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He came to acting with the Irish city boy’s instinctive aversion to the Method’s open, emotional display based on affective memory. He mistrusted any director who would probe and pry too much behind the hard-earned facade, instinctively more comfortable with Kuleshov’s dictum that “people performing organized, efficient work appear best on the screen.”
Growing up Burt Lancaster represented for me the values of Old Hollywood royalty, an impression formed after I first saw childhood favourites such as Tough Guys and Trapeze. Here was an actor with all the physical traits of a American celebrity – bronzed, bright blue eyes,with an athletic build and a ready smile – with an evident intelligence and grace in his manner. I knew very little about him, but I had inherited a sort of awe for the man from my parents.
As it turns out, Kate Buford’s biography describes how he was a producer of independent film Marty starring Ernest Borgnine. That was a movie my dad would often talk about, so I feel an even greater affection for the actor/producer than I did before.
Of Scotch-Irish stock, with his grandfather traveling to the States from Ulster, Lancaster was born in New York’s East Harlem. As such he grew up with Jewish and Italian-American children of immigrants. The values and cultural influences of that early time would stay with him for the rest of his life. I was confused at first as to why Buford mentioned his film with Viconti, The Leopard, so regularly in the early passages of this book, until she reveals that his performance in that film was the culmination of that childhood heritage. The film casts a New York Mick as an Italian aristocrat without any hints of an imbalance. It was the role Lancaster was born to play.
The other great influence on the actor’s career was his entering into the life of a circus acrobat, along with his long-time friend Nick Cuccia. There he discovered a talent for the trapeze and a discipline that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. The young, bookish boy with a slight frame had grown into a tall, muscular performer, with a domineering voice that could bellow from the centre of a stage just as well as ply his audience with a coaxing Irish charm.
Lancaster’s discovery and rapid elevation into the craft of acting, following his return from America’s World War II campaign in Italy, was notable not only for the speed of his ascent, but his desire to control his newfound career. From early on, the ambitious autodidact paid close attention to every aspect of business on film sets, quickly developing his own opinions on how things should be done, before forming a partnership Harold Hecht to produce films, with Hecht-Lancaster becoming a mini-studio in their own right, winning Oscars for films such as Marty. Lancaster’s ability to capitalize on his celebrity by making a studio picture to pay off bills before jumping at another personally chosen independent project set the tone for indie cinema auteurs in the future, such as John Cassavetes or Steven Soderbergh.
With fame came of course inevitable temptations. In this regard Burt Lancaster was no trail-blazer, his wife Norma raising an ever increasing family of children while he philandered with co-stars. His decent family man image and fame was also at risk due to his association with suspected communists and radicals during the HUAC Senate hearings. Lancaster, Buford notes, was no communist, but carried with him the values of loyalty to friends that he had learned in New York’s East Side. The despised liberalism of his associations was more evidence of survival traits he had learned growing up.
What is remarkable about Lancaster’s career is the way in which he weathered such controversies, including chinese whispers about his own sexuality, to sustain a very successful film career. Until ill-health robbed him of the ability to do so, he continued to appear in films well into his old age, include well-known hits such as Local Hero and Field of Dreams. Despite his much-feared explosive temper, he was also noted to be quite humble in taking credit for the advantages of his fame, unlike his self-proclaimed ‘buddy’, Kirk Douglas. Lancaster’s involvement in political fundraising went mostly unremarked upon, with the exception of prominent AIDS awareness ads in the 80s.
Buford’s book is a fitting celebration of a remarkable period in Hollywood history. Recommended for the eager cineastes out there.