No Fear: R.I.P. Donald Sutherland

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2024)

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Generally, I don’t tear up every time I hear news of an actor’s passing. But this is one of those times:

Never daunted by a role, good, bad or ugly. Sounds about right. He was fearless, alright And what a resume…where do you even start?

Donald McNichol Sutherland was born in Saint John, Newfoundland/Labrador on July 17, 1935. I’ll admit that on occasion, I have completely forgotten that he was Canadian-born. But Sutherland himself certainly never forgot about his roots. From today’s obituary by the CBC:

Though he found international success, the actor maintained a professional and personal connection to Canada throughout his life. He narrated two documentaries for the National Film Board in the ’80s, lent his voice to the 2015 Canadian animated film Pirate’s Passage and returned to Toronto theatre — where he got his start — in the early 2000s. He was awarded a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2000.

“I’m a Canadian. The thing about Canada is that you go from east to west, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. I go away, I will go and live in Paris or I will go and live in London or whatever — [and] even in the United States — but my humour, what I am as a person is here, is rooted here,” he said during an interview with CBC News in 1985.

Indeed, his comedic roles (and they were many) were infused with that uniquely Canadian style of deadpan anarchy.

While a large portion of the films he is most well-known for were U.S. -produced box office hits (especially in his later years), he was also a notable player in world cinema throughout his career. He worked with filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci, Federico Fellini, Claude Chabrol,  Nicolas Roeg, and John Schlesinger.

I admired him for his political activism, which began in earnest when he joined Jane Fonda for her 1972 “FTA” (“Fuck the Army”) Vietnam War protest road tour that she organized for troops (as antithesis to the traditional rah-rah Bob Hope USO shows). It probably won’t come as a shock to Hullabaloo readers that his antiwar activism earned Sutherland a place on the NSA’s “watch list” for a period in the early 70s.  He even  joined the political blogosphere for a spell; writing some pieces for Huffington Post during the 2008 election.

As his son Kiefer wrote this morning, He loved what he did and did what he loved, and one can never ask for more than that. A life well lived.  All I can add to that is that ultimately, the work of an artist speaks for itself. Bearing that in mind, here are some of my favorite Donald Sutherland performances (with additional “must-sees” listed below).

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The Day of the Locust – Equal parts backstage drama, character study, and psychological horror, John Schlesinger’s 1975 drama (with a Waldo Salt screenplay adapted from the eponymous novel by Nathanaeal West) is the most unsettling Hollywood dream-turned nightmare this side of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Set in 1930s Los Angeles, the story revolves around a Hollywood newbie (William Atherton) who works in the art department of a major movie studio. He rents a cheap apartment housed in a complex chockablock with eccentric tenants, including an aspiring starlet (Karen Black) who lives with her ailing father (Burgess Meredith), a former vaudevillian who wheezes his way up and down hilly streets eking out a living as a door-to-door snake oil salesman.

The young artist becomes hopelessly infatuated with the starlet, but it quickly becomes apparent that, while she’s friendly toward him, it’s strictly a one-sided romance. Nonetheless, he continues to get drawn into her orbit-a scenario that becomes increasingly twisted, especially once she impulsively marries a well-to-do  but socially inept and sexually repressed accountant (Donald Sutherland). It all culminates in a Grand Guignol finale you may find hard to shake off.

A  gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city (shot by ace cinematographer Conrad Hall) that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.

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Don’t Look Now – This is a difficult film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth) stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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JFK –  Be forewarned: Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 drama about President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination is not the place to look for a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin (or “assassins”, plural), because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any prevalent narrative; and that it is by the director’s definition a “speculative” political thriller. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed that Stone himself has stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission (usually referred to as the “lone gunman theory”).

Stone’s narrative is so seamless and dynamic, many viewers didn’t get that he was mashing up at least a dozen *possible* scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when “Mr. X” (Donald Sutherland, who delivers a riveting 15-minute monologue that nearly steals the film) advises New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), “Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

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Kelly’s HeroesThe Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, a platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank with a secret stash of gold bullion worth millions.

Eastwood plays it straight, but there’s anachronistic M*A*S*H-style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”.

Also with Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) composed the  theme song, “Burning Bridges”.

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Klute – In the fullness of time (good god, I’m old) it’s easy to forget that respected Hollywood icon Jane Fonda toiled away in films for nearly a decade before she began to be taken seriously as an actor (her starring role in then-husband Roger Vadim’s 1968 sexploitation sci-fi trash classic Barbarella certainly didn’t help), There were two pivotal star vehicles that signaled that transition for Fonda as a creative artist – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and this lauded 1971 Alan J. Pakula film.

Fonda is “Bree”, a New York City call girl trying to transition out of the game. She becomes reluctantly embroiled in an investigation being conducted by an amateurish private detective named Klute (Donald Sutherland). Klute has been hired by a Pennsylvania-based CEO (Charles Cioffi) who wants him to track down an employee (and friend of Klute’s) who never returned from a business trip. The only clues Klute has is a stack of intimate letters written to Bree by the missing man.

While there is a definite mystery-thriller element to the story, the film is ultimately a two-character study of Bree and Klute as they develop a tenuous romantic relationship. Fonda and Sutherland are both excellent; Fonda picked up a Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar that year for her work.

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Little Murders – This dark, dark comedy from 1971 is one of my all-time favorite films. It was directed by Alan Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his own self-described “post-assassination play” (referring to the then-relatively recent murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy). That said, it is not wholly political; but it is sociopolitical (I see it as the pre-cursor to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network).

Elliot Gould is at the peak of his Elliot Gould-ness as a nihilistic (and seemingly brain-dead) free-lance photographer who is essentially browbeaten into a love affair with an effervescent sunny side-up young woman (Marcia Rodd) who is bound and determined to snap him out of his torpor. The story follows the travails of this oil and water couple as they slog through a dystopian New York City chock full o’ nuts, urban blight, indifference and random shocking acts of senseless violence (you know…New York City in the 70s).

There are so many memorable vignettes, and nearly every cast member gets a Howard Beale-worthy monologue on how fucked-up American society is (and remember…this was 1971). Disturbingly, it remains relevant as ever. But it is very funny. No, seriously. The cast includes Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi and Donald Sutherland (a hoot as a secular minister). Arkin casts himself as an eccentric homicide investigator.

Also recommended:

1900

Alex in Wonderland

Crackers

The Dirty Dozen

Eye of the Needle

Fellini’s Casanova

M*A*S*H

National Lampoon’s Animal House

Ordinary People

Panic

Start the Revolution Without Me

Steelyard Blues

The Wolf at the Door

 

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