Burt Lancaster is Turner Classic Movies’ "Summer Under the Stars" featured star today, August 25. TCM is presenting 11 Burt Lancaster movies, including two premieres: The Leopard and Scorpio. [Burt Lancaster Movie Schedule.]
A powerful but hammy leading man who developed into a first-rate mature actor-star in movies such as Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, Lancaster had a long, eclectic, and prestigious career both in Hollywood and abroad. Imagine Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Clark Gable, or John Wayne working with Visconti and Malle, not to mention Bernardo Bertolucci (Novecento / 1900), John Cassavetes (A Child Is Waiting), and Bill Forsyth (Local Hero).
TCM is now showing Cassavetes’ A Child Is Waiting (1963), quite possibly the director’s most accessible — i.e., commercial — effort. Produced by Stanley Kramer, a filmmaker with a strong (at times overly so) sense of (liberal) social commitment, and directed by the equally committed Abby Mann — who, while discussing Judgment at Nuremberg at an Academy screening a few years ago, called for a war crimes tribunal to judge then U.S. president George W. Bush and his fellow "War on Terror" cohorts — the sentimental A Child Is Waiting humanizes mentally handicapped children, one of whom comes across as more "normal" than the so-called normal people around him. Lancaster is a little actorish in this one, but Judy Garland delivers what is in my view the very best performance of her career. As the little boy in Garland’s care, Bruce Ritchey is outstanding.
Some consider Visconti’s Il gattopardo / The Leopard (1963) to be the director’s greatest work and one of the greatest movies ever made anywhere. I’ve watched it twice, both times on the big screen. The film is quite long — 187 minutes — and that’s its chief flaw. Visconti was able to elicit solid performances from his actors - e.g., Alain Delon and Annie Girardot in Rocco and His Brothers, Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Karina in The Stranger — but where was a producer like Stanley Kramer or Dino De Laurentiis or whoever to tell him that if a story could be told in 90 minutes then it should be told in 90 — not 190 or 290 — minutes. Just about every Visconti movie suffers from an excessive number of frames.
Yet, slow-paced or not, The Leopard is a feast for the eye: cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno, production design by Mario Garbuglia, and costume design by the Oscar-nominated Piero Tosi. As a plus, a dubbed Lancaster is perfect as an aristocratic Sicilian patriarch, Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, whose old world is crumbling due to political upheavals in 1860s Sicily. Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale co-star.
I should add that The Leopard won the Palme d’Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. It also shared that year’s Best Production David di Donatello Award (Italy’s Oscar) with André Cayatte’s Le glaive et la balance.
John Frankenheimer’s thriller Seven Days in May (1964) depicts another sort of political upheaval — a threat to U.S. democracy when right-wing military leaders led by Lancaster plan to stage a coup after the president gets approved a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Kirk Douglas co-stars as Lancaster’s nemesis, but the acting honors in Seven Days in May go to Fredric March as the beleaguered pro-peace president and Ava Gardner in a small role as a woman in Douglas’ past. Edmond O’Brien received a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Lancaster, I should add, happened to be both a World War II veteran and a card-carrying American Civil Liberties Union member.