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On Sutherland

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I’ve never really thought about Donald Sutherland all that much. His greatness was manifest but not overwhelming; going through his body of work I find quite a few films that I had completely forgotten he appeared in. Sutherland was simply too unsettling to be a Big Star Leading Man; even in his most innocuous roles it was impossible to see him as a trustworthy, uncomplicated hero. Yet he never felt out of place and he always made the actors around him better.

I don’t know if he was my favorite member of the Dirty Dozen (it does a great job with its great cast) but he certainly made you take notice. I definitely remember him from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which took advantage of his unsettling nature even before the final, dreadful interaction. His turn as Hawkeye in M*A*S*H never made much of an impression on me, mostly I think because I was simply too accustomed to seeing Alan Alda in the role. In 1900 he played a particularly sadistic fascist with a glee that was quite appropriate to the role (he seems to be the only member of the cast who was having any fun). What I remember best is a scene near the end when he and his wife are fleeing the communist partisans who will eventually kill them. Sutherland flashes his wife such a smile that you almost believe that they’re going to get away, and it carries such warmth and affection that for a second you almost want them to get away.

Animal House and Without Limits are tied together for me, as they were both shot on the campus of the University of Oregon. Of the former there is little to say that has not already been said, but I highly recommend the latter and strongly endorse Sutherland’s performance as Bill Bowerman (Billy Crudup is also very good as Pre). When the film was shooting students would stop Sutherland on campus and ask if they could buy some weed…

Weirdly, one of my favorite of his roles was as Hollis Hurlbut in the Simpsons (Lisa the Iconoclast). Big actors often play small roles in the Simpsons and sometimes don’t engage very deeply, but Sutherland gave a very strong vocal performance as an antiquarian watching his life’s work collapse around him. I think the detachment of the voice from the visual allowed him to inject the character with warmth without the accompanying unsettlement. This is also the episode that coined the terms “embiggens” and “cromulent.”

I haven’t seen Klute and I haven’t seen Ordinary People. Perhaps tonight I’ll try to remedy one or the other of those holes in my viewing resume…

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