Donald Sutherland: The politics and Erotics of submission
Date of Original Version
When Donald Sutherland burst onto the American film scene with his portrayal of Hawkeye in the unexpected Robert Altman hit M*A* S*H (1970), the popular press couldn't seem to agree on how best to characterize this new "un-Hollywood" star, fixing by turns on his Canadian background, his political activism, or his "funny peculiar" sense of humor (Dorothy Manners, "Sutherland - 'Actors Should Be Involved in Pertinent Causes,'" L.A. Examiner Sunday, 12 July 1970, n.p.; Douglas Marshall, "The Funniest Film Actor Canada Has Ever Produced," Maclean's, 1 September 1970, 42). After the release a few months later of Kelly's Heroes (1970), it became routine to refer to Sutherland's "oddball" status (a term borrowed from the anachronistic hippie tank commander he played in that movie); but "oddball" was really a catch-all term, the euphemism that would substitute for everything about Sutherland that was too politically challenging, aesthetically complex, or sexually inassimilable to be captured in routine pop journalism. It was the "New Faces" section of Look magazine that hit on perhaps the most suggestive way of summing up what was truly "odd" about this gangly, charismatic actor, informing us that in life as well as in art, Sutherland practiced a "self-loss" that (as he put it) "allows you to be totally compassionate" (Ira Mothner, 3 November 1970, 72). Throughout the 1970s, this "self-loss" could be said to inform all aspects of Sutherland's persona, especially at the corporeal level: whether he was engaged in acting, activism, or acts of intimacy, an element of surrender, self-effacement, and bodily vulnerability informed his on- and offscreen image making. And in a fond, foolish tendency that survived long after the idealistic sixties, Sutherland seemed to weigh the worth of any endeavor - a country's domestic or foreign policy, a director's working style, or the practice of an ethical relation to the world - by whether or not it entailed the proper measure of "love." Sutherland's career in the decade of the seventies can be roughly divided into three phases, from his early "movement"-based political activist years (leading up to the close of the Vietnam War), which could also just as easily be called his Jane Fonda years, through the British and European "Auteur" years (with an emphasis on plumbing the depths of what Wilhelm Reich calls "the fascist within"), and culminating in a shift to the "ordinary," as corporatism ushered in the 1980s. Throughout all three phases, almost all of his background profiles and interviews include an account of his bodily awkwardness, stemming from a painful self-consciousness at being too tall as a youth, of having "Dumbo" ears, of each day meeting a face in the mirror that even his mother had to admit was not "good-looking" but was at least "full of character" (Marshall 42; Martin Knelman, "Donald Sutherland, Actor," Atlantic Insight, September 1980, 43; Claudia Dreifus, "The Beautiful Giraffe," Mademoiselle, February 1981, 62). Whatever the moviegoing audience saw and heard in Sutherland's diverse onscreen performances, this was accompanied by the back story of the vulnerability of his flesh, of his near-death experiences, of his susceptibility to injury and ailment, his clumsiness, his damaged voice, his hypochondria, his lisp, his vertigo, his tendency to blush or weep, his "long frame [that] looks as if it had been molded by a slammed door" (Bruce Bahrenburg, "A New Image for Male Stars," Newark Sunday News, 3 November 1968, E5) - in short, what generally might be called his corporeal and emotional "subjection" to the world around him. From the outset, almost every interview included the story of how the acting training he sought in Britain "ruined" his voice (Mary Blume, "Sutherland: Unactorish Man Nuts About Acting," Los Angeles Times, 12 January 1975, 22.); of how he was pronounced dead when suffering from a six-week spell of meningitis caught while shooting Kelly's Heroes in Yugoslavia (Iain McAsh, "Donald Sutherland, the Happy Wanderer," Films Illustrated, 6 October 1976, 60); of how he delayed shooting on The Day of the Locust (1975) when he severely cut himself going through a glass door ("Actor's Home Mishap Delays 'Day of Locust,'" Variety, 5 March 1974, 4); or of his recurring experience of "terrible vertigo . . . so bad it would be hard for me to stand up on the stage" (Christopher Sharp, "The Pleasure of Each Other's Company," Women's Wear Daily, 28 June 1974, 16). As the decade wore on, profiles began to include accounts of his early bouts with polio, rheumatic fever, hepatitis, infantile paralysis, and scarlet fever, and of his tonsillectomies, mastoidectomy, and appendectomy - in short, of his "sickly" childhood only barely (and miraculously) survived (Richard Grenier, "Looking for Mr. Goodstar?" Cosmopolitan, October 1976, 225; Glenys Roberts, "Donald Sutherland: Devastating Eccentric," Company, May 1979, 160; Guy Flatley, "Donald Sutherland: A Far From Ordinary Man," Cosmo, August 1981, 192). "I have a certain clumsiness," he confesses, and then, only half jokingly, "Canadians, and I am one and proudly so, are forever apologizing for themselves. It's as though being Canadian is the original sin. But it's a style, isn't it?" (Lawrence O'Toole, "A Face to Lead the Way," Maclean's, 2 March 1981, 49). Sutherland's fragile, clumsy bodily style in real life inevitably inflected his onscreen portrayals; to be a Sutherland fan in the seventies was to tune in to a series of characters whose bodies are under siege, always at risk, always susceptible, always not the inviolate body of the action hero but, rather, the body in danger of a malady, a paralysis, an injury, a fall, a haunting, a drenching, a shooting, an impotence, a transformation. What one critic calls the "dry Martini bite of his performance" in M*A*S*H, for instance (Marshall 40), is counterpointed by that awkward hip-joint swivel characteristic of the exceedingly tall person dealing with chronic pain. Don't Look Now (1973) is, of course, organized around a series of ominous threats to his body, as he struggles against his own susceptibility to occult hauntings: he teeters from high perches around the church he is restoring, suffers a fall from a scaffold, and dangles dangerously from a rope. Despite his vertigo, he stumbles through his own stunt work: regarding Schlesinger's Day of the Locust, he describes being nearly torn limb from limb when attacked by overenthusiastic extras in the film's frenzied mob scene; he drives a vintage motorcycle over hill and dale in Sturges's The Eagle Has Landed (1976) (and recalls having inadvertently crashed it more than once [Craven 24]); he balances with costar Paul Mazursky atop an elevator as it speeds up and down the shaft in A Man, a Woman and a Bank (1979); and he clambers perilously about the rafters of an industrial pod-nursery in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Even his less memorable films are fascinating to watch for their spectacles of the imperiled Sutherland body: an alarmingly shiny Florida sunburn scorches his fair northern complexion, distracting the solicitous viewer from the incoherence of the plot of Lady Ice (1973). Although he twice fails to enchant audiences by re-teaming with costars he had succeeded with before, we almost forgive him, so gamely does he bumble through the pratfalls, as a congenital klutz who inadvertently destroys the furnishings of his brother's office and who is most at home crashing demolition derby cars when he rejoins Jane Fonda in the pseudo-wacky Steelyard Blues (1973), and as the conscientious and therefore risible half of a comic CIA duo in the would-be buddy movie, S*P*Y*S (1974). Elliott Gould was his partner in the latter ill-fated effort to re-create a winning team, playing the devil-maycare ladies' man to Sutherland's scruple-ridden dupe. It's Sutherland who sings farcically through the comic fingernail torture scene, or spazzes out when Gould gives him a whiff of a secret drug, or emerges drenched, hair plastered, in the obligatory dunking scene. © 2010 by Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved.
Publication Title, e.g., Journal
Hollywood Reborn: Movie Stars of the 1970s
Walton, Jean. "Donald Sutherland: The politics and Erotics of submission." Hollywood Reborn: Movie Stars of the 1970s (2010): 202-225. https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/eng_facpubs/53