November 2, 1906– Luchino Visconti:
“I like melodrama because it is situated just at the meeting point between life and theater.”
Luchino Visconti was not only one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century, he was the ultimate human conundrum. An aristocrat, a Milanese count descended from Charlemagne, he was also a committed, lifelong Communist. His detractors declared: “He votes left but lives right”.
He owned several opulent palazzos, decorated with the exquisite taste that he exhibited his entire life. He was one of the most elegant men of his era. He lived openly as a gay man throughout most of his life; his wealth and position enabled him to do so, even as his enemies mocked him.
His masterpiece The Leopard (1963) brings together most of the themes that he obsessed over throughout his career: a fascination with the past and how modernization forever changed the more tranquil, elegant way of life; the turbulent politics of Italy; the inevitable effect of the aging process upon every human life; and, always, most importantly, the family, with all of its intertwined emotional tensions.
The Leopard is gorgeous to look at, with vividly staged war scenes evoking Italian nationalism, and beautiful smaller domestic moments. Visconti knew how to make an epic film, imbued with the lavish care and detail which went into making this film. He drove his producers crazy with his insistence on authenticity, filling bottles with real vodka instead of water and unopened dresser drawers filled with silk shirts. His justification was: “The audience may never see it, but the actors will”.
But, like so many Visconti films, especially Death In Venice (1971) and the lurid Ludwig (1972), The Leopard may seem like a bit of a slog, with lots of dialogue and not much action. Yet, he does so well with his actors: Claudia Cardinale‘s beautiful, vapid heiress; Alain Delon‘s extravagantly handsome young officer, and especially Burt Lancaster as a majestic melancholy prince reluctantly facing mortality, a portrait that Lancaster based on Visconti himself.
The final third of this three-hour film is set at a grand gala, and it is one of the greatest sequences in films, a total recreation that sweeps you in, making you feel each intoxicating moment, from the early exuberance of the first arrivals, through the waltz, set to a then newly-discovered Verdi composition, to the last moments as dawn approaches with a few party guests still on the dance floor while the orchestra patiently plays away. Visconti drew on his own remarkably vivid life for this film, although it is based on a 1958 novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
Visconti certainly knew about war, having been imprisoned by the Gestapo for harboring members of the Communist resistance in his palazzo. He filmed the execution of his jailer for Conversation Piece (1974), his second film with Lancaster.
It is probably Visconti’s most autobiographical film. He borrows elements of his own life with his lover, actor Helmut Berger, whose character completely takes over the life of a lonely, American old professor, played by Lancaster in his most delicately nuanced performance. Lancaster’s professor lives a solitary life in a luxurious palazzo in Rome. His character suffers as Berger, playing a hustler who monopolizes his telephone, picks up rough trade to bring back to the palazzo. The old professor dies, and his funeral is described as:
“… being attended by every whore in Rome, dressed in black like a parade of widows, followed by all the junkies, con men, dykes and a delegation of faggots.”
Visconti’s own funeral in 1976 was a far more dignified affair, marked by the presence of members of the Italian Communist Party. As an epitaph, he chose a poem by W.H. Auden, quoted in Conversation Piece that captures his life:
When you see a fair form
And if possible embrace it
Be it a girl or a boy
Don’t be bashful, be brash, be fresh
November 2, 1913 – Burton Stephen Lancaster:
“We’re all forgotten sooner or later. But not films. That’s all the memorial we should need or hope for.”
Actor, producer, gymnast, iconoclast, Burt Lancaster, from his beginnings, was always a star. He worked in films and on stage from 1946 – 1991. He was nominated four times for Academy Awards and won once for his work in Elmer Gantry in 1960. He won a Golden Globe for that performance, plus BAFTAs for The Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) and Atlantic City (1980).
His roles were so varied that it is hard to pinpoint the source of his invariably powerful screen presence. Tall and soft-spoken, Lancaster was more imaginative and sensitive than his muscular, masculine manner might make you think. He played cops and crooks, bullies, cowboys and swashbucklers, but also a disparate bunch of oddballs, bringing compelling conviction to all his roles. An essentially physical actor, Lancaster was more intelligent than audiences knew.
Among his most inspired performances are the wicked, invincible, vane and powerful gossip writer in Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), the sham evangelist in Elmer Gantry (1960), and, of course, the 19th-century prince in Visconti’s The Leopard.
When he won his Oscar for Elmer Gantry, he insisted:
“I was just being myself.”
There is also my favorite Lancaster performance: The Swimmer (1967). When the film went into production, John Cheever, the author of the story, wrote:
“Burt Lancaster is 52. Lithe, comely and somewhat disfigured by surgical incisions and he looks both young and old, masterful and tearful.”
Lancaster could barely swim when he took the part of Ned Merrill, a Connecticut suburbanite with an unspoken secret who swims home through his neighbors’ pools as the weather, and neighbors, get colder and darker. He trained hard, just as he did for Jim Thorpe: All-American in 1951, hiring the coach of the UCLA men’s water polo team because he didn’t want to insult any real swimmers in the audience.
He petrified poor Barbara Stanwyck over the telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), fought with Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba (1958) and got wet with Deborah Kerr in From Here To Eternity (1953).
As a small-time hustler in Atlantic City, Louis Malle‘s nod to film noir, or as a benevolent oilman in Local Hero (1983), Lancaster proved that he was still a star at the end of his career.
Lancaster was born in New York City, growing up in Harlem. In school, he was a jock. He won an athletic scholarship to New York University but dropped out after a year to form an acrobatic team with a school buddy, the diminutive Nick Cravat, who later played supporting roles in many of his films. They were called Lang and Cravat, and they had a horizontal-bars act in the Federal Works Circus.
He served in the US Army during World War II, performing for the troops in North Africa and Italy.
On his return to NYC, Lancaster was mistaken for an actor by a producer he happened to meet. The producer asked him to read for a role in a Broadway play and was cast as a tough sergeant in The Sound Of Hunting (1945). The play ran for only a few weeks, enough time for Lancaster to be spotted by a Hollywood talent scout.
The next year he made his film debut in The Killers (1946), based on an Ernest Hemingway short story. It made Lancaster a star.
The same year in All My Sons he played a soldier who comes back from the war to accuse his father (Edward G. Robinson) of making faulty airplane engines and inadvertently killing his brother; and in Kiss The Blood Off My Hands he was a guilt-ridden murderer who finds shelter in the arms of Joan Fontaine.
In 1948, Lancaster started his own production company with his agent Harold Hecht. Together they produced the drama Marty (1955) starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, winning an Oscar for Best Picture; the western Vera Cruz (1954), with Lancaster as a grinning horse-thief opposite Gary Cooper; Trapeze (1956), where he does some swinging with Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida. After playing Wyatt Earp in the classic western Gunfight At The OK Corral (1956), Lancaster gave a fine and imaginative performance in The Rainmaker (1956) as a conman opposite Katharine Hepburn.
As if to demonstrate his versatility and his taste as an independent producer, he chose to do the film version of gay playwright Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, producing and playing a Left-wing journalist who runs into his ex-wife, played by Rita Hayworth, in a hotel. He is very good at gazing at the sea.
He won another award for “not acting” at the Venice Film Festival for Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962), playing a prison inmate with only birds to keep him company during 40 years solitary confinement. Lancaster found real depth in an introspective role.
Lancaster was a supporter of liberal political causes, and frequently spoke out against racism, including at the March On Washington in 1963. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and right-wing political movements. In 1985, Lancaster joined the fight against HIV/AIDS after his close friend, Rock Hudson, went public with his illness.
Lancaster’s acting career ended after he suffered a stroke in 1990, which left him partly paralyzed and unable to speak. His final credits rolled in 1994, just 13 days shy of his 81st birthday. He was cremated and as he requested, there was no memorial or funeral service.
Lancaster was married three times and had many affairs with his costars. Rumors circled around Hollywood for years that he was bisexual. His love of receiving blow-jobs was an open secret as was his apparent lack of caring who provided the service. Most of his films are without ardent romance, except of that famous exception. Once he became a successful producer, Hecht asked why he was employing so many gays. His response was that they were the best. The best at what he didn’t say.