Burt Lancaster: An American Life

Clifford Odets, after having been put through the ringer doing the on-set rewrite of "Sweet Smell of Success," determined that there were at least seven Burt Lancasters: Inscrutable Burt, Cocky Burt, Wild Man Burt, Big Daddy Burt, Monster Golem Burt, "Marquis de Lancaster" Burt, and Hustler Burt. In Kate Buford's superb biography of the late, great star, many more aspects emerge --- the East Harlem boy-turned-Wasp god, bisexual stud, pioneering and discerning producer, emotionally loyal but often absent husband and father, committed political activist and, above all, a serious, genuinely complex man driven to the end of his life to improve, enrich, broaden and deepen his mind and character through a constant search for new risks and experiences.

Clifford Odets, after having been put through the ringer doing the on-set rewrite of “Sweet Smell of Success,” determined that there were at least seven Burt Lancasters: Inscrutable Burt, Cocky Burt, Wild Man Burt, Big Daddy Burt, Monster Golem Burt, “Marquis de Lancaster” Burt, and Hustler Burt. In Kate Buford’s superb biography of the late, great star, many more aspects emerge — the East Harlem boy-turned-Wasp god, bisexual stud, pioneering and discerning producer, emotionally loyal but often absent husband and father, committed political activist and, above all, a serious, genuinely complex man driven to the end of his life to improve, enrich, broaden and deepen his mind and character through a constant search for new risks and experiences.

Even a mediocre book about Lancaster would have trouble being dull, given his supremely eventful life and career; as portrayed here, the man is so ceaselessly vigorous and vital that he virtually leaps off the page, which makes this a compulsive, energizing read.

More important, however, Buford, a commentator on NPR’s “Morning Edition” whose career article on Lancaster in Film Comment magazine planted the seed of this biography, is acutely sensitive to the significance of the many phases of the man’s life, and by extension to their importance in his ever-evolving makeup and eventual maturity.

Anchoring Burton Stephen Lancaster’s passionately progressive views in the ethnically mixed neighborhood of his youth and his involvement with the Union Settlement House on East 104th Street, his stunning physique and catlike grace in his Depression-era career as an itinerant acrobat, and his abiding love of Italy in his long months there during the war, Buford explicitly reasserts the greatness of Lancaster’s career to a generation certainly unfamiliar with its scope and significance, and implicitly suggests that this was a bold, impressive and responsible path for a powerful star to choose. At the very least, it can be hoped that this book will reestablish, to an industry with a notoriously short collective memory, how important to subsequent generations of actors was the trail Lancaster blazed with his ’50s production company. Within four years of his film debut — and despite his longterm contract with Hal Wallis — Lancaster set up shop with Harold Hecht and began producing vehicles for himself as well as pattern-breaking smaller pictures, most notably “Marty” which, as a low-budget, black-and-white, Oscar-winning “little people” riposte to the widescreen spectacles of the era, was the “Easy Rider”/”Rocky” of its day.

Indeed, the upstart indie producers were so successful at their peak that they were even proposed to run MGM when Dore Schary was fired.

At the same time, Buford spares no detail in presenting the staggeringly disorganized, abusive, alcoholic and intimidating atmosphere at the company, where Lancaster would eat directors for breakfast and ride herd — for good and ill — on screenwriters until they dropped.

Beginning with “Sweet Smell of Success,” a career-dampening flop at the time, but now rightly termed by Buford as for many “the hip American movie,” Lancaster began provocatively mixing — between his heroic turns — daring performances as alternately unsympathetic/evil/contemplative characters. Many of Lancaster’s most ambitious and deeply felt later performances have scarcely been seen, and Buford performs quite a useful service in turning appreciative attention not only to “The Leopard” and “Atlantic City,” but to “The Swimmer,” “Lawman,” “Ulzana’s Raid,” “Conversation Piece,” “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” “Cattle Annie and Little Britches” and, especially, “Go Tell the Spartans,” all of which could use another look.

But the book will no doubt be most noted for bringing into print for the first time what has long been discussed in showbiz circles — Lancaster’s no-boundaries sexuality.

Although three times married, the father of five children and the lover of countless women, a few famous but mostly not, Lancaster has long been considered by sophisticated insiders — and is duly assessed as such by Buford — as one of those beautiful creatures, like Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, James Dean and no doubt some contemporary figures who for now go nameless, for whom the categories of hetero- and homo- were largely irrelevant: “He was sexual, period,” Buford posits.

All the same, longtime fans who think of Lancaster only as the epitome of American manliness in “From Here to Eternity” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” will no doubt be startled by the stories of his shenanigans on the locations of “The Crimson Pirate,” and of surveillance by the FBI, the LAPD and the Office of Naval Intelligence that reported the star’s participation in “large-scale homosexual orgies” involving Rock Hudson and up to 250 Marines.

In the context of the entire book, however, such detail represents just one aspect of “an intense, obsessive physical energy” and one piece of an exceptionally complicated and imposing figure.

I met Lancaster on one occasion, when I had the good fortune of being seated next to him on an international flight in the mid-’80s, and spoke with him for hours on a wide range of subjects. Based on my admittedly limited exposure to the man, I find Buford’s evocation of his expansive interests, thirst for information, skill as a raconteur, emotional guardedness and personal generosity exactly right — just as her assessment of his film work is spot-on.

Not many film stars receive first-class biographies, but Burt Lancaster not only deserved one, he got it.

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