Burt Lancaster: An American Life
by Kate Buford
Format: Hardcover, 447pp.
Publisher: Knopf Alfred A
Pub. Date: March 2000
“Most people seem to think I’m the kind of guy who shaves with a blowtorch,” Burt Lancaster once said. “Actually, I’m inclined to be bookish and worrisome.” But on page 75 of Burt Lancaster: an American Life, Kate Buford relates how Lancaster once grabbed producer Hal Wallis by the lapels of his jacket and threatened to “pick you up, you son of a bitch, and throw you out the window of this office,” behavior not generally associated with bookworms. But such contradictions are what make Lancaster worthy of Buford’s 447-page biography.
In his youth, the future movie he-man wanted to be an opera singer. When that dream died in puberty (his voice changed), he turned to acrobatics, scraping out a meager living as a circus performer with his lifelong best friend Nick Cravet before being drafted to serve in World War II. Stardom arrived almost overnight. While visiting his wife in the talent agency where she worked as a secretary, Lancaster shared an elevator with an agent who, impressed by “one hell of a good looking soldier,” quickly arranged for him to audition for a Broadway play. He got the part, and, though the war drama, A Sound of Hunting, closed after two weeks, it was seen by the right people and Lancaster was soon in Hollywood, under contract to producer Hal Wallis whose resume already included such classics as Casablanca.
The novice star and the veteran producer endured a stormy relationship, fraught with complaints about money and the less than artistic movies that Wallis insisted Lancaster star in. By the time of his second film, the already confident Lancaster had turned arrogant. “This kid,” producer Mark Hellinger observed, “has made one picture out here, and already he knows more than anyone on the lot...He’s a frustrated Freudian, a body in search of a brain. ”
Buford details the actor’s rise quite splendidly, and convincingly theorizes that Lancaster’s pursuit of offbeat roles in everything from Come Back, Little Sheba and The Rose Tattoo was his way of compensating for having lost the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire to Marlon Brando.
Having very nearly claimed what is perhaps the greatest male role in 20th century theatre, Lancaster was restless to prove he was not merely a hunky screen presence, but an actor, too. The shrewd, amoral gossip columnist of 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success and his Oscar winning role in 1960’s Elmer Gantry offered convincing proof that he was, indeed, more than a beefcake pinup, but not everyone was convinced. Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review of The Scalphunters wrote, “Lancaster acts with his hair,” contending that the haircuts change (“from high, swashbuckling pompadours to plastered-down alcoholic and country- boy bowl cut”), but not the performances. Such criticisms did not deter Lancaster, though, and, in time, even roles that once seemed beyond his depth, such as that of the prince in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, were reevaluated and found impressive when re-released decades later.
If Lancaster was not as naturally gifted as Brando, he was more ambitious, and eagerly sought to expand his range whenever he could, never worrying about the effect his choices would have on his “image. It is Lancaster’s second career as a producer that makes for the biography’s most interesting chapters. Only two years after making his film acting debut in The Killers, Lancaster and his agent, Ben Hecht, had produced their first film, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, and, in 1955, they would claim a best picture Oscar for Marty.
By giving birth to one of the first and most successful independent production companies in Hollywood, Lancaster helped to set the standard for such future actor-producers as Clint Eastwood. Buford examines the way in which the original intent of Hecht-Hill (later Hecht-Hill-Lancaster) to produce more artistic films than the major studios were inclined to make got lost in the need to make the kind of profit necessary to please its backers, Warner Bros. and, later, United Artists. Lancaster proved himself no less concerned with the bottom line than his old employer Wallis. Eventually the company, awash in red ink and artistic pretensions, closed shop, and Lancaster was required to star in numerous films for UA at a lower salary to pay off the debt that Hecht-Hill-Lancaster had amassed.
As fine as Buford’s book is, she makes the same missteps that previous Lancaster biographers made by bringing in unsubstantiated rumors of bi-sexuality. Lancaster certainly had gay friends and expressed a preference for hiring homosexuals as secretaries, stating that he found them more loyal. This, however, falls short of proving that Lancaster was bi-sexual, but these days it seems that any biography worth its salt (or likely to top the best-seller lists) is required to bring its subject out of the closet, even if he’s never been in one. Overall, though, Buford’s book is a worthwhile read for fans of the star, presenting the subject as a sincere, unpretentious, if angry and troubled man with a strong sense of justice. But it does not overpower Gary Fishgall’s earlier Lancaster biography, Against Type, which managed to cover the same ground almost as thoroughly and more succinctly.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2000 Paris Woman Journal
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