Monday, February 16, 2009
Burt Lancaster: Against Type
That’s right, another miserable sod! I’ve been re-reading Against Type: a Biography of Burt Lancaster by Gary Fishgall (1995). It’s the first comprehensive Lancaster biography I’ve seen and the only one I’ve read, though I’ve been meaning to snag a copy of Kate Buford’s Burt Lancaster: an American Life. Against Type's narrative largely consists of behind-the-scenes anecdotes about his movie work, as well as the state of the world and the film industry as it was during Lancaster’s career, which spanned nearly fifty years. I’m glad the coverage of Burt the performer is emphasized over Burt the human being, because the latter was a difficult man to like: cold, ruthless, insensitive, and at times, downright nasty. As a result, Against Type plays like a broken record: Lancaster neglected his wife and children, carried on numerous affairs, bullied his co-stars and directed his directors, which led to a tense set, but when the project wrapped, there was nothing but kind words about Burt’s professionalism and drive for perfection, but never Burt the human being. There was no mistaking him for a nice guy, even if he gave his time and money to the civil rights struggle and championed liberal causes.
What I found to be the most fascinating thing about Burt Lancaster was that just like another Hollywood Dreamland hero, Cary Grant, he had his share of fears and insecurities. Lancaster covered his with an air of superiority and arrogance. Lancaster was not formally trained but had the charisma, natural ability, and keen intelligence to learn his craft and use his natural talents to blast most other performers off the screen. Still, when faced with formally-trained actors like Montgomery Clift, Lancaster’s knees literally shook with fear. He never got over that insecurity, even after establishing himself as one of the best actors of the 1960s. When making 1977’s The Island of Dr. Moreau*, Lancaster had the same fear of classically-trained Michael York, who was also twenty-eight years younger than the aging Lancaster, a former acrobat used to doing many of his own stunts, and who felt the onset of age acutely. When Lancaster was cast as Ned Merrill in the film adaptation of John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer, Burt was throwing up off camera before filming when it struck him how tough it would be to play the film's affluent WASP protaganist, a background so different from his own. Director Frank Perry, who fought with Burt throughout the filming of The Swimmer, got a sense of satisfaction at seeing the big star afraid to screw up a most challenging role, as Burt was throwing up on the set before shooting began. Lancaster also was deeply depressed about growing older. A professional acrobat who did many of his own stunts, Lancaster nonetheless saw the proverbial writing on the wall and made the move to playing character parts in the late 1960s, rather than the traditional leading man roles which were appropriate for actors half his age.
It is the anecdotes about Lancaster overcoming his personal insecurities on a professional level that make for a fascinating look into Lancaster the man, because it was his fiery determination and ability to get the best possible performance out of himself from a part that may not have been ideally suited to his range that makes Lancaster an interesting actor to watch. Against Type is aptly titled. Just read it with an interest in Burt Lancaster, the artist; the man himself will only disappoint you.
*Yours truly saw The Island of Dr. Moreau in a drive-in theater (still extant!) at age five and was duly traumatized by the mutated humans and had nightmares about it for days afterwards---okay, years afterwards--in fact, I recently watched the film's trailer and couldn't believe how some of that imagery still disturbed me, particularly when the real animals are attacking the Hum-animals. I think the concept itself is what creeps me out, not the obviously-latex masks worn by the actors. Just don't tell anyone that I was disturbed by a Samuel Z. Arkoff production, okay?