As long as I got a fist, I'll punch it!
And as long as I've got a tooth, I'll bite it!
And when I'm old and grey
and toothless and bootless,
I'll gum it, till I go to heaven,
and booze goes to hell!
~Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry
Burt Lancaster’s Oscar-winning performance as unholy con man Elmer Gantry (1960) is quite simply the most enjoyable performance I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. From the moment he’s onscreen, Lancaster charms and amuses as he’s sliding across the floor on his knees, railing against sinners, or telling his rapt audience what they want to hear. Burt would appear to have sixty-four teeth instead of the traditional thirty-two, as his zillion megawatt star power shines brighter than any other performance ever. The fact that Lancaster doesn’t get swallowed up by the sometimes lumbering film is testament to his charisma. Witness his rousing singing of the spiritual I’m on My Way, the way he chows down on a simple plate of black-eyed peas and acts as though it were manna from heaven. Lancaster is always “on." Elmer Gantry was his crowning achievement as an actor and anyone who’s seen the movie will never forget his performance. He's commanding on the screen; preaching, shouting, and spellbinding. The movie is eminently quotable, with every confident line delivered in Lancaster’s singular voice (which I've been known to impersonate for unwilling friends, hated enemies, and complete strangers).
In 1997 I was fairly new to classic film (outside of westerns, war, and the Three Stooges) and Lancaster was among the first movie stars I took an interest in watching. He had made a lasting impression on me years before after I saw him in Gunfight at O.K. Corral, but it wasn’t until 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success that I became fascinated with the actor. I had originally sought out the movie because I wanted to soak up the film’s 1950s NYC atmosphere; the nightclubs, the dirty cops, sleazy performers, and down-and-out losers. A friend and I had a weekly ritual of watching two movies every Friday night. The first film of the evening varied, but the finale was always Sweet Smell of Success, which we watched for fifteen consecutive Fridays. The movie itself is brilliant, capturing the New York City in that time and place, and Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker mesmerized me with his reptilian chill and icy reserve. A character surrounded by expensive art yet asking the slimy Sidney Falco how many S’s there were in “Picasso.” Everything about the character was cold. Then along came 1960 and Elmer Gantry, and a completely hot-blooded character. With these two performances I saw Lancaster in two very different roles at the peak of his powers.
Lancaster was my introduction to the Hollywood I’ve since come to love so much. He wasn’t strictly an action hero like John Wayne and he lacked the polish and sophistication of Cary Grant. But he was so much more adaptable to various roles. Lancaster was always one to choose interesting and challenging parts, ones that sometimes forced him into awkwardness onscreen, Come Back, Little Sheba is the first example of Lancaster “stretching out.” It did nothing for him awards wise, but it enhanced his reputation at a time when leading men stayed well within their limitations. Lancaster was too young for the role, but executes his part admirably. Watch Lancaster with fellow tough guys Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin in 1966's The Professionals. This was the film that made me realize that Burt could hang with the toughest of hombres and still come out on top. His character is by far the most engaging of the group. Lancaster must have learned from his experience with Gary Cooper in 1954’s Vera Cruz, when Lancaster mugs, chews scenery, and carries on while Cooper ends up looking all the better for it! Ten years later, Lancaster underplays Marvin’s tough S.O.B. persona because no one was nastier than Lee Marvin. No one. So Burt goes in another direction and remains the most memorable character in the movie. There’s also The Swimmer (1968), a film based on a haunting John Cheever story about a middle-aged man in crisis—aren’t they always—and having quite a time in dealing with it. I won’t reveal the plot, but I couldn’t imagine any other actor from Lancaster’s generation taking on such a role and being so vulnerable. Burt’s brilliant in it and The Swimmer is one of the great forgotten movies of the 1960s.
Good for the Ladies: Here are Lancaster's female co-stars who were nominated or won Oscars in their films with him: (*won)
Barbara Stanwyck- Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Shirley Booth*- Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
Deborah Kerr- From Here to Eternity (1953)
Anna Magnani*- The Rose Tattoo (1955)
Katharine Hepburn- The Rainmaker (1956)
Shirley Jones*- Elmer Gantry (1960)
Susan Sarandon- Atlantic City (1981)
I admire actors whose performances improve as they age (Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne) and I’ll add Lancaster to that list, too. It would seem that Lancaster was the best possible actor for a novice film buff to follow because his career remained interesting for its entire run, whether it was in a late 1940s Noir (The Killers; I’ll Walk Alone; Criss Cross) the mega star period of the fifties (The Crimson Pirate; From Here to Eternity; Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), his career peak of the early 1960s (Elmer Gantry; The Birdman of Alcatraz), the studied character roles of the late sixties-early seventies (a trio of gritty westerns; Go Tell the Spartans) or his status as elder statesman in the 1980s (Atlantic City; Field of Dreams). Burt Lancaster was my introduction to “grown up” classic films and I couldn’t be happier, or more entertained.