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Burt Lancaster: Always Larger Than Life

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Earlier this month, Burt Lancaster would have turned 98, an improbable age for most of us to reach. Yet this actor's unique persona always exuded such robust vitality, you'd be forgiven for thinking that of all people, he just might make it.

If any star was larger than life, it was Burt.

Though sadly he never reached this milestone, he bequeathed to us a stellar body of work that, like the actor himself, simply cannot be ignored. A look at the trajectory of his career also reveals a savvy businessman whose mind was as strong and agile as his physique.

Born the son of a postal worker in New York City, young Burt grew up tough, but from adolescence on was able to channel his immense energy into gymnastics. This talent led to a formative stint as an acrobat in a circus. The athleticism he developed at this point in his life would help define his Hollywood image later.

Lancaster discovered acting while serving his country during World War II, and was ideally positioned when Hollywood was scouting for fresh male talent after hostilities ended. He landed a key role in Robert Siodmak's scorching crime drama, "The Killers" (1946), based on the Hemingway short story.

After the film's release, Burt found himself an overnight celebrity. He later said that his sudden ascension to stardom only resolved him to work that much harder to become a good actor. And that's precisely what he did.

And just consider for a moment his competition in those years -- in particular, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.

At a time when "The Method" was transforming the prevailing approach to onscreen acting, Lancaster had to rely solely on his natural gifts. Reportedly he always felt competitive with Brando, which seems only natural: Burt had turned down the original Broadway part of Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire" that made the brooding young actor a star, and a quarter century later he would lose the plum role of Don Corleone in "The Godfather" to the enigmatic Brando.

Still, this heightened awareness of precisely who he was up against served him well: it made him focus on honing his craft and take more risks to extend his range.

Lancaster was also one of the first Hollywood personalities to create his own production company. In 1948, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster was formed specifically to guide his career. Though the business was not always run efficiently, the decisions made on behalf of its founder were most often dead-on.

Perhaps Brando was thought to be a better actor, and other stars may have proved more popular in any given year, but over the long haul, few would make stronger movie choices more consistently than Burt Lancaster.

(This fact is reflected on our website, where no less than 22 Lancaster titles are featured.)

Here are just 10 of them that I believe reflect his very best work:

Brute Force (1947): Tough, unsmiling inmate Joe Collins (Lancaster) has spent much of his long prison term butting heads with sadistic, power-hungry Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Sentenced to a merciless work detail in the subterranean drainpipe after one of Munsey's stool pigeons is killed in a machine-shop accident, Collins determines to hatch a breakout plan with his cellmates. Jules Dassin's gritty prison melodrama puts a twist on the archetypal bust-out scheme by revisiting, in flashback, the pre-penitentiary lives of Collins -- ably played by an intense young Lancaster -- and his crew, colorfully brought to life by character actors Whit Bissell, Howard Duff, and John Hoyt. In a fine performance, Charles Bickford appears as the prison's gruff de facto leader and newspaper editor who throws in his lot with Collins. The other ace in Dassin's deck is Cronyn, playing a corrupt, savage prison guard bent on bringing "discipline" to his inmates, while nursing a megalomaniacal ambition to replace the wimpy Warden. Aside from the ominous noir visuals, Dassin explores issues endemic to prison life and wraps them up in an ugly finale meant to evoke a Nazi bloodbath.

The Crimson Pirate (1952): Captain Vallo (Lancaster) -- the most energetic and cunning of 18th-century pirates -- seizes a cache of ammunition from a Spanish ship and decides to sell it to the rebels of Spain. An agent from Spain then offers Vallo a sizable bribe if he agrees to snatch the rebel leader instead. The pirate is torn between his love of money and a nagging sense of honor which draws him to the rebels' side. Lancaster's showbiz start as an acrobat is on full display in this kinetic, vibrant and spirited adventure; both his grace in motion and youthful charisma dazzle. Eva Bartok makes a fetching love interest as well. And Burt's old acrobat pal Nick Cravat is on-hand playing Vallo's mute sidekick (the studio wouldn't let him speak on-screen because of his thick New York accent). Cravat matches the young star's impressive moves, if not his million-watt smile. Also look for Christopher Lee and Dana Wynter in minor roles. Lots of action and color fill this sweeping picture, which is certain to enthrall grown-ups and children alike. By all means, set sail with "The Crimson Pirate."

From Here to Eternity (1953): Based on James Jones' epic novel, a tough marine sergeant (Lancaster) begins a torrid affair with the wife of his commanding officer (Deborah Kerr), while a lowly private (Montgomery Clift) becomes a tragic victim of his own boxing prowess. All this happens right on Pearl Harbor, just as that naval outpost -- and the United States itself -- literally get bombed into World War II. "Eternity" virtually swept the 1953 Oscars -- and no wonder. It remains a fascinating, multi-layered human drama set within the larger canvas of impending conflict. The all-star cast is uniformly excellent, with Lancaster's performance providing the glue that holds the picture together. Also, Frank Sinatra's Oscar-winning turn as hot-headed, scrawny Maggio single-handedly revived his sagging career. And the torrid (for the time) beach scene with Lancaster and Kerr still qualifies as one of cinema's most indelible images. And just wait for that culminating Pearl Harbor attack sequence. A must see.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957): Desperate to promote one of his clients, slimy press flack Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) turns to the most powerful man he knows: acid-tongued gossip columnist J.J Hunsecker (Lancaster), who can make or break anyone in New York. Falco gets what he needs from Hunsecker, but then is maneuvered to help ruin a mild-mannered jazz trumpeter (Martin Milner) with eyes for the poison-pen scribe's younger sister (Susan Harrison). Turning from his comedic work at Britain's Ealing Studios to direct this noirish, all-American masterpiece about greed, ambition, and the perversity of power, Alexander MacKendrick relied on estimable playwright Clifford Odets and writer Ernest Lehman for their scripting talent. What resulted was one of the most cynical, caustic films ever made about the sleazy underbelly of Manhattan show business, featuring blistering performances from Lancaster and a young Curtis in his prime. "I love this dirty town," proclaims the Walter Winchell-esque Hunsecker, and you never once doubt him. Sinister, tawdry, and burnished with a tone-perfect jazz score by Elmer Bernstein, "Success" was never this twisted.

Elmer Gantry (1960): Hiding his dissolute leanings, charismatic street preacher Elmer Gantry (Lancaster) teams up with touring tent revivalist Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) to spread the word of God, and before long the two are making money hand over fist. Falconer falls in love with Gantry, and with her new spoils, he builds an enormous house of worship by the ocean. But the mercurial minister's womanizing past is about to revisit them in the person of Lulu (Shirley Jones), a jilted prostitute out for a little payback. Based on the bestselling novel by Sinclair Lewis, this tale of a lustful, larger-than-life charlatan's fall from grace owes its strength to the force of Lancaster's dynamic, Oscar-winning performance. His Gantry preaches hellfire and brimstone, but loves life -- and women -- with a hearty gusto that is as pure as Sister Falconer's vanity is unbecoming. Jones also took home an Oscar, playing against type in a sultry turn as a minister's "fallen" daughter who became Gantry's lover. Also great is Arthur Kennedy as an atheist journalist modeled on the legendary H.L. Mencken. Fiery and sharp, Richard Brooks's satirical take on Bible-thumping hypocrisy and hucksterism still speaks volumes in today's world.

The Leopard (1963): This sweeping film portrays a transitional period in 19th-century Italy when the old aristocracy gave way to the rising middle classes to forge a more democratic nation. This societal change is glimpsed through the eyes of the aging prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Lancaster), decidedly of the old Italy, who views its passing philosophically. Luchino Visconti's exquisite epic weaves the theme of societal upheaval into a sumptuous cinematic tapestry. The impossibly beautiful Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale play two young lovers who represent the incoming order. Meanwhile, a meticulously dubbed Lancaster gives a flavorful, commanding performance as Delon's uncle. The film's final set piece is a particular stunner, often cited as one of the most visually arresting sequences in all film. This is one "Leopard" you should definitely approach. (Trivia note: both Brando and Laurence Olivier were considered for Lancaster's role here, just as all three acting titans would compete for the part of Don Corleone nearly 10 years later.)

The Train (1964): Cold-blooded Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) wants to remove a cache of priceless art from France by train in the waning days of the Nazi occupation. With the help of some gallant friends in the Resistance, including comely innkeeper Christine (Jeanne Moreau) railroad worker Paul Labiche (Lancaster) takes on the dangerous task of derailing this mission. John Frankenheimer's pulse-pounding war film is lean and riveting, as Lancaster's character works intrepidly to foil Von Waldheim's exacting plans. Lancaster is restrained and no-nonsense as Labiche -- thankfully he doesn't even attempt a French accent, while Scofield is icy perfection as the ruthless Von Waldheim. This is one of my personal favorites from the '60s and ranks among the talented Frankenheimer's best work.

The Swimmer (1968): Hopping from one backyard swimming pool to another in suburban Connecticut, affluent, middle-aged ad executive Ned (Lancaster) appears to be fit and happy. His neighbors, however, seem distraught and worried about Ned's mental state, and it slowly becomes evident that his destination is not just home, but a reckoning with the devastating truth of his past -- and present. Frank Perry's heart-wrenching adaptation of the celebrated John Cheever short story digs under the skin of suburban malaise to reveal a kind of festering wound of disappointment, represented by a man absolutely naked in his psychological trauma. Lancaster never really gave a bad performance, but here he is riveting, playing a manic, effusively upbeat man who keeps insisting to everyone that he's "okay." Slowly, of course, we come to realize some darker things about Ned, and why he's really not okay at all. Perry handles the slow reveal with magisterial grace, with all of it building to a shattering final image. Stylishly photographed and robustly acted, this unforgettable film will swim through your brain for a long time.

Atlantic City (1980): Lou Pasco (Lancaster) is a remnant of the old Atlantic City, a fading numbers runner who takes care of Grace (Kate Reid), the lonely, elderly widow of a mob boss. His neighbor Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) is a symbol of the city's coming revitalization with legalized gambling -- a young waitress and aspiring blackjack dealer who hopes one day to work in a Monte Carlo casino. Lou comes into unexpected money via a botched drug deal, and finally gets the chance to live the dream he'd almost given up on, one that includes a new wardrobe, a wad of cash, and Sally on his arm. But will Lou's new reality last, and will Sally get the chance to make her own dreams come true? Hypnotic film by French director Louis Malle deals with themes of decay and regeneration in both character and setting. Lou personifies the past, Sally the future, with Atlantic City itself the transitional present making it possible for this unlikely duo to connect. Sarandon is luminous, but Lancaster's Lou forms the movie's heart and soul. A top-notch script by John Guare completes a winning package. This "City" is well worth a visit.

Local Hero (1983): A large Texas oil and gas company wants to purchase a small Scottish town and turn it into a refinery. The company sends along Mac (Peter Riegert), the proverbial smooth salesman, to negotiate with the locals. Any hopes of closing the deal quickly evaporate as Mac must adjust to the more leisurely rhythms of the town's natives. To force matters to a head, Mr. Happer (Lancaster), the company's remote, eccentric leader, ultimately flies in for a personal visit. But is oil the only thing on Happer's mind? Bursting with personality and charm, "Hero" is a touching fable about finding magic in the everyday business of living. Riegert is spot-on as Mac, a man who thinks he understands his place in the world and then gets gradually transformed by a special time and place. A charming Lancaster dominates the film's later scenes as the star-struck Happer. This feature is heroic indeed: a movie with heart and spirit that gradually sneaks up on you.

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