At long last, Lancaster

Burt Lancaster: An American Life
By Kate Buford
Knopf , 447pages, $27.50

What's movie stardom for? To become famous? To concentrate one's power base within the Hollywood status quo? To endlessly polish a persona through a series of roles that offer mere variations on a theme? Burt Lancaster, who enjoyed perhaps the most eclectic, zigzaggy career of all the male superstars of cinema's golden age, used stardom in ways that had never been seen before, and helped change the industry in the process. Yet Lancaster's fiercely intelligent choices have never been as rigorously examined or fully appreciated to the degree they are in National Public Radio commentator Kate Buford's graceful new biography, Burt Lancaster: An American Life.

In Lancaster -- an Irish-American circus acrobat from New York's East Harlem -- Buford finds the link between pre-cinema American show biz (circuses, vaudeville) and the indie film scene of today. Towering, muscled, blond, and toothy, the impossibly handsome actor looked almost like a parody of the virile matinŽe idol. But his jockish exterior concealed a delicate aesthetic sense, a keen mind, and a social conscience bred at the neighborhood settlement house. (Lancaster's liberal political activism earned him a spot on Nixon's Enemies List.) He made his share of popcorn pictures (Vera Cruz, The Crimson Pirate, The Train), but he was always aware that doing so was not an end unto itself but a means for him to earn the right to take risks. And take them he did. As the studio era waned, he presciently formed his own independent production company in 1948, the very minute he had the clout to do so; Hecht-Lancaster brought forth the first indie film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, 1955's Marty. Time and again, the actor chose to make smart, truly adult movies that challenged both himself and his audience: From Here to Eternity, Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Gantry, Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Leopard, The Swimmer, Go Tell the Spartans, Atlantic City.

Buford argues that much of Lancaster's drive resulted from regret over his biggest career disappointment: letting associates talk him out of playing Stanley Kowalski in the original stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando may have gotten the role, and with it the rep as the postwar era's most gifted actor, but Lancaster was perhaps its most restless, most resourceful. He created screen archetypes, yet tried not to repeat himself, and disdained peers who did. "If Charlton [Heston] was trapped in biblical films, it was his own fault -- he accepted the limitation," Lancaster once snapped to a reporter who compared the two actors' career paths. Late in the book, Buford reveals that Lancaster was originally to play the William Hurt role in 1985's Kiss of the Spider Woman but dropped out due to ill health. Whether he would have been any good as Spider Woman's queeny window dresser is almost beside the point. That the then nearly 70-year-old movie tough guy so desperately craved the challenge, at a time when playing gay was still considered taboo for male stars, speaks volumes about him.

Burt Lancaster paints a detailed, sympathetic, but not always flattering portrait of Lancaster, the man (his womanizing, cruelty, violent temper, and neglectful parenting are all documented). Buford also contributes a juicy slice of dish, weighing the evidence of the late actor's long-rumored bisexuality -- including his FBI files -- and concluding that the whispers were probably true. But it's Lancaster the artist she takes most seriously, and it's about time somebody did.

Heather Joslyn is the managing editor/arts editor for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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