The towering Canadian actor with the velvety voice moved easily between portraying a good guy and horrific villain. With off beat looks, the anti-movie star left Canada to study with Olivier in England, returning to Hollywood in the sixties and attracting attention in The Dirty Dozen (1967). Though Robert Altman did not want to cast him in MASH (1970) the producers did, they won out, and just like that Sutherland was a major star. Through the seventies he gave an array of outstanding performances, working with world class directors in outstanding films.
Over the past weekend, Sutherland was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, finally giving the gifted actor that elusive Oscar that never came. In fact, Sutherland has not even been nominated! Despite superb performances in Klute (1971), The Day of the Locust (1975), his career best work in Ordinary People (1980), Eye of the Needle (1981), Backdraft (1991) and Without Limits (1998) he has not ever been nominated. The entire cast and director of Ordinary People (1980) was nominated but not Sutherland despite being the heart and soul of the film.
More often than not he is the best thing in whatever film he is in. His long scene with Kevin Costner in JFK (1991) is electrifying, a staggering amount of information given in such a short time, and stated with logical, passionate terms. As Dr. Norman Bethune in the Canadian epic Bethune (1990) he was magnificent, but audiences did not find the film. Too bad, because it is a beautiful performance from the actor who bears a striking resemblance to Bethune.
It is kind of sad that an entire generation will know him only as President Snow in the franchise The Hunger Games, because there is so much more there to see. An entire lifetime of great performances are available for viewing, and demand to be seen.
Supporting and small parts dominated his career the last twenty years, though he was always a welcome lead, and he was always a delight in whatever film he was in. Here is the list of top 10 movies of Donald Sutherland.
1. Ordinary People (1980)
As Cal Jarrett, a tax attorney who has experienced the horrific tragedy of losing a son in a boating accident, while the younger tried to commit suicide over his guilt in his brother’s death. Trying to keep his family together, but barely holding on, Cal does not realize he is in fact the great strength holding them together. His wife coldly buries the past that Cal and his son so need to talk about to understand. The final scene between father and son will break your heart in its raw honesty and visceral power. Sutherland quietly underplays every scene he is in, listening, watching, reacting and in doing so gives a performance for the ages, the best in the film, and finest of his career. Yes, he should have been nominated.
2. Without Limits (1998)
In this fine film about doomed runner Steve Prefontaine, Sutherland is brilliant as the kindly, near fatherly trainer Bill Bowerman. One of the most moving scenes is one of the most simplistic, Sutherland bending to tie his runner’s shoe, an act of such gentle goodness we are stunned by its sheer humanity. Training Prefontaine was a careful balance in working with a massive ego, one that Bowerman understood and could handle. Gentle but steely in his resolve, his connection with the doomed runner was quite unique. Sutherland deserved a supporting actor nod for this.
3. JFK (1991)
In a sequence that lasts about fifteen minutes, Sutherland narrates what might have happened November 22, 1963 in Dallas. Walking, and sitting with Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) the character Sutherland portrays, known as X details how the government conspired, and why, to kill President Kennedy. Though he speaks quickly, and almost matter of factly, X speaks with mounting horror and shock at the lengths the government went too. His eyes focused, intense, Sutherland is the conscience of the film, electrifying.
4. Bethune (1990)
As Dr. Norman Bethune, in this huge, massively flawed Canadian production, Sutherland shines, but no one saw the film. After having played the controversial Dr. Norman Bethune on television for CBC, Sutherland was approached to do the part in a feature film, a huge epic directed by Phillip Borsos. Though he and his director locked horns on the interpretation of Bethune, the film proceeded and was eventually released, limited in Canada. Sutherland, as expected was superb in the uneven film, winning Canada’s Oscar, the Genie for Best Actor. Oh that the film had been equal to its great actor.
5. Eye of the Needle (1981)
A very different love story, merged with a war story in which Sutherland is both wickedly vicious and intensely vulnerable. Nicknamed The Needle for his manner of killing with a sharp stiletto, he sent into England to spy and enters the life of a pretty young widow. Portrayed by Kate Nelligen, the two enter into a passionate affair until of course she discovers who he is and his intentions. Sutherland had played evil before, for Bertolucci in 1900 (1977) but never as enigmatic or charismatic as this. We understand why she falls in love with him, just as we understand why she fears him.
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6. Backdraft (1991)
Ronald is a bright-eyed pyromaniac with scars, burns on his body. He goes before the parole board hoping to say all the right things to be paroled and let out of jail. But a fire inspector knows Ronald better than the man knows himself, and ends any chance of Ronald getting of jail with a couple of questions at the parole hearing. Speaking about fire with awe, calling it his animal, Sutherland is truly frightening as the intensely dangerous pyromaniac, who loves burning people alive. Eight minutes on-screen and he steals the entire film.
7. Klute (1971)
Though the film belongs to Jane Fonda, astonishing as hooker Bree Daniels, Sutherland is outstanding as cop John Klute, sent to find a missing girl, and who ends up protecting the stalked Bree. This was the first film where his size was really recognized and used, a towering man he fills a lot of space and can be a formidable presence. He will fall in love with Bree, and be drawn into her frightening nightlife of drugs, pimps, sex and sometimes murder, entirely foreign to him. The presence between the two actors is very powerful and watching them onscreen together nearly intoxicating.
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The remake of the classic fifties film was better than the first, a terrific science fiction thriller that gets under your skin and terrifies the audience. Sutherland portrays a health inspector who feels in his bones something is wrong, that things in the city are not right. Before long, he learns he is right, aliens are taking over the bodies of those on earth, unemotional, unfeeling but part of a hive mind in conquering. Sutherland is outstanding as a man watching his friends taken away by the creatures and provides the last startling moment of the film.
9. MASH (1970)
His breakthrough performance as Hawkeye, a doctor at a medical unit in Korea during the war. Now that said, make no mistake, this film is about the war in Viet Nam. The studio was not comfortable making a film set in Viet Nam, so they decided it would be in Korea, but watch closely, Altman made sure audiences would know. The long hair, the peace insignias, the complete irreverence about everything was so sixties. Sutherland was superb, bringing great life and genuine humour to the role and film. Rather than fall into despair about his plight and where he is, Sutherland finds the laughter ahead of the tears. An outstanding piece of acting.
10. Day of the Locust (1975)
In a superb performance as the awkward, shy Homer, he is the target of a nasty child actor who dresses as a girl, and horribly used by an actress wanna be, portrayed by Karen Black. Not comfortable around people, Homer stays on the outside, viciously taunted by the child, until he finally erupts in violence, which we know has been building his entire life. His single act of violence, and it is horrific, results in Homer literally being physically torn apart by a mob gone berserk. An unsettling, powerful work.
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