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Donald Sutherland: A New Hollywood Career Retrospective

It’s hard to define the brilliance of Donald Sutherland. He was a symbol of the New Hollywood actor, working in counter-cultural comedy roles and as complex, understated heroes. Sutherland came to represent a generation of actors who transcended the theatrical performances of Hollywood’s golden age. Throughout his sixty-year career, Sutherland’s stand-out quality was his versatility. He brought his unique subtlety to a broad range of roles. There are, however, some unifying themes that bind many of his characters.

Sutherland the Character Actor

The Dirty Dozen (1976) dir. Robert Aldrich

Sutherland got his break in genre filmmaking. The Canadian actor’s career began in the mid-1960s, when he starred in British and European horror films including The Castle of the Living Dead (Ricci and Kiefer, 1964), Dr. Terror’s House of Horror (Francis, 1965), and Fanatic (Narizzano, 1965). His introduction to Hollywood was also rooted in genre, but this time, it was war. In 1967, he announced himself under the direction of Robert Aldrich with his beloved performance as Vernon Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen. His performance provides the film with a comedic dimension, with Vernon being the clown of his group of military prisoners. His most memorable scene involves his character imitating a general. Having been reluctant to assume the position, Pinkley feeds off the laughter of the group, and really leans into the role as he performs his "inspection."

The film was a success, and Sutherland was declared a great comedic talent. His next big moment arrived in another New Hollywood war film, but this time, he was the lead. Starring as Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s 1970 hit M*A*S*H, Sutherland once again helped to bring the laughs as a surgeon in a military hospital, and again in 1971, when he played a hippie tank commander called Sgt. Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes. While all three films are humorous, at least to some extent, Sutherland elevates the clownery to iconic status.

M*A*S*H (1970), dir. Robert Altman

The counter-cultural qualities of these films and his performances in them made Sutherland synonymous with the American New Wave of the late sixties and early seventies. Given his recognition, it was an easy transition from his oddball persona into a more serious and complex leading man.

Sutherland the Hollywood Outsider

A recurring theme throughout Donald Sutherland’s career is his ability to position his characters as outsiders to the culture in which the film is set. Perhaps the earliest evidence of that is his performance as the titular character in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971). Following a number of other supporting roles, he was given the leading role as an up-and-coming director in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), but the film was not a great success. Therefore, his role as John Klute could be seen as his first real chance to prove himself as a leading man in a mainstream Hollywood production.

Klute (1971) dir. Alan J. Pakula

John Klute is a private detective tasked with finding his missing friend, Tom Gruneman, in New York City. Along the way, he becomes entangled in the life of sex worker Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). She is the true protagonist of the film, and Fonda’s performance as a woman trying to escape her old life won her an Academy Award. Klute and Daniels navigate the film’s slow-burning plot together, trying to reach the truth about Gruneman.

At its core, Klute is the story of an outsider’s observation of big city life in the 1970s. John is an alien to the seedy, dangerous, and paranoia-filled underbelly of New York as he searches for his missing friend. He struggles to come to terms with this world’s transactional approach to human connection, with people being discarded and forgotten. People’s time is paid for; that’s the way it works. Whether they’re a sex worker, a drug addict, or a therapist, you cannot forge a meaningful relationship with others, unless there is a financial component that ties you together.

Sutherland’s performance sees him as the caring outsider. Part of his brilliance lies in how he carries off a performance this subdued without implying emotional vacancy. John Klute may not understand the world Bree has spent most of her adult life as a part of, but rather than act as a morally superior symbol of traditional values, Sutherland’s character is empathetic and understanding. His portrayal contains great depth, without explosion. The irony of this is that Klute is a film that centralizes the exploration of its character’s emotions. In fact, John Klute’s feelings are the only ones we don’t hear verbalized. Bree has her therapist, and even the killer gets a moment at the end to explain himself. However, Klute will not sell his thoughts. He remains at arm’s length to both his peers and the audience, but still conveys warmth. He took his chance to prove himself as a true '70s screen star.

Sutherland the Hollywood Leading Man

Sutherland’s first truly great leading role came in the form of Nicolas Roeg’s unsettling 1973 horror film Don’t Look Now. Starring opposite Julie Christie as a father grieving the loss of his young daughter, Sutherland’s performance as John Baxter shows his ability to bring realism to a dreamlike and unearthly film. Sutherland gives a tragic performance as a father reduced to emptiness by his feelings of regret and loss.

Don't Look Now (1973) dir. Nicolas Roeg

At the end of the 1970s, Sutherland led another acclaimed Hollywood horror film as health inspector Matthew Bennell in Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). He achieves a career-high in this eerie cautionary tale. This is the role for which Sutherland’s acting style was made, as an ordinary man slowly discovering an extraordinary secret. Bennell is a scientific man, initially dismissive of his colleague Elizabeth’s (Brooke Adams) concerns. She worries that her husband has been replaced, but Bennell does not take her seriously. However, as the evidence builds up and he sees pod-people with his own eyes,

Bennell develops into a desperately paranoid character, surrounded by alien lifeforms who want to kill him. In typical Sutherland style, this paranoia and desperation is played in looks and facial expressions rather than screams and big actions. Bennell remains a thinking man no matter what he endures, and chooses to exercise restraint.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) dir. Philip Kaufman

This acting choice contrasts with the way Kevin McCarthy played the leading man in the original 1956 film. That film begins with McCarthy’s character screaming along a highway (a scene echoed in a self-aware cameo by the actor in the 1978 remake), displaying his panic in a much more direct fashion. Although an isolated comparison, the different ways that Kevin McCarthy and Donald Sutherland interpret the protagonist of the same story are representative of the changes that occurred in the transition from Hollywood’s golden age, to the period known as New Hollywood. The late sixties and seventies saw an increase in acting methods which foregrounded the understated. Sutherland’s performance in this film can be seen as a demonstration of these shifts in acting style.

Sutherland the International Performer

Along with his success as a leading man in American film, the Canadian actor acted in a variety of countries, either as part of Hollywood productions or in collaboration with celebrated European filmmakers.

Eye of the Needle (1981) dir. Richard Marquand

An example of the former is his chilling portrayal of a Nazi spy in Richard Marquand’s Eye of the Needle (1981). This is the evilest character Sutherland played, a ruthless killer named Henry Faber who uses a stiletto blade to kill on behalf of the Nazis.

While stranded on Storm Island, he becomes romantically attached to Lucy Rose (Kate Nelligan), the British wife of a disabled former RAF Pilot. When she realizes that she has fallen in love with a Nazi spy, she becomes determined to report him. This leads to a third act which plays out much like a war-time film noir, with Donald Sutherland playing the perfect villain. This film presents Sutherland’s ability to reach into the darkness of a character, with the romantic scenes demonstrating his capacity for tenderness even when playing someone so ruthless.

A Dry White Season (1989, dir. Euzhan Palcy)

Eight years later, Sutherland’s bold performance in A Dry White Season as rich South African teacher turned anti-racism activist Ben Du Toit further demonstrated his ability to sympathetically navigate another country's cultural divisions. Unlike Nazi spy Faber, Du Toit is not an evil person. His biggest crime is his complete ignorance of Apartheid. When his gardener’s son is beaten, arrested, and eventually killed, Du Toit maintains that there must be some fair, and rational explanation. When the gardener himself is arrested and killed, he begins to accept that there must be something more sinister going on.

Eventually, Sutherland’s character becomes heavily involved in the struggle for social change, which makes him a target for those who oppose the effort. This performance once again shows Sutherland’s willingness to depict realistic characters with human blind spots.

Sutherland the Cameo King

Little Murders (1971) dir. Alan Arkin

An underrated aspect of Sutherland’s career was his ability to deliver memorable cameos. Despite his preference for introspection, Sutherland is also able to command the prescience of a screen, stealing a film in just one scene.

It could be argued that this talent comes from his ability to embed himself perfectly in the tone of any given film. In his one-scene performance in Little Murders (1971), produced by his friend and former co-star Elliot Gould, Sutherland is cast as the long-haired Reverend Henry Dupas, who performs the marriage ceremony for the film’s central couple. His outrageous performance fits perfectly with the film’s surrealist tone, with Henry’s unconventional approach to his role as minister producing memorable lines. He warns the couple that “of the two-hundred marriages that I have performed, all but seven have failed. So the odds are not good. He then asks the on-watching families how long they think the union will last. His stark honesty in the monologue at the start of the ceremony presents Sutherland back at his comedic best.

JFK (1991) dir. Oliver Stone

Two decades later came Sutherland’s most memorable cameo in Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic JFK as the mysteriously named X. Sutherland manages to command the tone of the film in less than ten minutes of screen time, setting the mood for the film’s shift in pacing as its characters get closer and closer to uncovering the truth about the JFK assassination. X is a personification of the paranoia surrounding the death of JFK. He is rightly remembered as a key component of the film, despite not appearing in much of the runtime.

With a subtle acting style that helped to usher in the New Hollywood era, Donald Sutherland will be remembered as one of cinema’s greats. May he rest in peace.



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