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Donald Sutherland was an everyday depth player

Donald Sutherland was an everyday depth player
Donald Sutherland was an everyday depth player

 


TCanadian actor Donald Sutherland, who died June 20 at the age of 88, appeared in so many films during his long career and was so great even in films that barely deserved it that it is impossible to offer a definitive performance from Sutherland. He could be terribly threatening one minute, only to surprise you with his quavering vulnerability the next. Her facial features were supple and pleasant; he could win you over in a heartbeat with that big rubbery smile. He had a face you could trust, which is exactly what made him so extraordinarily affecting, for example, in Philip Kaufman's great 1978 paranoia science fiction symphony. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Once you knew that Sutherland's character, the kind, intelligent, trustworthy Matthew Bennell, had been taken over by aliens, it was like the sun had fallen from the sky. There are few more desperate endings in the history of cinema: when Sutherland Matthew lets out the piercing, hollow cry of the alien doubles, there is no hope of anything left. Once they have Sutherland, the rest of humanity doesn't stand a chance.

That's because Sutherland reflected our best and our worst, or maybe just our most flawed. Few actors have shown his gift for mixing intrepidity with such jubilant good humor. His career was marked, quite early on, by two shows showing us men in crisis, fathers confronted with a grief they can barely manage, even if they too feel responsible for helping their wives heal. In Robert Redfords 1980 Ordinary people, Sutherland's upper-middle-class patriarch, Calvin Jarrett, mourns the loss of his eldest son even as he tries to protect his emotionally fragile youngest child (Timothy Hutton) from the cold-heartedness of the boy's mother, Mary Tyler Moores Beth. Seven years earlier, in Nicolas Roeg's disturbing 1973 thriller Don't look now, He played a husband, John Baxter, trying to reason with his wife, Laura (Julie Christie), who is desperate to contact the couple's deceased child. In both films, he plays characters charged with the burden of being reasonable, even if they have to put their own feelings aside. These performances could be seen as two portraits of late 20th-century masculinity: even at a time when young people felt free to lash out, or at least tried to lash out, the specter of real adult suffering could not be escaped. Sutherland, in these characters, was at the heart of this suffering, taking responsibility. If young people of the time thought that becoming an adult meant the stuffy act of wearing a suit and tie, Sutherland showed us something else: that it meant confronting the most difficult emotional circumstances and feeling every minute intensely. To numb yourself is to get by.

To temper this heaviness, we also had the pleasure of seeing his playful and mischievous side in films like Robert Altman's woolly comedy from 1970. MASH POTATOES*: As military surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, stationed in a field hospital somewhere near the front lines during the Korean War, Sutherland radiated a wheezy good-nature in the dark. And he gave excellent performances even in dud films, like John Schlesinger's metaphor-laden clunker, at the dark heart of Hollywood and humanity. Day of the grasshopper, from 1975. Like Homer Simpson (the First of all Homer Simpson), a supernatural accountant who eventually falls prey to Hollywood's cruelty, Sutherland resists being transformed into a symbol. He could only play one character.

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Donald Sutherland as President Snow in The Hunger GamesLions Gate

The list of films Sutherland has appeared in and often been great in is too long for even a cursory summary. He has worked with the greatest directors of all stripes: Bernardo Bertolucci, Claude Chabrol, Federico Fellini, Clint Eastwood, James Gray. But one of his best performances is the one he gives in Alan Pakula's film. Klute, as a Pennsylvania detective assigned to shadow Bree Daniel, Jane Fonda's high-end New York call girl, in an attempt to solve a missing persons case. He falls in love with her, and in a classic turn of Sutherland subtlety, we know it before he does. At one point, she tries to manipulate him by offering to sleep with him for free. She turns around and begins to unzip her black sequined bodycon dress, exposing a tempting flash of skin. He hesitates, although he realizes that someone is sneaking onto the roof above, and he must act quickly and quietly to protect her. Yet for a split second as she opens that dress he almost looks like he's about to cry there's something tender and lost about her Detective Klute, even in the midst of her dedication to duty. It's the Sutherland touch. And he was disarmingly sexy too.

Although Sutherland's most notable roles came in the 1970s and 1980s, he also gave wonderful performances late in his career; he never just disappeared, as so many actors do. Modern audiences may know him best as President Snow in the hunger games movies. But he gave a stunning, joyous performance as Mr. Bennet, father of Keira Knightley's Elizabeth, in Joe Wright's luminous 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. His protection towards his daughter and his love for her shine like a quiet star, even if he also knows, as the end of his life approaches, that he will not always be there to guarantee her happiness. Sutherland, once again, as always, has made complicated human feelings become everyday things, probably because they are.

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