Saturday, June 9, 2012

Burt Lancaster: Did You Know?

When I was a kid, a new movie starring Burt Lancaster was a good enough reason for Mom and Dad to decide the family was going to a Saturday night movie at the drive-in.  I don't think they even cared what the film was about or what the film's reviews were.  If Burt Lancaster was in it, that was all they needed to know.  Mom would make sandwiches and other snacks for us to take in the car.  My little sister and I would have to put our pajamas on underneath our street clothes to make getting ready for bed a lot easier and faster when we all got home late.  Burt Lancaster truly did look larger than life to me when I sat in the back seat of our family car and watched him fill the screen as the salesman-turned-evangelist named Elmer Gantry.  This film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' novel was a perfect fit for Lancaster.  He believed that entertainment could also enlighten and educate.  This movie was social commentary.  Highly entertaining, well-acted social commentary.  Gantry loved hard liquor and loose women. Now he gets folks to empty their pockets as he preaches with a Bible in his hand.
That robust performance was the second of Lancaster's four Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  Elmer Gantry brought him the Hollywood gold for Best Actor of 1960.
His first nomination came for playing the tough Sgt. Warden in From Here To Eternity, directed by Fred Zinnemann and Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1953.
In it, he planted a kiss on Deborah Kerr that became the stuff dreams are made of for moviegoers.  In that particular beach scene,  I guess it's more specifically the stuff wet dreams are made of.  They made cinema history.  Ooh, baby, what a classic movie kiss!
Lancaster's third nomination came for the 1962 prison biopic, Birdman of Alcatraz, based on the life of Robert Stroud.  The convicted killer became a renowned self-taught bird expert.  Lancaster's last Oscar nomination for Best Actor was for his work as the aging smalltime gangster in 1980's Atlantic City. It co-starred Susan Sarandon.
Burt Lancaster was slated to star in another prison drama.  This 1985 film would get Academy Award nominations for Best Film and Best Director.  Lancaster was very enthusiastic about this foreign project but had to withdraw due to a minor heart problem.  He'd recuperate and work in other hit projects like 1989's Field of Dreams.  But doctor's orders forced him out of Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman.  Burt Lancaster was replaced by William Hurt and Hurt's outstanding work brought him the Best Actor Academy Award.  Yes, big butch Burt Lancaster was set to play the flaming gay Latin American prisoner, a window dresser named Luis Molina.
I got that information back in the previous century from William Hurt himself.  The actor was a guest on my VH1 talk show.  Hurt was promoting his new film, The Accidental Tourist.  I hadn't known about Lancaster's involvement with the Babenco film.  However, I saw the film in theatrical release a few times.  I loved it.  In the closing credits, I noticed a "Special Thanks."  In the short list of those thanked, Burt Lancaster was the top name.  I asked Hurt if the veteran star was a Kiss of the Spider Woman producer.  No.  Hurt told me Lancaster deeply believed in the film.  Babenco had trouble raising money to finance it.  Lancaster knew his name would help attract financing. He also loved the script.  If you think Lancaster would've been too old, rent the movie and watch it again.  Hurt stepped in as a replacement.  No dialogue was changed.  He was in his early 30s, still a handsome young popular actor.  But, as Molina, he calls himself as "an old queen."  He shares a prison cell with a straight Latin American political rebel named Valentin (Raul Julia).
This is a tale of political, emotional and sexual oppression and the tolls those oppressions take on one's spirit.  In an argument, Valentin shouts as Luis "Stop crying! You sound just like an old woman!"  Luis cries back, "It's what I am!  It's what I am!"  Babenco's film opens with a long monologue from Luis.  He escapes into glamorous old movies and constantly details the movie plots to his serious cellmate.  With gestures, of course.  We're seeing a film about denied freedoms.  It opens with images drawn on a wall.  We see the sun and a bird in flight in front on it.  Next to those we see the shadow of bars on a window and we see clothespins on a line.  A cell is a residence.  On Luis' side of the cell are fan magazine photos of his favorite stars -- Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe.  Hollywood movie goddesses from the 1930s to 1950s.  We think of Molina as being a younger man because, eventually, he was played by a younger actor.  But a younger actor was not the first choice.  Had Lancaster played Molina, he would've had yet another memorable movie kiss.  And not with the Spider Woman.
How cool that Burt Lancaster gave such support to a such a excellent, substantial and daring independent film.  It would've been very interesting to see Lancaster's interpretation of Luis Molina.  If you haven't seen Kiss of the Spider Woman, I highly recommend that you do.  Raul Julia (also a guest on my VH1 talk show in the late 80s) was just as remarkable as Hurt.  They were brilliant together.  Hurt, by the way, became the first actor to win an Oscar for playing an openly gay character.  There's some good movie trivia for June -- Gay Pride Month.  So...did you know that about Burt Lancaster?

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