Heroics Of An Antihero

Brian D. Johnson August 10 1987

Heroics Of An Antihero

Brian D. Johnson August 10 1987

Heroics Of An Antihero

Bent over the operating table, he deftly cuts away at a special-effects wound with a pair of scissors. As he works, he describes each manouevre to his listeners, Chinese actors, with convincing authority: “Wash it out with saline solution, remove the devitalized muscle tissue, ligate the blood vessels.” The actor wears a bloodstained apron and rubber gloves sticky with synthetic gore. As he glances up, rimless spectacles refract a piercing, blue-eyed gaze. Only a pair of yellow high-topped sneakers—safely out of the camera’s frame—mar the illusion for the onlooker. Otherwise, Donald Sutherland, with his head shaved to look almost bald, bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Norman Bethune. The Canadian surgeon who died a hero on the front lines of the Chinese Revolution seems eerily resurrected by the actor, who has immersed himself in archival memories of Bethune’s life. “Sutherland is not just acting Bethune,” suggests Nicolas Clermont, coproducer of Bethune: The Making of a Hero. “He walks like him, thinks like him, even lives like him. I’m convinced that he is Bethune.”

Elegance: The 53-year-old Canadian actor has not made a habit of portraying heroes. Instead, he has bent his natural elegance into roles that few imageconscious stars would touch, from the leering child-killer in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen to the awkward and vulnerable father in 1980’s Ordinary People. Because Hollywood tends to favor heroes, it is not surprising that Sutherland has never received an Oscar nomination, despite the fact that he is a star of international stature. A veteran of more than 50 films, he has won the respect of the world’s top directors, from Robert Altman (M*A*S*H) to Federico Fellini (Fellini's Casanova). With a salary rumored to be almost $1 million a movie, he clearly ranks as the most successful Canadian actor of his generation.

Working against the grain of Hollywood glamor, Sutherland has created his own unconventional style, both onscreen and off. He crusades passionately for public causes that include Canadian nationalism, disarmament—and the Montreal Expos’ quest for the World Series title. He has been romantically involved with such outspoken actresses as Jane Fonda and Shirley Douglas, daughter of former federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas. Sutherland’s eyes project a discomfiting aura of intelligence, as if he

were constantly subjecting the world— and himself—to intense scrutiny. “Donald is a perfectionist who adores detail,” said Bethune director Phillip Borsos. “He is able to compute many different possibilities of performance very quickly. And even though he works in a very structured way, he’s one of the very

great improvisational actors.”

Brooding: His screen roles have taken him through remarkable extremes of character. In The Wolf at the Door, a film that opened last week in New York he plays a brooding version of French painter Paul Gauguin—a far cry from his comic role as the original Hawkeye

in the 1970 film M*A*S*H. In the same decade he played a shy detective stalking a psychopath in Klute—and a fascist psychopath in director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. Paired with Julie Christie in Don't Look Now, he was a devoted husband consumed by omens of his own death in Venice; and in Fellini's Casanova, he was an Italian consumed by narcissism and lust. But in three of his more recent films—Ordinary People, Eye of the Needle, Threshold— Sutherland says that he has at last found a degree of equilibrium. “It was like working from the same palette,” he

recalled. “The characters were all smart guys who didn’t burst out or blow up.”

Obsessed: Sutherland’s Bethune is another “smart guy,” but his eyes burn with a missionary zeal. The role has obsessed him since he first encountered the surgeon’s writings in the early 1970s (page 34). In fact, he made several abortive attempts to launch a Bethune movie himself, working with directors Gillo Pontecorvo (.Battle of Algiers) and Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). Now that he is finally making Bethune, it has turned into one of the most arduous experiences of his career. “It’s like having your leg cut off,” he told Maclean's. “I had to do it, but I’ll miss the leg.”

Sutherland accepted the five-month Bethune assignment for less than half his usual fee. During the third week of the shoot, he fell off a camel in Pin Yao and injured his back. For the rest of the filming, he wore a rigid corset under his clothes to relieve the pain. The actor’s six-foot, three-inch frame was already weak from dieting; he lost 50 lb. for the role. And the physical hardships of working in remote Chinese locations increased the strain on his health. But the actor seemed most irritated by problems that he considers endemic to Canadian film production—insuffi-

cient money, crew and organization. Defying common sense, he said he went ahead with the movie “because I’m Canadian—because I’ve got a maple leaf stuck up my ass. Like Bethune I feel resentfully and proudly Canadian.”

Avid: For Sutherland, birthright is fundamental. Born in Saint John, N.B., he grew up on a farm, then moved to Bridgewater, N.S., at age 10. His father was an avid gambler who earned his living as a salesman. “He once told me that he would have been the best salesman in the world if he had been born an American,” said the actor, whose parents are now deceased.

His maternal grandfather was a Presbyterian missionary. “He had that same Scots fire and brimstone as Tommy Douglas—a need to be right,” recalled Sutherland. That Scots ancestry oddly parallels that of Bethune, whose mother was an evangelical missionary. And, like

the doctor, the actor combines a sensual flamboyance with a stubborn streak of missionary morality.

From an early age, Sutherland stood out from his peers. He was tall and gawky with a long face and large ears that earned him the nicknames Dumbo and Goofus among his classmates. He was struck in childhood by a series of crippling diseases, including polio, rheumatic fever and hepatitis. After an awkward adolesence, Sutherland entered the University of Toronto, enrolling in engineering to please his father—but concentrating on drama. He settled on an acting career after a small role in a

campus production of The Tempest drew notice from The Globe and Mail's influential drama critic. Wrote Herbert Whittaker: “Donald Sutherland has a spark that illuminates the stage.”

But like many Canadian actors of his generation, Sutherland had to leave the country to confirm his talents. By now married to a fellow student, Lois Hardwick, he moved to England to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He was 23. Two years later he dropped out to act in British television and repertory theatre. In 1964 he landed his first major movie role: Castle of the Living Dead, a horror picture in which he played both a witch and an idiot soldier. Shot in Italy, the film also featured a young actress, Shirley Douglas. After divorcing Lois in 1966, Sutherland married Douglas, who bore him twins, Kiefer and Rachel. “I was pretty overwhelmed by Shirley,” said Suther-

land. “It was like flagging a bus and getting run over.”

Secret: It was a marriage dominated by heavy drinking and radical politics. Sutherland says that they downed a bottle of Scotch a day and would talk long into the night about Shirley’s main interest at the time, the Black Panther Party. In fact, while Sutherland was filming M*A *S*H— and Shirley was having secret meetings with Panther supporters—she barred him from their Los Angeles house for security reasons.

But his greatest shock came in Yugoslavia during the shooting of the 1970 film Kelly's Heroes with Clint Eastwood. “It’s the funniest thing in the world,” he recalled, “to be in Yugoslavia and have Clint

Eastwood come up to you and say, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you. Your wife’s been arrested. It seems she tried to buy some hand grenades from the FBI.’ ” Sutherland smiled and continued, “In fact it was the CIA. She had good lawyers and the CIA is not allowed in domestic politics, so they threw it out of court.” He added, “It was kind of stupid to buy hand grenades with a personal cheque, but that was Shirley’s choice.” Back in North America, the actor became romantically involved with antiwar activist Jane Fonda, his costar in Klute. Their affair lasted three years, and they kept it a secret for the first

year, at a time when Fonda was under constant government surveillance. The couple even performed together in 1973 in an unoffical Free the Army tour .of U.S. military bases, a lighthearted antiwar revue. But he says that neither he nor Fonda expected their relationship to become permanent.

Sutherland finally seems to have found some stability with Francine Racette, the Joliette, Que.-born actress whom he met in 1972 while filming Alien Thunder in Saskatchewan. They have never married, but together they have produced three boys.

“She has provided a basis of calm and love,” said Sutherland,

“and a patient understanding of the inflammatory nature of myself and my ideas. She has cooled them into perspective as much by laughing at them as anything else.” Francine and their boys, aged 4 to 13, accompanied Sutherland to China and stayed until mid-July. As they returned to the actor’s summer home in Quebec, delays in the shoot forced him to linger reluctantly. Said Sutherland: “I resent it deeply. Summers with my family are infinitely more important than this film.”

Star: But film-making has left an indelible imprint on the actor’s family. His four sons all bear names of people he has worked with. Kiefer, 20 — named after Warren Kiefer, who wrote Castle of the Living Dead—is a rising star in his own right: in his current Hollywood film, The Lost Boys, he plays

a vampire. Roeg, 13, owes his name to Nicholas Roeg (Don't Look Now). Rossif, 8, is named for Frederick Rossif (To Die in Madrid). And Angus, 4, has Redford for a middle name, after Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People.

The Sutherland children’s names reflect the fact that the actor puts a high

premium on his relationship with a film’s director. “When I’m acting,” he said, “I’m like the director’s concubine. I am there to satisfy him.” At the same time, he has a reputation for being a

demanding actor. Canadian film-maker Ralph Thomas, who recently directed him in Apprentice to Murder, said, “He demands from the director a hell of a lot of answers. He insists on knowing the internal logic of the character, and you have to go through the entire script with him and make sure that it’s there.”

In fact, Sutherland admits that he often has tended to confuse his own fate with that of his characters. While making Don't Look Now in Venice, he was obsessed by death and could not shake

off memories of his own neardeath from spinal meningitis in that city two years earlier. He can still recall that experiencelying in a semicoma desperately trying to move his fingers. “It’s true what they say about the blue tunnel,” he says now. “It is like heading very slowly and beautifully down a chute. I survived, but I’ve never slept much since. Staying alive didn’t necessarily seem to be the right choice.”

Chill: Occasionally, Suther-

land still talks about his “death” in the past tense. In the warm sun of China’s Wutai Mountains, he often wore a winter parka, as if he were warding off some spectral chill. “I’m cold all the time,” he admitted one morning, “I must be getting sick.” A low chuckle. “Or maybe I’m dead.”

Considering his history of shaky health, it is not surprising that he has developed an affinity for roles involving doctors. The ^ Bethune role is an ironic echo of the battlefront surgeon he

played in M*A*S*H. Then there is Apprentice to Murder, due for November release, which casts him as a healer in 1920s Pennsylvania who cures with a hybrid of medicine and witchcraft. But in Threshold, a Canadian film about heart transplants, Sutherland had his closest encounter of a medical kind.

To prepare for that film—a drama about experimental heart surgery—the actor attended a series of operations with American heart surgeon Denton Cooley, on whom his character was loosely based. During one operation, Cooley asked Sutherland if he had ever held a human heart—then handed him one that he had just lifted from a patient’s chest.

Thrilled: Later that day the surgeon asked him to help install an aortic graft. The actor tried but could not work the needle through the graft’s tough fibre tubing. However, after completing the operation, Cooley persuaded him to sew up the patient. “So there’s some woman walking around with my overhand stitch running through her body,” said Sutherland. “I was thrilled. But in the heat of the situation, I didn’t understand that it was immoral. I should never have done it.” Then, with a characteristic nod to political ethics, he added, “Any more than Ronald Reagan should be President of the United States, I shouldn’t have been a heart surgeon: we’re both actors.”

Sutherland claims that he has no political ambitions of his own. But he expresses concern about the fate of a world run by leaders whom he considers less than qualified. And he plays an active role in the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, an Ottawa-based research organization. In the style of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, he describes disarmament as an issue “that Canada could use to bring itself to the vanguard of world politics.” Most interviews with Sutherland inevitably slide into the great, unsettled issues of history. With an almost Socratic style of provoking dialogue, he tends to ask as many questions as he answers.

In the Wutai Mountains, Sutherland is living a spartan life. It is hard to picture him as the same man who keeps a sailboat in Los Angeles and a Rolls-Royce in London—the high roller who once bought a Ferrari in Italy with a paper bag full of poker winnings. His home for the Wutai shoot is an austere guesthouse that is the former residence of Lin Piao, Mao’s righthand man who was reported killed in a plane crash in 1971, but most likely was an assassination victim. And Sutherland’s bed is in the same highceilinged room where Lin once slept.

The actor seems to relish his proximity to the past. On location, he has steeped himself in histories of Bethune and the Chinese Revolution. And he will interrupt a discussion to look up an obscure reference in one of the volumes that line his bookshelf. But despite his devotion, he has become wea-

ry of the film’s endless production problems. After a day of delays and arguments on the set, he wondered out loud if the film was still worth the effort. “I just want to go home to Que-

bec and be with my family,” he sighed.

The actor owns a house in Hollywood and an apartment in Paris, but his heart, he says, lies in Quebec’s eastern townships southeast of Montreal, where he and Francine have a century-old frame house on Lake Memphremagog, with a wraparound

glass annex being designed by the world-famous Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. “Here, I have fantasies about Quebec,” he said during the long dirt-road car ride from the location back to the guesthouse. “When I lie down in my bed, I don’t dream about Marilyn Monroe; I dream about Lake Memphremagog. Canada is in my blood, and I’m not happy anywhere else.”

Smoke: It is late evening at the guesthouse. Sutherland sits slumped in a screening room watching rushes of a scene shot in Yenan—the now legendary meeting between Bethune and Mao. Bethune drags fiercely on his cigarette, sucking smoke into his lungs. Mao puffs on his, sending up smoke in serene swirls. “Bethune was not a very relaxed person,” notes Sutherland. “Hopefully, by the end of the film, he will be as serene as Mao.” Meanwhile, on the screen, Bethune informs Mao that he is the son of a woman who was a missionary. Mao smiles. “Aren’t we all,” he says.