|Original caricature by Jeff York of Donald Sutherland. (copyright 2017)|
Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
This is my fifth and final open letter suggesting candidates who are long overdue for Academy recognition. In the past weeks, I have made the case for the following artists to receive the honorary Governors Award: filmmaker David Lynch, actress Catherine Deneuve, actor Kurt Russell, and filmmaker Ridley Scott. My last nomination is an actor who’s been a star since the 1960s. Drama, comedy, farce, thrillers, sci-fi, horror – he’s thrived in them all. This character actor is one of Hollywood’s best and most prolific, and his IMDB page lists over 200 credits. Yet, remarkably, this living legend has yet to receive a single Oscar nomination. This oversight must be corrected immediately by bestowing the 2017 Governors Award upon Donald Sutherland.
From 1967, when he broke through with his unforgettable supporting turn in THE DIRTY DOZEN, Sutherland has played both leading men and featured players. And he’s done so in dozens upon dozens of critically acclaimed films and box office hits. Here is just a portion of his extraordinary credits: M*A*S*H, START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME, KELLY’S HEROES, ALEX IN WONDERLAND, KLUTE, DON’T LOOK NOW, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, ANIMAL HOUSE, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, ORDINARY PEOPLE, A DRY WHITE SEASON, EYE OF THE NEEDLE, BACKDRAFT, JFK, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, DISCLOSURE, OUTBREAK, A TIME TO KILL, COLD MOUNTAIN, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, HORRIBLE BOSSES, and THE HUNGER GAMES quartet.
He’s done extraordinary work on television too, winning Emmys for two of his inspired turns – CITIZEN X (1995) and THE PATH TO WAR (2002), both on HBO. In fact, it’s hard to go a month without seeing Sutherland appearing on a screen somewhere in something. He chalks up close to six credits a year, bouncing back and forth between mediums. He is a constantly in-demand talent, even now at 81. He can play heroes or villains, lunatics or professors, government men or revolutionaries. His acting legacy is so vast he’s even the patriarch of an esteemed acting family. He is the father of Kiefer Sutherland (24 and DESIGNATED SURVIVOR) and the grandfather of Sarah Sutherland (VEEP).
So, what is it about Donald Sutherland that makes him so extraordinary, and why does he continue to work so often? For starters, even his physicality has range. His tall, slim frame has always been able to suggest dignified masculinity or even a willowy feline quality. And his soft, husky voice can strike a tone that is commanding or the near opposite – ethereal. He’s able to cover a lot of ground with such attributes. He can convince audiences he’s a surgeon (M*A*S*H) or a lawyer (A TIME TO KILL) or a spy (EYE OF THE NEEDLE). He can play officious (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) or someone unhinged (DAY OF THE LOCUST). He can play straight (DON’T LOOK NOW) or fop (START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME).
What I like best about Sutherland is that despite having one of the most soulful and distinct voices in the history of cinema, one that is constantly employed as a voice-over, it is his non-verbal acting that remains the most compelling. He is an actor who specializes in reacting, and his reactions constitute some of the best onscreen acting ever. Just watch any Sutherland performance and you will see an actor truly playing off the other actors. He is a consummate listener, always paying attention, always thinking before speaking. His ability to give so much of performance without words would have made him a great silent movie star if he were born a few decades earlier.
Take for example his exemplary performance as the title character in KLUTE (1971). Yes, Jane Fonda played prostitute Bree Daniels to strident, panicked perfection and received a richly deserved Oscar for it, but it could have come off as too much if it wasn’t for Sutherland balancing her with his quiet strengths in each scene. As Detective John Klute, he listened, observed, and held in reserve his feelings as Fonda delivered her acidic quips and unzipped that stunning sequined dress.
It’s called Klute because it’s a fish out of water story as a small-town detective searches NYC for his missing family friend, a man with big secrets. (One of them is that he was a john of Bree’s.) At times, playing off the mouthy, sexually forward Bree, Klute could almost seem wimpy, but it’s his quiet resolve to keep focused on the case and not lose himself in the muck of the Big Apple that keeps the audience with him. Sutherland had Klute listen and think before speaking in almost every scene. Watch how Fonda plays off of his hesitancy, which allowed her vulnerability to shine through more as she waits for his reaction. It’s the first of many times that Sutherland would imbue his characters with so much while saying so little, and raise the stakes of every player opposite him.
Sutherland pulled off a similar feat in the 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE. In Robert Redford’s directorial debut about a well-to-do Lake Forest family coming apart at the seams after the oldest teen son drowns in a boating accident, Sutherland was cast as the quiet patriarch Calvin. Again, those he played off had the bigger, showier roles. The protagonist in the story is Conrad (Tim Hutton), the son who blames himself for his brother’s death and cut his own wrists when that pain became too unbearable. The antagonist in the story is mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), a perfectionist seething with resentment that her world has been usurped by death, shame and Conrad’s suicide attempt. Attempting to hold them all together is Calvin, but not able to connect with either of them.
Again, Sutherland’s is a largely reactive performance. His son’s erratic behavior gives Calvin pause as he tries to figure out the best way to approach “Connie” without ruffling his feathers. And Beth’s brittleness spurs Conrad to walk around her on eggshells, uncertain what to say as she rants. At one point, she suggests that she and Calvin go to London alone for Christmas, leaving their son behind. That doesn’t sit well with Calvin as he realizes her selfishness. When he gently pushes back, she becomes more strident, insisting she wants this one to be “a nice Christmas.” Sutherland hesitates for a moment before delivering Calvin’s response, “I want them all to be nice Christmases.” Sutherland makes sure that the audience understands the uncertain waters that his character is negotiating too.
In the last third of the story, Conrad is on his way to being whole again. He learns to forgive himself for surviving the accident, as well as his mother for her shortcomings. Beth does not change. Her resentment grows more pungent. And Calvin realizes that she is holding them all back. He quietly tells her he no longer loves her and it’s devastating. Beth leaves, leaving Calvin a single parent. And in the final scene, we see how Calvin has grown. He’s honest with his wife and his son, telling them both hard truths they need to hear. His change is the final piece in the puzzle, and the arc should have gotten Sutherland an Oscar. The fact that he didn’t even get nominated is a testament to a lack of justice and judgment amongst too many voters.
And in case there was any doubt what Redford thought of Sutherland’s extraordinary work in this film, watch the scene where Calvin visits Conrad’s psychotherapist (Judd Hirsch). It is a confession scene and the first time in the film that the sacrificing Calvin puts his own feelings first. As he shares his thoughts, Redford keeps the camera on Sutherland for most of the five-minute exchange Calvin starts by hesitating to tell the whole truth, but as he talks, his monologue full of telling, meaningful pauses, starts to be more forthcoming. It is one of the Best Picture winner’s finest scenes, and it’s all Sutherland’s really, as he daringly peels away all of Calvin’s selflessness and formality, layer by layer, until the grief-drenched man is revealed. It still knocks my socks off today.
Over the last few decades, the silver-haired, and often bearded Sutherland has done superlative work too, mostly in supporting roles. He was superb playing the naïve art dealer taken in by Will Smith’s confidence man in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (1993); stole his one scene from Robert De Niro and Billy Baldwin as he rendered the smilingly cordial arsonist up for parole in BACKDRAFT (1991); and most recently, made for one calmly maleficent villain hounding Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) and its three sequels. For my money, his finest supporting was that of the mysterious CIA operative called “MR. X” in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). In it, he gives his most verbose performance ever, and it’s startling to see Sutherland use words so forcefully.
X enters the film at the beginning of the third act, with the purpose of telling Kevin Costner’s well-meaning but ill-prepared New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison what he needs to know about a conspiracy at the heart of the assassination. Against the backdrop of all the towering monuments in Washington, D.C., Sutherland’s X explains all the intricate links and details illuminating the collusion. It’s a big scene, spanning some 12 pages of monologue, and Sutherland is riveting spelling it all out.
The actor’s forceful, calm authority gives it such power. He may have convinced tons of skeptics out there that the CIA was behind it all. But whether you believe in the story or not, Sutherland makes it seem all too real and it plays as one of the scariest scenes in any film the past 30 years. What makes it even more affecting is how Sutherland slumps on the park bench at the end, spent, and beaten down. He makes sure we see that this disillusioned patriot takes no joy in telling his tale.
As Sutherland has aged, he is often called on to play such authority. He can play the good guy, and then with just a few degrees of difference, he can turn it into malevolence. His performances are always that masterful. So many critics, peers, and pundits are stupefied that he’s never been nominated for an Oscar. It’s time to change that this year. The Academy should bestow their 2017 Governors Award upon Mr. Donald Sutherland.
Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle