Why Donald Sutherland Is Being Celebrated

No one’s idea of a leading man, the actor has made an estimable career by making curious and provocative choices. Some of the best are on display in ‘Sutherland Tales’ at the Metrograph on the Lower East Side.

Via Park Circus
Donald Sutherland in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978). Via Park Circus

Can one fleeting moment in a movie define, if not the tenor of an actor’s career, then an integral component of his charisma? 

Donald Sutherland, who celebrated his 87th birthday in July, appears in the seminal gross-out comedy “Animal House” (1978) for what can’t be more than five minutes. Yet in that cinematic blink-of-an-eye, Mr. Sutherland provides one of the film’s funniest moments by exposing his naked behind while reaching for a coffee mug high up in a kitchen cabinet. 

The story has it that Mr. Sutherland volunteered to bare his backside on behalf of gender parity when actress Karen Allen initially refused to expose her own. As staged by director John Landis, the scene reveals much about the blissed-out English professor Dave Jennings, but it also points to Mr. Sutherland’s generosity as an actor — and that he likes a laugh. 

New Yorkers will have a chance to mull the trajectory and character of Mr. Sutherland’s career at the Metrograph on the Lower East Side. “Sutherland Tales” is an eight-film retrospective beginning November 25 that sets out to underline just how atypical the Canadian-born actor is. Positing him as a figure emblematic of post-1960s cinema, the Metrograph’s curatorial team has cherry-picked the movies that best exemplify Mr. Sutherland’s “long strange trip.”

Given Ms. Sutherland’s bit role in “Animal House,” you won’t find that movie included; nor, alas, is “Start the Revolution Without Me,” a rambunctious 1970 comedy that is a spiritual precursor to both “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Blazing Saddles.” And what about “Alex in Wonderland,” Paul Mazursky’s shambling riff on “8-½” from the same year, or the 2005 version of “Pride and Prejudice,” in which Mr. Sutherland plays Mr. Bennet? 

Again, the last role was a supporting character, but it speaks to Mr. Sutherland’s screen presence that his performances often overshadow those of the putative stars of given pictures. Over a career that spans 55 years — Mr. Sutherland made his movie debut in 1963’s kitchen sink drama “The World Ten Times Over” — he’s dipped his toe in any number of genres and has been sought after by directors as diverse as Oliver Stone, Alan J. Pakula, Frederico Fellini, Nicolas Roeg, and Paul Mazursky.

“Sutherland Tales” links the actor’s fortunes to the 1970s, “a period that was unusually receptive to eccentric leading men.” We’re subsequently told about Mr. Sutherland’s height (6 feet, 4 inches), features (long and lean), and voice (unique and reedy). The critic and historian David Thomson described the actor as possessing a “gaunt, disturbing, and disturbed appearance.” 

With that elastic mug, sleepy eyes, and dulcet voice, Mr. Sutherland has an almost preternatural knack for traversing the mundane, the menacing, and the goofy. No one’s idea of a leading man, he’s made an estimable career by making curious and provocative choices. It’s been almost 50 years since “Don’t Look Now” was released in theaters, but audiences still can’t get over the exuberance of Mr. Sutherland’s sex scene with Julie Christie. There’s a pretty good movie attached to it, I hear.

Mr. Sutherland came to stardom with his portrayal of “Hawkeye” Pierce in “M*A*S*H” (1970), director Robert Altman’s sardonic exegesis on the Vietnam war, albeit transposed onto the Korean War. Anachronism also filters through “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970), a Clint Eastwood vehicle in which Mr. Sutherland plays a character dubbed “Oddball,” a World War II tank commander who seems to have entered the effort via a time portal situated on Haight-Ashbury. Critics of the time found the performance jarring; contemporary viewers will likely consider it the best thing about the movie.

Rounding out the series are “Klute,” “Fellini’s Casanova,” “Ordinary People,” a creditable remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and “Space Cowboys,” wherein Mr. Sutherland is again paired with Mr. Eastwood, who also directed. 

His performance as a priapic astronaut in what is essentially “Grumpy Old Men In Orbit” is the best thing about an enjoyable, middle-of-the-road entertainment. In one scene, Mr. Sutherland generates considerable laughter displaying his aging assets while clad in his birthday suit. Some things, I am happy to report, never change.

The New York Sun

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