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Remembering Donald Sutherland, a Chameleon and the Most Human of Stars

It may now be hard to imagine, but in 1970, Donald Sutherland, who died Thursday at 88, was the coolest movie star on the planet. The moment I saw him in “MASH,” I knew he was the person I wanted to be, the same way that I wanted to be Mick Jagger or Steve McQueen. In 1970, Pacino and De Niro hadn’t happened yet. You could say that Robert Redford and Paul Newman, in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), had achieved the quintessence of a kind of studio-system cool, inventing the buddy movie.

But in “MASH,” Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, as “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Trapper John” McIntyre, were buddies of a headier, more intoxicating kind. They were so cool that they seemed to stand outside the system, studio or otherwise. They devised their own rules, which came down to this: If you could make fun of the world and everything in it, you could achieve the hipster version of a state of grace. Robert Altman’s movie was a poker-faced counterculture comedy, with the Korean War standing in for Vietnam, and these two deadpan joker scoundrels stood right in the middle of it, going off on…everything.

The beauty of it was, they never got riled. The ’60s, which had just ended, were full of people shouting, ranting, protesting, speaking self-righteous truth to power. In “MASH,” Hawkeye and Trapper John didn’t shout. They chortled, mostly to themselves. They smirked truth to power. The two actors were playing surgeons, which meant that they cared about human life (and saved it every day), but the film’s other message is that when it came to the Army, the war, the United States…they didn’t give a shit. They saw through the epic con of it all.

Of the two, Sutherland was the Zen master of cultivated indifference. His Hawkeye, with a camouflaged Army cap hanging down over his glasses, and his signature three-note whistle, was so amused by everything that his very presence announced a new kind of counterculture, the kind where wit would now be the ultimate anti-establishment weapon.

The truth is that Donald Sutherland, in “MASH,” was an earnest Canadian actor playing the role of a compulsive wiseacre. You might, over the years, glimpse a hint of that flippant quickness in the smiling wit of some of his performances. Yet it was always there to serve the character. In “Klute” (1971), Sutherland was the glum straight-arrow detective, John Klute, who was tailing Jane Fonda’s call girl, and it was a performance that already tipped you to what a chameleon he could be.

If he was brilliant, in “MASH,” at donning the invisible armor of cool, what happened in “Don’t Look Now” was even more startling. Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 classic was a fragmented gothic poetic horror chiller about how the everyday is suffused with the uncanny. Sutherland and Julie Christie played a couple whose young daughter had drowned in an accident (but she was still there, all around them), and were spending time in Venice because Sutherland’s character is an art restorer. Their love scene, all very nude and very realistic (there were rumors that it was not staged), became a hallmark of the new cultural erotic openness, and it made Sutherland a sex symbol.

At a glance, he didn’t look the part. That grin that could veer from goofy to wolfish. The whole pensive long cut of his face. Yet with thick curly hair and a mustache, he came on not as some gorgeous hunk but as the sensually heightened version of an ordinary man. That was his magic in “Don’t Look Now,” and had People magazine been around at the time, I have no doubt they would have chosen him as 1973’s Sexiest Man Alive. That’s the kind of cachet Sutherland had. But it was all because he was such a vivid actor. He was sexy because he had the audacity of surprise.

He had over 200 roles in movies and television, and while that kind of volume can be indicative of an actor who will take any role handed to him, in Sutherland’s case it meant something more elemental: He loved to act. In the mid-’70s, for reasons that only the gods can know, two monumental European auteurs, Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci, each decided, in the same year, to cast Sutherland as a kind of warped monster. With hair shaved back and a hook nose, he was the coldly aristocratic sexual conqueror of Fellini’s misanthropic “Casanova.” And in Bertolucci’s “1900,” he played a vile fascist who was also a rapist. You can call this range, and it was, but neither movie was a success — I would say artistically or otherwise. In a sense, Sutherland was almost martyred by these legendary directors.

“Invasion of the Body-Snatchers”
Courtesy Everett Collection

Yet in showcasing his dark side, the films did coax out something new in him. And you can see that at work in one of his greatest performances, in Philip Kaufman’s supremely spooky 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Sutherland, playing the lead role (a San Francisco health inspector), is all warm and menschy good vibes. He’s the last person we want to see lose his humanity. But that’s just what happens in the film’s thrilling final scene, which I would call one of the five most unnerving moments in the history of horror cinema. It’s all about the way Sutherland plays it, raising his finger, his mouth falling open into a hideous scream of accusation. The message is: If Donald Sutherland can become a pod person, then who, really, is safe?

Sutherland had an extraordinary run in the New Hollywood era, capping it off with a movie that is one of his most popular, and also one of his most artful: “Ordinary People.” Robert Redford’s cathartic therapeutic soap opera is full of great acting — Timothy Hutton, Mary Tylor Moore — yet it’s really Sutherland’s beleaguered father, silently carrying the weight of this family’s unhappiness on his stooped shoulders, who holds the film together. His performance is a portrait of the tragedy of repression (not sexual repression, but the fear he has of confronting his wife), and when his emotions finally pour out, the truth of it scalds and heals. This is the very picture of transcendent Hollywood acting, the kind that holds the mirror up to who we are.

If you’re a Donald Sutherland fan, his resume is a banquet to feast on. Even if the movies and shows themselves were sometimes mediocre, you can name your finely sculpted gem of a performance: his Nazi spy who falls in love in “Eye of the Needle,” his mischievous pot-smoking professor in “Animal House,” his lone-insider-who-sees-the-conspiratorial-big-picture Mr. X in “JFK.” And then, of course, there’s the role that defined him, probably for the first time, for a new generation: the svelte menace of his President Snow in the “Hunger Games” films. Sutherland had the ability to invest a dictator with pristine menace, but not because he was one of those actors who relished playing villains. It was simply one more color on his endlessly amazing palette of empathy.

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