The advantage of being everyone’s second choice
Clumsy, sickly and almost always a foot taller than anyone else in his class at school, Donald Sutherland grew up in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, in a more or less constant state of public embarrassment. Once, clutching at straws, he asked his mother if he was good looking. “No, Donald,” she replied sadly. Then, seeking to soften the blow, she added: “But your face has a lot of character.'” The young Sutherland grew into a man who resembles a cross between a basset hound and a white rabbit. There was little there to suggest that in 1969 he would co-star in Robert Altman’s M*A *S*H, one of Hollywood’s biggest money-makers ever, and still less that, even after becoming an established film star, he would be chosen to play the title role in a $10-million megamovie about Casanova, perhaps the most celebrated of all lovers in Western history.
What is it about Donald Sutherland? Physically he hasn’t changed much since his Bridgewater days. Well over a gangling six feet in height, he gives heart to us all; but he is still his mother’s boy, and no better looking than most of us. Perhaps it’s his ability to portray fundamental decency balanced on a thin wire of desperation, which is where many of us probably imagine we are too. And he has developed a commanding actor’s presence; one of the most noticeable things about him now, and it might be particularly striking to his Bridgewater peers, is the way he moves: with majestic nonchalance and ease. There is, as well, his curiously attractive voice, which has an echoing quality and yet sounds slightly impeded, as though something might be caught in his throat; it is a voice that one cannot resist listening to. Besides all this there is his talent as an actor—“unique, really extraordinary,” says producer-director Robert Aldrich—which enables Sutherland to play anything from comedy to the classics, social realism or Grand Guignol. But a star needs more than talent. How else to explain Charles Bronson? Sutherland’s special skill is his ability to make us care about the characters he plays, so that, for example, his performance in John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust sticks like grit in the mind’s eye long after the rest of that mean-spirited film is forgotten.
Now 42, Sutherland recently completed two years in Italy working on films under a pair of contemporary masters of cinema. For the young Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango In Paris), he played a fascist in 1900, a 5'/2-hour film that is yet to be released in North America because of Bertolucci’s
refusal to edit it into a more commercially acceptable length. His Casanova was for Federico Fellini, the brooding introspective Italian cinema veteran. These are two of the directors most actors would give their eyeteeth to work with. How did Sutherland manage it? He says that it was simple: he didn’t wait to be asked. “I like working with interesting directors, so I offer them my services. I say, ‘Look, this film you’re making—got a part for me?’ For Fellini’s Casanova, as the film is entitled, Fellini had first wanted Robert Redford, then Gian Maria Volonte. For 1900 I was knocking on Bertolucci’s door for three months. I was far from being his first choice for the part: he wanted Oliver Reed or Peter Boyle. For some reason they didn’t work out, so in the end they had no other choice but to take me.”
The idea of being everyone’s second, or even third, choice is quintessentially Cana-
dian. But Sutherland’s performance as Casanova—a lying, thieving, social-climbing buffoon utterly at variance with any Casanova we’ve heard about before—is being praised in some quarters as the best he has yet given. What did Fellini see in Sutherland? “Donald has an indefinite face,” Fellini explains, “one that’s difficult to remember. It seemed just what I was looking for—a spermatic glint in the eye, just about as far as one could imagine from Casanova, someone uncertain, who moves in a fog, shapeless and vague. Sutherland is a metaphysical Casanova and he’s the saving of the film.” (Regrettably, some who have seen it regard the film as beyond saving. though Fellini’s work has always been hotly debated pro and con. For the Maclean’s review see page 57.)
On the set of Casanova in Rome’s Cinecittà studios Sutherland looked mummified: the Sutherland forehead had been enlarged, the blond hair coiffed into immense platinum curls above each ear. A false aquiline nose and a fatter chin had been added, his eyebrows had been shaved and his whole face covered with something resembling whitewash. His clothes, too, were entirely white—shirt and breeches of satin, stockings of silk. The honor of working with Fellini can be two-edged; he will make an actor over into something unrecognizable, but his own. A few, it seems, prefer to avoid the experience out of deference to their cinematic image.
For his part, Sutherland was delighted: “I’m Fellini’s Casanova from six-thirty in the morning until seven at night,” he said at the time. “And during the weekends I have only one ambition—to get back to the studio on Monday morning.” Fellini obviously made a powerful impression on Sutherland; and has done, ever since Sutherland first came across his work in 1956. The film was La Strada, which he watched in a Toronto movie theatre. He realized then that he’d never understood the potential of movies before. It was another 15 years before he met Fellini face to face— on the set oí Alex In Wonderland, in which Fellini had a small part playing himself. “And then I was incapable of talking,” Sutherland says. “Every time I opened my mouth, it stayed open, and nothing came out.”
He is often asked to make comparisons between Fellini and Bertolucci and replies: “If you were in love with two women, would you say you preferred one over the other?” He suggests, however, that Fellini wants an actor to become the person Fellini has in mind, while Bertolucci
wants the person to become the actor.
Sutherland looks on the two years he spent in Italy as two of the greatest in his life, not least because of the ardent political commitment of the major Italian directors. Few actors are as politically motivated as Sutherland—“acting is the political gesture I know best, I always try to act with a political conscience”—and to find directors who spoke the same kind of language was important to him—especially after the horrors of Alien Thunder, a film that was shot in Saskatoon in 1972 and turned out to be a disaster in every way except that during it Sutherland met the Quebec-born actress Francine Racette, with whom he has lived since.
And then there is Fellini, the apolitical exception to the Italian rule. “Ah, Fellini!” says Sutherland, with affection. “Fellini’s a being apart, unclassifiable. His personality is so rich he cannot help charming everyone he meets. He’s an incredible genius, a spirit as large as all Italy. He’s a magician: he takes the deepest part of you and transforms it into something deeper still.” Doesn’t this suggest that Fellini, the great sorcerer, might be manipulating the actor? Insists Sutherland: “Not at all. I told him: ‘This is what I am, what I can give, let’s try to work together.’ He gave me suggestions for voice and intonation. It’s up to me to give him satisfaction. Those are the rules of the game.”
For Sutherland it was not ever thus. There was a time when he thought the rules of the game meant that the director had to satisfy Sutherland, the boy star from Nova Scotia. “I had incredible scenes with Altman on the set of M*A *S*H,” he says, confessing that they were “entirely my fault.” Nor did matters improve with M*A *S*H's explosive success. Sutherland suddenly became a hot property. “That enabled me to have preconceived ideas about the films I worked in. I was a complete fool
at that time, I had no idea what films were all about—that they should always be, from beginning to end, controlled by the director and by him alone.” Much of the credit for changing his head around goes to Nicolas Roeg, who directed Sutherland in the eerie horror film Don’t Look Now in 1973.
Sutherland always wanted to be an actor. As an engineering student in Toronto from 1952 to 1957, he played his first roles at the University of Toronto’s Hart House theatre. Since 1957 he has done nothing else but act: on the stage, then the screen, in Scotland, England, Italy, Hollywood, Canada. For his first 10 acting years he made a living from the business which, if it didn’t give him fame, saved him from total obscurity: stage and TV plays in Britain, then films from 1962, starting with three horror movies, then roles in a variety of second-rate flicks that need detain us no longer now than they did audiences then. The road to M*A *S*H can be traced back to 1964 when Sutherland was acting on stage and had dropped into a London restaurant with a friend. Over the meal his companion broke the news that the part Sutherland had wanted in a TV production of Hamlet had gone to someone else. “Over my dead body,” Sutherland decided. Hejumped through hoops to get the role. He went so far as to claim that he spoke Danish, as if that might give him some special insights into the role of the Danish prince. But he got the part and from that point on his career started to click. The director of Hamlet got him into a play at London’s adventurous Royal Court Theatre, where he met Christopher Plummer. Plummer urged Sutherland to go to Hollywood, which he did after replacing an actor at the last minute in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen. One of the people who liked his work in the Aldrich picture was Otto Preminger, the fractious director who had a property that he wanted to produce. It was about the Korean War and it was called M*A *S*H, and would Sutherland be interested?
Soon after M*A*S*H, Sutherland was in the headlines again, this time because of his wife, Shirley, daughter of former NDP leader Tommy Douglas. She was charged with conspiring to obtain hand grenades for the Black Panthers, a radical group in the United States. The charges were not pursued; nor, after 1971, was the marriage. But there’s no doubt that, second only to acting, politics is the subject that interests Sutherland the most. With his conservative background, schooled at a time when “nobody argued with the United States’ right to brandish the big stick across the world,” he came to politics slowly. At first he was full of liberal ideas. For two years, with Jane Fonda, he campaigned against the war in Vietnam and in support of draft-dodgers. “But I’m no militant,” he says, “I’m into politics with a small ‘p.’ I’m an actor first, but 1 try to act with a political conscience. And
when acting leaves me the time, I read. Or I join movements.” He calls himself a nonaligned radical. “We’ve got to sort out the problems of imperialism and capitalism in the United States, but how? I don’t know, and it’s not up to me to decide.”
Some of Sutherland’s qualities are particularly American, but there is a distinctively Canadian—and Maritimes— element in him: a capacity for wonder, a restless desire to learn, to work, to meet people. He’s given to extremes. Once he consumed 100 cigarettes and a bottle of scotch a day, and took no exercise. Now he smokes and drinks nothing, and runs four miles every morning. While shooting the Anglo-Canadian thriller The Disappearance in Montreal recently, he ran every day through the streets of the city.
In The Disappearance, now in its finishing stages in England, Sutherland plays a hired gun; the wife in the film is Francine Racette, acting in her first English-language role. The two seem to have a comfortable arrangement; they spend about half their time apart—Sutherland based in Los Angeles, Racette in Paris—but Sutherland says that this helps the relationship. When he works he applies himself with enormous diligence to the job at hand. In Montreal, for example, he and Racette had separate rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “I cannot afford to be drained,” he explains. That may sound a little like the fanatic U.S. army officer played by Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove complaining that women sapped him of his precious bodily fluids. But Sutherland probably has a right to husband his resources. After The Disappearance, he will make another movie in England, with Julie Christie, then move on to France for a movie with director Claude Chabrol. His time is booked two years ahead.
Francine Racette, 30, is less booked, but acts when and where it pleases her. She’s had the luck to have succeeded at every-
thing without much effort. A bank manager’s daughter from Joliette, Quebec, she left Montreal in 1968 after attending the Conservatory of Dramatic Art and doing a well-received performance at Montreal’s Theatre du Nouveau Monde. Others would have worked overtime to consolidate these first successes, but not Racette. She went to Paris with no job offers waiting for her: “I toured the cafés, I watched people.” She stayed in a little hotel in the Latin Quarter; a 10-franc room on good weeks, a five-franc room (window onto the staircase) on bad ones. Six months later she was on the cover of a French national magazine and working for the Greek director Michael Cacoyannis at the Theatre Parisien. It wasn’t stardom, but it did mean a measure of fame. A Parisian career opened before her, here a play, there a film. In 1972 she returned to Canada to make A lien Thunder.
Racette’s base is her Paris apartment, where she can be found much more often than Sutherland. For him the apartment is a way-station; he speaks little French and Paris is not his kind of city. Much of their lives is spent on planes: Francine and their son Roeg—named after Nicolas Roeg— often fly to join Donald for the weekend. She takes 10 days’ holiday in North Africa; he goes to Britain for a physical workout at a spa. Sometimes the migratory life stops, and they’ll go off into seclusion in the country. One winter they disappeared up the Colorado River. For two years they lived in Los Angeles, an experience Racette is in no hurry to repeat. “A huge city,” she says with Parisian scorn, “huge throughways, millions of Americans in huge cars going home to their huge houses with huge Frigidaires filled with enough food for a week. And almost no good restaurants.” They have different priorities. Hers: to be happy, wherever she is. His: to act, make movies—soon, he hopes, to produce them. And to remain undrained. 1i>