A face to lead the way

Lawrence O’Toole March 2 1981

A face to lead the way

Lawrence O’Toole March 2 1981

A face to lead the way


Lawrence O’Toole

A leading man for the ’80s?

Me?” asks Donald Sutherland in his droll voice. “If you mean like Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper, then sure.” He leans forward, the corners of his mouth turning up in a smile. “But you know the fantasy role I keep thinking about? Top hat and tails. I’ve never played anything in tails.” Sutherland could probably manage the hat and the tails and even mermaid scales if he felt so inclined. His familiar face, elastic and elongated, is as capable as a chameleon. And Donald Sutherland’s career, like his face, has been no less changeable, having gone through a long number of incarnations: horror heavy in Die! Die! My Darling,; off-the-wall comic on a kook’s tour in M*A*S*H and Start the Revolution Without Me; serious actor working for serious European directors in Don’t Look Now, 1900 and Casanova; quickie artist in Bear Island and Nothing Personal; and, finally, an icon for the ’80s (in its infancy) in Ordinary People.

Sutherland’s performance as Calvin Jarrett, the upright head of a family splitting apart, a man whose mild manner belies steely emotional reserves beneath, has made him a superstar, and may well win this Nova Scotian an Oscar next month. He has become a romantic idol in the Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper tradition: strong, attractive, a little ordinary and dependable. A

Donald Sutherland has spent years being everyone's second choice and suddenly he is everybody's fírst

woman might pine to spend a night with Burt Reynolds but set her sights on a longer contract with Sutherland. Men sense the ability to handle any problem and like his casual bearing. He represents stability in unstable times. Donald Sutherland’s face seems to say “Everything’sgoing to be okay”; it’s a gift a handful of actors share with some doctors.


Sutherland’s time has come and with it the trappings of a charmed existence: ecognition, approval, acclaim—all of

which he never had but wanted, and worked for, carefully and diligently. Returned to the stage after 16 years, he is making his Broadway debut as well this month as the urbane, obsessed Humbert Humbert in Edward Albee’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s seminal novel, Lolita. United Artists, suffering from the highly publicized debacle of Heaven’s Gate and a generally poor year, is hoping that Sutherland’s new movie, Eye of the Needle, in which he plays a cold-blooded Nazi assassin and spy, will turn their fortunes around this summer. Short of raining pennies from heaven, life seems to have done all it can for him. But if that sounds as though good fortune is his valet, it isn’t: Donald Sutherland has done all he can for Donald Sutherland.

The motivation for Sutherland’s staggering success, achieved after years of attrition, is rooted in the bizarre territory of adolescence. In addition to battling pimples and new, unusual urges, he was always, and still is, bothered by the belief that he looks odd. He had Dumbo ears, goggle eyes, a face as long as grandma’s bra straps and a going-on-

six-foot-three frame as manageable as a piece of taffy. As a child he contracted polio and, later, spent an entire year in bed with rheumatic fever. He remembers asking his mother during his teens if she thought him good-looking. “No, Donald,” she replied somewhat ruefully. “But your face has a lot of character.” A face only a mother could love.

The self-conscious Sutherland made a private pact that he would make the face and its character an asset, not a liability. Had he in fact been far less noticeable and felt more comfortable with himself, he might have become an engineer as he originally intended. That ingrained neurosis about his looks dictated otherwise. The stage was the platform where an unusual face could become transformed. He gave it a go at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre, showed promise, and went to England to study and find work. More humiliation was heaped upon him as he found his “feeling of homeliness exacerbated by my first horror films” (grisly little items such as Castle of the Living Dead). To add insult to injury, his voice teacher told him she thought he had better pursue another career—something along the lines of truck driving. At the time he ached for a part in a forgotten movie called Three in the Morning. “They said they wanted someone who looked like the boy next door and that I didn’t look like I lived next door to anybody.” Now, as he puts it, he looks as if he lives next door to everybody. “With Ordinary People there’s a sense of vindication about everything I’ve done.”

More tortoise than hare, and constantly driving himself to perform and succeed, Sutherland may not have reached the heights he has were it not for the power of embarrassment to spur him onward. “I remember once running

niche for him: odd is beautiful. As an outdated and rather inaccurate reference book describes him, he was a “gaunt Canadian actor who became very fashionable at the end of the sixties.” His face was right for the movies of the early ’70s and their stress on the wild, the oddball and the eccentric. Painful though his early feeling of inadequacy had been, it served him faithfully when he played the yokel detective in Klute (1971) and especially the slowthinking, big-hearted Homer Simpson in The Day of the Locust (1975), the guy who could never get a girl. “Oh Homer, oh God,” Sutherland says affectionately. “Homer is exactly what I was like when I was 14. If it was written on the

through the woods as a kid playing some kind of game or other and all the kids got up into the trees and peed on me. I remember coming home and saying, ‘Mother, they peed on my head.’ She looked at me as if to say, T guess anybody would, wouldn’t they?’ The clearest teen memory I have is wondering how I looked. I would stand in front of the mirror in the bedroom for a long time and try and convince myself I looked better.”

Following Sutherland’s big break in a strange service comedy called M*A*S*H (1970), the movies found a

back of a cornflakes box, I believed it. When I touched someone, I thought God was going to strike me dead for it.” Tired of being typecast again, and not fitting into the Hollywood establishment despite the fact that he made an average of two movies a year, Sutherland fled to Europe to stretch himself artistically withprestigedirectors:Nicholas Roeg, Bernardo Bertolucci and Federico Fellini. And still he was playing second fiddle, nearly always the second or third choice for a role. Then, during the late ’70s, came a period when, with the exception of Invasion of

the Body Snatchers, he made a number of quickies and baddies, many of them Canadian; suddenly he wasn’t very bankable. Ordinary People rectified all that. Robert Redford wanted him to play the part of the psychiatrist but Sutherland marshalled his persuasive powers to win the role of Jarrett. “You know,” he says, “I’ve done quite well by being everyone’s second choice. I’ve even been my agent’s second choice: he told me he didn’t think Ordinary People was the movie for me. But I do what I want to. I always have.”

For someone who has spent so much time grieving about the geography of his features, Sutherland has been, astoundingly enough, an object of desire for a number of beautiful women. He had a long, live-in affair with Jane Fonda, to name one. FrenchCanadian actress Francine Racette, to name another, is the mother of two of his children, Roeg, 7, and Rossif, 2, both named after film directors who are close friends. Sutherland is often a model of sartorial splendor, and last month his portrait, a black-and-white close-up by Irving Penn, appeared in Vogue; Esquire saw fit to air his views on women and success as though he were a matinee idol. Mare Winningham, the 21-year-old actress who costars with him in the soon-to-be-released

Threshold, in which he plays a heart surgeon and she the recipient of an artificial heart, says: “Women enjoy his company because he zeroes in on the qualities they like best about themselves. He’s a sensual, sensitive man; it’s what every woman wants.” Says an enthusiastic Mary Tyler Moore, his costar in Ordinary People: “He’s terribly good-looking and, as they say, possesses a fine body.”

As befits someone who always felt the need to apologize for himself, Sutherland is extremely soft-spoken, so much so that sound men have been

known to lodge complaints. His manner is casual in the most inviting sense of the word. Although far from being selfeffacing, he has mastered the fine art of listening. “When he’s with you,” says Mary Tyler Moore, “he’s with you 100 per cent.” She and Sutherland became close, spending their time off the set having dinners and playing Scrabble. “I liked him right off the bat; he’s that kind of person,” she says. To look at him now, this 45-year-old man in the prime

of his life who has a habit of letting his large and graceful hands rest unobtrusively in his lap, you would think a violent thought had never visited him. The only time he became volatile during months of interviewing was when he saw an unflattering photograph on the cover of a magazine. “Will you look at that!” he fumes, slapping it vengefully with the back of his hand.

Sutherland loves being liked. His deference toward those he is fond of knows few bounds. When Cosmopolitan’s Richard Grenier went to Rome for three days to interview him on the set of

Casanova,he was seduced into staying for three weeks. Lately, Sutherland’s gifts for crew members have tended to come from Tiffany’s and Cartier’s. (Before making Ordinary People he was broke; he had been offered a percentage of the high-grossing grosser Animal House and passed it over for a straight salary.) He enjoys his ability to make people feel totally at ease. “People come up to me on the street and now treat me like an ordinary guy, even though they

know who I am,” he says approvingly. It’s a condition he has always aspired to—being ordinary.

But Ordinary People, like last year’s Kramer vs. Kramer, has deeply affected a great portion of society, and has given him more than he bargained for. He has become a kind of priest, proselytizing by his very presence staunch and old-fashioned values. Strangers come up to him with Rossini-like overtures, some of them spilling out their reactions to Ordinary People, some of them with their life stories in tow. Sutherland recalls being approached by a middle-aged woman while filming Threshold in Guelph, Ont.: “‘We had two sons as well,’ she said and went on to relate her story. She was perfectly composed as she narrated it—except for the tears running down her face. I noticed a man in the background all the while listening. When she finished he came up to us. It was her husband. He said, ‘Just like the movie, isn’t it? Except we stayed together.’ And they walked off with their arms around each other.”

Sutherland himself has had unhappier resolutions, in particular two failed marriages. He says he is to blame for both: one early in his career to Lois Hardwick, the other to Shirley Douglas, daughter of former NDP leader Tommy Douglas, by whom he has twins. “One of the women I was married to was not dissimilar to Mary’s character in Ordinary People,” he says. “She was so defensive and threatened. Our marriage

broke up on much the same grounds that Calvin’s and Beth’s did. The difference was that my personality wasn’t quite as strong as Calvin’s.”

The women in his life have been made of strong stuff. “Lois and Shirley were both under five feet tall. They were also mind-bogglingly strong women—fivefoot terrors.” Jane Fonda is no sugar lump either. She and Shirley Douglas, both political activists, were more political than he was, but their reputations rubbed off on him. Sutherland claims his performing personality always outweighed his political one, even when playing to the troops in Vietnam with Fonda in the early ’70s. Francine Racette comes from the same school of forceful women. As a couple, they taunt, contradict, argue; they are amused with each other, their banter reminiscent of a fast-talking romantic comedy from the ’30s. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he says with a schoolboy’s smirk, “but I have an addiction to these kind of women.”

Addictive may well be the operative word to describe his personality. Unhappy with his career and with his second marriage falling apart, Sutherland took to the bottle with the same gusto he applies to everything else. Anne Pritchard, the set designer on Threshold and a good friend for many years, remembers those not-so-halcyon days: “During Act of the Heart (1970) you could always see Donald with a cigar in one hand and a bottle in the other.” When he gave up his bottle-of-scotch-aday habit he instituted a regimen of jogging to make the most fleet-footed soul blanch in astonishment.

“You often wonder what drives this man so much,” says Jon Sian, the producer of Threshold. “He has incredible energy. He could just about perform heart surgery now if he wanted to.” To prepare for the role of Dr. Vrain in the movie, Sutherland spent weeks of assiduous research on the project, going as far as he could, legally, to learn how to operate. Doctors on the set were taken

aback watching Sutherland stitch through an artificial heart with the ease of a seasoned seamstress mending a ripped blouse. His expertise allows him a subtle form of control; not overbearing, he nonetheless uses his homework—and his newfound status as a superstar—to call the shots. He knows what he is doing and the professionalism is infectious. “He’s so thorough,” says Mary Tyler Moore, “that he causes his co-workers to dig as deeply as he does, and that’s easy for them because he’s so respectful. They don’t mind keeping up their end because they’re not threatened.”

That control extends into the realm of personal relationships. With the largess of a star, he treats others as though they were stars. “Why don’t you

sit in my chair----Would you like me to

get you some coffee?” On the set, his patience is enough to turn Job green. Last fall in New York after a hard day of promoting Ordinary People, Sutherland returned to the family suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, with bags

under his eyes and legs that just wouldn’t lift anymore. Francine was readying an anxious Roeg for an evening at Peter Pan. Rossif, the baby, was happily, busily, noisily enjoying being a baby. Francine’s mother, a publicity agent and a journalist were also hanging around. Exhausted, Sutherland attempted to give the impression that he had taken a jarful of Valium and was willing to do anything required of him. Francine kept steering the children out of his way and gave him a look that seemed to say, “You’re very tired, aren’t you? And you don’t want to be bothered, do you?”

“He’s not always that patient,” says Bobby Watts, Sutherland’s dresser and secretary for two years, hinting at the irritable, darker side. Sutherland himself admits that “all the running around, living out of suitcases and hotels” has taken its toll. If Lolita has a long run on Broadway (he has signed a seven-month contract) he will stay in New York with Francine and the kids in the apartment they have rented. A family man. “During all those spells of hard work,” he says, “time always seemed to stop. I had no time for anything else. I couldn’t even allow myself the pleasure of spending time on my boat, or ordering a bottle of champagne.”

One thing Sutherland has refused to give up is his love for the Montreal Expos. As much as Humbert Humbert loved the downy nape of Lolita’s neck, Sutherland loves baseball. A gushing fan of the Expos,he wanted to buy a piece of them once—“my own personal team .” Whereas most young men disappointed with their looks throw themselves into sports as a method of compensation, Sutherland was not so lucky: “I was so much bigger than every other child my age that I ended up hurting people. I was a terrible athlete.” If he couldn’t participate, he could however become a spectator. “The first night I was ever allowed to stay up late was for a Stanley Cup playoff. I can remember so well sitting

in front of the radio and just being joyful, listening, watching a wonderful orange light spill out from it.” (He mimes the scene, doing a better than reasonable imitation of Foster Hewitt.) “Film is a representation of the real world; sports are better still—they’re true entertainment.”

Sutherland rarely sees his own films. He views acting as a craft, a job, a contract to be honored: “I look at the rushes, hardly ever the completion. Fellini never goes to see rushes because it would concretize his fantasy. I would be pretentious if I said I didn’t go for the same reason, but it’s often disturbing to see the finished product. You usually wind up saying ‘Oh, shit!’ ”

The camera makes Sutherland uneasy, even a little scared. “When the camera starts to roll there is something of death about it,” he says.“ I’m always aware of the camera, to the point of being self-conscious. I never know quite how to look at it and I have an inclination to turn away. I can’t forget about it. You see, I have to stay pretty well perpendicular to the camera’s focal point; if I angle off anywhere past 25° I’m in a lot of trouble—my eyes pop out and the sides of my face fall to the floor.” A slight exaggeration but not surprising from a man who once said, apologizing again: “I have a certain clumsiness. Canadians, and I am one and proudly so,

are forever apologizing for themselves. It’s as though being Canadian is the original sin. But it’s a style, isn’t it?” For Sutherland it is a style very finely tuned. One morning last fall at one of New York’s finer hotels he ordered waffles and ice cream for breakfast. The waiter looked at him in sympathy, as if to say, “Here’s another one for the bins at Bellevue.” About to walk away, Sutherland arrested him with an addendum: “And I’d like a brown paper bag please ... one to cover my head.”

As an actor, Sutherland won’t apologize for his feelings about his work.

“I have certain facile skills that I use. I had emotional talent to begin with. An intuitive sense of what is the right thing to do emotionally in front of the camera. All I had when I started out was emotion: I didn’t have any intellect with respect to acting. That I learned through a lot of self-discipline.”

It’s not surprising that, lately, Sutherland has sought roles brandishing highly intense emotional states. “I’ve always been attracted to characters,” he says, “who love someone a great deal. Calvin Jarrett loved his family; Humbert Humbert loved Lolita; even the assassin’s downfall in Eye of the Needle is brought about by his falling in love with a woman. That’s the role I’ll always seek out. For me it will always be a catalyst for feelings, and in some cases a way to play out the feelings I once had.”

At a reception last month honoring the National Film Board held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Sutherland towered, literally and figuratively, over everyone else. Women were doing little dances of delight, gazing at him from afar. There was a whispered rosary of Ordinary People, Ordinary People in the air, inspired by his celebrated presence. For the people in the room, Donald Sutherland had become the symbol of constancy, the one state he had imagined and longed for. fp