All six feet two of Burt Lancaster is spread out next to Deborah Kerr as they kiss each other on the beach in From Here to Eternity (1953). This is one of the most famous movie love scenes, parodied and copied many times afterward, and it is telling that Kerr is basically on top of Lancaster at first in the surf as the tide flows over and away from them. She runs off and he runs after her and looks down at her as she stretches out on the sand, but any expectation that he will now be the dominant partner recedes as he slowly and reverently sinks to his knees to kiss her. This display of tenderness is extended by a moment right after the kiss when he looks at Kerr and his face is open in a sweet and childlike way, hinting at the softie underneath his hulking frame.
This scene on the beach in From Here to Eternity was one of the first times Lancaster showed the depth of his feelings on-screen. The year before, he had let a distinct sense of emotional frailty come through in Come Back, Little Sheba, where he played a person very different from himself, a stiff, prim man uncomfortable in his own body. Lancaster was initially known for a blunt and uncomplicated projection of physical strength, but in the early 1950s he revealed himself as a performer who was willing to show us what lay beneath that need for dominance and control: sensitivity and intelligence.
Before this breakthrough, Lancaster had reason to hide any sign of weakness because he grew up on the tough streets of New York, and the cadences of those streets are always there in his voice. Anyone can imitate the Cro-Magnon grunts of Kirk Douglas, who made several films with Lancaster, but Lancaster is harder to imitate because he attacks words and runs them together so quickly that they come out as rat-a-tat-tat sounds meant to establish him as the alpha of alphas. He clearly believes in his own strength most of the time, which is why it was most dramatic in his films when that strength was somehow undermined.
As a young man Lancaster worked as an acrobat in circuses with his childhood friend Nick Cravat; he was proud enough of his strapping body that he posed for cheerful and sensual nude photographs in his youth. Lancaster served in World War II and worked with the USO to entertain the troops, and he was persuaded to do a short-lived play on Broadway where he was spotted by Harold Hecht, a Hollywood agent who got him signed up with producer Hal Wallis. In his star-making film debut, The Killers (1946), Lancaster walks like someone in a dream and on a tightrope, dazed yet stealthy, and in the noir movies that followed he was cast as a fall guy or a sucker, his fortunes rising and falling like the waves in his extraordinary head of hair.
In the prison movie Brute Force (1947), Lancaster stays very still and lets his looks and his body do everything for him, but he was less successful when he tried to stretch himself in All My Sons (1948), an adaptation of a prestigious Arthur Miller play in which he is too inexperienced to play the guilt and the self-doubt in his role. As a young actor, Lancaster sometimes had trouble piecing behavior together and making transitions between emotions, and he knew that the one-two punch of From Here to Eternity and Come Back, Little Sheba, in which he finally gained full control of his effects, was a turning point for him.
“Few male stars of his era pushed themselves further than Lancaster into areas of weariness and vulnerability.”
He set up a company to produce films with Harold Hecht, both for himself and for others, in 1955, a partnership that flourished from the start, and it was notable just how varied the roles were that Lancaster chose. Among his great projects was the acidic Sweet Smell of Success (1957), where he played the all-powerful and megalomaniacal columnist J. J. Hunsecker, who prides himself on being “hep” and knowing all the scores. Lancaster sadistically savors lines like, “You’re dead, son, get yourself buried” and “My big toe would make a better president,” but Hunsecker has an Achilles’ heel: his overpowering love for his sister Susan (Susan Harrison). And so Lancaster is able to reveal the wormlike softness under this man’s hard outer shell.
It was in the 1960s that Lancaster did his very best work on-screen, starting with the satyr-like con man Elmer Gantry (1960). Lancaster seems to be electrified with some kind of elemental power here; his hair is at its wildest, combed forward and sticking up and all over the place like antennae because Gantry is the lustiest man on earth and wants to be super-alert and get a rise out of everyone around him. He got an Oscar for this movie, but he was even more impressive in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) as a hardened prisoner and obsessive so willful and stubborn that he intimidates his jailers. This is an ideal role for Lancaster because it relies on a combination of outward brute strength and private, resentful gentleness.
He did what he himself thought of as his best work in Luchino Visconti’s novelistic and painterly The Leopard (1963) as a Prince who knows that his way of life is on the way out. In the climactic ball sequence, Lancaster fleshes out the Prince’s tiredness, his “ah well” awareness that he might have wasted his life, and finally his open grief, which is revealed when a diamond-like tear slides down his face and he closes his eyes as if lowering a curtain. He worked a second time for Visconti in Conversation Piece (1974), another requiem on a much smaller scale, where Lancaster transitions seamlessly and touchingly from attempts at intimidation to outright elderly helplessness. This is a difficult role, and Lancaster plays it with insight and control. Few male stars of his era pushed themselves further than Lancaster into areas of weariness and vulnerability.
In The Swimmer (1968), an adaptation of a John Cheever story, a fifty-five-year-old Lancaster plays the entire film wearing nothing but a tight blue swimsuit. His body is still impressive enough to flaunt, but this is a movie where Lancaster lets his smiling flim-flam get exposed and his rather hollow bluster get ridiculed. In the 1970s, Lancaster started to play more character parts, but he took one more memorable lead role in Atlantic City (1980) as Lou Pascal, an old underworld hanger-on and “those were the days” type who knows a big chance when he sees it. This is a movie where Lancaster’s smiling self-satisfaction is used for comic purposes.
“He let us see some of his heart and mind in his best movies, but memories of Lancaster still often come back to the way he controlled his body.”
The actor who could play the Prince in The Leopard and a fringe guy like Lou Pascal had range, and Lancaster’s range proves that a prince and a small-time crook have more in common than we might think; only their circumstances differ. Lancaster worked mainly on television after that, ending his career opposite Sidney Poitier as a lawyer arguing for segregation in Separate But Equal (1991). This devil’s advocate part was a reminder that he was a vocal opponent of McCarthyism in the 1950s and a fundraiser for Martin Luther King in the 1960s, and that he spoke out for education about AIDS in the mid-1980s.
He let us see some of his heart and mind in his best movies, but memories of Lancaster still often come back to the way he controlled his body. “Just watching him walk was almost a physical pleasure,” gushed Shelley Winters about Lancaster in her first tell-all memoir from 1980, where she details an affair with him so intense that the young Marlon Brando comes across as just a tasty side dish to distract her from Lancaster’s seductive power. It was certainly a pleasure just to watch him walk from here to there in his first movies from the 1940s and to see the way he used his hands, which always seemed like the hands of a lover and artist who wanted to caress and shelter but would use his fists if he needed to. He was known for having a temper and a short fuse, but as is the case with most difficult people this was probably more about self-protection than anything else.
Lancaster could have just been a lucrative star if he had only played smiling heroes who could fly through the air with the greatest of ease, but he wanted to reveal more of himself and more about people and their delusions and their mistakes. The Prince in The Leopard is a giant in his social milieu, but that film ends with Lancaster alone and walking down a shabby alley like one of his noir suckers from the 1940s. Lancaster made himself into a major star and then a major actor by dramatizing the way social expectations can be a kind of prison that might turn a man into a monster like J. J. Hunsecker or a failure like Ned Merrill in The Swimmer. Lancaster’s keynote as a performer is not the assurance he broadcasted with his threatening smile but regret, and that sense of regret in his thoughtfully varied career still serves as a warning.
A series of Burt Lancaster’s films is playing on the Criterion Channel through March 31, 2020.