Despite a storied career and some 180 screen credits, Donald Sutherland has never been nominated for an Academy Award. The closest he can recall being involved is he got to present one once. So he was shocked when he learned he had been selected as one of this year’s honorary Oscar recipients. But he’s been a favorite for some time, no doubt due in large part to the sense that the Academy is tardy in its recognition.
“I don’t think I’m overdue,” Sutherland says, “but certainly we’re running out of time at 82.”
The moment invites reflection on his career — a career that is still very much in progress, as his recent schedule has the professional traveling from Toronto to Los Angeles to Rome to perform at the top of his game for filmmakers including Danny Boyle and James Gray.
He’s had very few bad tastes left in his mouth over the years in this business, and listing some equally heavy-hitters with whom he’s worked is enough to conjure all sorts of anecdotes and observations on the fly.
Robert Altman (“MASH”): “I’ve not been in any film ever since where we said one thing for the master and another thing for the medium shot and something altogether different for the close-up.”
Federico Fellini (“Fellini’s Casanova”): “It was everything you could dream of — a flight into the imagination of a genius.”
Robert Towne (“Without Limits,” “Ask the Dust”): “He was wonderful in his ability to move that subjective process, writing, into the objective process, directing.”
Sometimes Sutherland’s observations are diamond-like in their precision. Robert Redford, with whom he worked on “Ordinary People,” he simply calls “perfect.” About Michael Crichton, who directed Sutherland in “The Great Train Robbery,” he says: “Cold. Ruthless.” Other times collaborators’ names might send him headlong into a dense recollection of baseball’s “Blue Monday” (Google it, though Expos fans will know), or the coma that nearly killed him on “Kelly’s Heroes.” That story in particular ends with one of the great Don Rickles jokes, though one that wouldn’t receive justice in this space.
It’s been a long journey for the young man who started out in radio and went on to become an icon. Sutherland isn’t all that familiar with the Governors Awards, but he’s looking forward to a laid-back evening of celebration alongside his fellow honorees.
“I’ve been told it’s so relaxed and it’s so easy and not disciplined by time constraints,” he says. And it’s a good thing on that last point. You could fill a whole show with Donald Sutherland.