Burt Lancaster was one of the most magnetic stars of the post-war Hollywood era. His tough-guy good looks, incisive intelligence, and heart-on-his-sleeve pathos made him one of the most durable actors of the 20th century – and one of most prolific in the MGM library. During his 45-year career, Lancaster brought his intense and dynamic presence to everything from character-driven melodramas to taut action thrillers. This month we are turning the spotlight on this outstanding actor with a Burt Lancaster Retrospective, all month long on MGM HD.
Lancaster came by his tough guy persona honestly, having grown up on the streets of New York. He honed his imposing physique as a circus acrobat in the 1930’s before entering the Army after the outbreak of World War II. Lancaster made a splash in his film debut in “The Killers” (1946), which can be found in the MGM vault, and he never looked back. Unlike many of his peers, Lancaster maintained control of his film career. As an independent producer, together with former agent Harold Hecht, Lancaster would produce many of his own films over the next few decades. This month MGM HD features three of his best.
In “Elmer Gantry” (1960), Lancaster played the title character, a charming and opportunistic con man who used his talents to sell religion. Lancaster attacked the role and used all his charms: his looks; his energy; and his charisma to bring the character to life. However, it was Lancaster’s ability to bring humanity to the larger-than-life Gantry that made the movie stand the test of time. It was this performance that earned Lancaster the Academy Award® for Best Actor in 1961.
For “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) Lancaster turned in a performance as far away as possible from the outgoing Gantry. Again, playing the title character, Lancaster played real life prisoner Robert Stroud. Called upon to age several decades, Lancaster played an anti-social murder who found solace in the birds he kept while serving out his sentence in solitary confinement (despite the title, most of the movie takes place in Leavenworth). “Birdman of Alcatraz” remains a powerful story of human resilience. Lancaster embodied Stroud’s difficult personality and antiauthoritarian streak while also lending the character the depth and intellect which were the hallmarks of his performance style.
For the final movie in our retrospective, “The Train” (1965), Lancaster once again teamed with “Birdman of Alcatraz” director, John Frankenheimer. “The Train” was a tense wartime thriller with Lancaster as a member of the French Resistance charged with the job of sabotaging a train laden with art stolen by the Nazis. Under Frankenheimer’s dynamic and assured direction, the result is an engrossing action movie replete with suspense, large-scale action scenes, and stunts performed by Lancaster himself.
Enjoy the work of this master actor at the peak of his career with our Burt Lancaster Retrospective, airing in May and June on MGM HD.