Burt Lancaster : a watching and reading guide

I remember the precise moment I understood Burt Lancaster. Or, at least, I remember the precise moment I understood that person he was on screen – the person he wanted to let me see. It was From Here To Eternity (1953) and it wasn’t the scene you might think. Though the film is justifiable notable for a thousand moments, let alone that iconic moment between Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf, it was a scene in the bar that got me. The soldiers are on temporary leave, carousing and partying. A simmering tension explodes between two of them in a bar. Warden – Burt Lancaster’s character – breaks it up.

There is a lot of talent in that room. Montgomery Clift. Frank Sinatra. Ernest Borgnine. And then there’s Burt Lancaster who just takes all that star-power and eats it for breakfast. He is a big man at this point, all muscle and height and power, and yet he moves with a lightness that I still can’t quite understand. Look how he places himself in this scene, how he handles himself – how he smashes that bottle only when he has to. This is West Side Story but with soldiers; a ballet of power, force and raw, sudden anger, and Lancaster the passionate, mad, desperate heart of it all.

Image: Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster perform on the parallel bars. (Library of Congress – public domain)

Burt Lancaster was discovered in an elevator. Anybody who looked like him – a tall, handsome guy – was bound to be an actor, reasoned the producer who rode those few flights with him. He invited Lancaster to an audition, the audition was successful, the rest is history. But every history comes with a story of what happened beforehand, and Lancaster’s story comes from the circus. He was an acrobat and together with his friend, Nick Cravat, formed Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brother’s Circus. Although injury formed a halt to his act, Lancaster and Cravat stayed close friends. You can see Cravat as the mute Ojo in The Crimson Pirate – mute, only because Cravat’s broad New York accent would have been somewhat out of place on a pirate ship on the high seas. A fascinating film in many respects – not only in how it gleefully goes past stupid and all the way back to brilliant – The Crimson Pirate sees Lancaster and Cravat leap and swing their way through the rigging, pausing only to break the fourth wall and address the camera directly, or to smile in a devilishly handsome manner at the local ladies.

A bodily actor at the best of times, Lancaster’s movement and grace could shift from elegance to pain and suffering in a heartbeat. Pent up in a small room, or limping down a traintrack, Lancaster could give you a man that’s done with the world and everything in it without a word. But when he does speak, he talks quickly, sharply. He talks in the manner of somebody who knows he’s going to be listened to. Who knows that he should be heard.

“Here’s this great big aggressive guy that looks like a ding-dong athlete playing these big tough guys and he has the soul of—who were those first philosophers of equality?—Socrates, Plato. He was a Greek philosopher with a sense that everybody was equal.” Tony Curtis, qtd. Burt Lancaster : An American Life.

Titanic in every sense, Lancaster had a prolific career that ended more recently than I realised. Forced to retire in 1990 after having a stroke, and passing away in 1994, his final role was in Field of Dreams in 1989. It’s easy to see actors of his ilk as belonging to another generation and so it’s rather strange to see him on the same screen as Kevin Costner. But time is tighter than we realise it to be, and even though he’s older, it’s his voice that makes the scene for me. Lancaster tells a story like it’s the first and last time he’ll ever tell it. There’s a cadence to his work, a rhythm. A song. In a way, he’s balanced on the bars and working the moment, same as he always did. But that’s Burt. That’s what he does.

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