic City(1980). The star plays an aging small-time hood, decaying alongside the splintered boardwalks of Atlantic City, pumping up his memories of the past with false bravado. In the end, Lancaster gives the character of Lou a great deal of dignity. It's a wonderful and typically brave Burt Lancaster performance Lancaster once again received an Oscar® for his work, but failed to win a second time.
     Lancaster was paired with many stars over the years, but his six collaborative efforts with Kirk Douglas, another notable independent film figure, top the list. I Walk Alone(1948), a strong noir effort, was the first Lancaster/Douglas film and Tough Guys(1986), a good-natured homage to the two actors, was the last. In between was Gunfight at the OK Corral, Devil's Disciple(1959), List of Adrien Messinger(1963), and Seven Days in May(1964). The last film featured the actor in one of his darker roles as General James Mattoon Scott, a presidential candidate with a plan for certain victory in the works.
     Most stars of Lancaster's stature are often associated with one female star in series of films. Not with Burt. He did make four movies with Deborah Kerr, and their most famous pairing, From Here to Eternity(1953),  includes one of the great movie love scenes of all time, with the stars embraced in a kiss as the ocean surf strokes their passions. Two or three movies with Virginia Mayo or Yvonne De Carlo, maybe a couple with Ava Gardner, but I think the roles were more the thing for Lancaster; it was never a question of looking for chemistry with that certain lady. 
     Burt wore a military uniform in nine films,  including  From Here to Eternity.  Western garb was the actor's most frequent costume. In fourteen oaters, the rugged actor with the mile wide smile played tough heroes and likeable bad guys. The Professionals(1966) is Lancaster at his most charismatic, from his first scene as a prisoner in dirty long-johns to the lusty quips he exchanges with Chiquita while holding the Mexican pursuers at the pass. Whether soldier or cowboy, hood or lover, Lancaster lit the screen with mile to mile smile and thrilled audiences for five decades. 
     The actor guarded his private life with the same vigor he sought fine screen roles. Lancaster was married three times and had five children, and was reputed to have been a wild man with the woman, yet, he stayed clear of the tabloids. 

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