It was easy to take Donald Sutherland for granted. He had, or so it seemed, always been there: after all, he appeared in a BBC television adaptation of Hamlet (as Prince Fortinbras) broadcast in April 1964, while his last cinema role was in last year’s earnest but star-spangled Miranda’s Warning. He could turn up in any kind of performance, and you knew he would always be worth watching.

With a career that long, everyone has his or her own first contact, and Sutherland’s trajectory was so varied that it can take almost any form. My own, I think, was as a child addicted to war films, encountering him in a supporting role in 1976’s The Eagle Has Landed. It was a solid, well-constructed and commercially successful project typical of the time, based on Jack Higgins’s sensational blockbuster novel released the previous year, and, like many contemporary Second World War tales, it assembled a high-powered cast. Michael Caine was the headline star, but he was joined by Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasance, Anthony Quayle, Jenny Agutter, Larry Hagman, Treat Williams, Jean Marsh, John Standing and Judy Geeson. But Sutherland still stood out.

Born in New Brunswick, of Scottish, German and English ancestry, Sutherland was cast as a roguish, sophisticated Irishman, Liam Devlin, a veteran of the Irish Republican Army who had been recruited by German intelligence. It was a complicated role for the mid-1970s, when The Troubles in Northern Ireland were at their bloodiest—260 people were killed in 1975, and another 297 would die in 1976—and to make matters worse Devlin is not only an IRA killer but working for the Nazis. Sutherland is also burdened with dialogue which sometimes veers into “Begorrah” and “Top of the morning” clichés, while bringing a ropey “Oirish” accent compared (unfairly) by some to Dick Van Dyke’s cockney showstopper in Mary Poppins.

Despite all that, and I was only able to analyse this properly much later in life, Sutherland’s performance is extraordinary: nuanced, playful, entertaining, watchable and able to turn on a sixpence. Devlin, presenting himself in a remote Norfolk village as a newly appointed gamekeeper, leans into the charming-son-of-Erin stereotype, bashful smiles and fond of whimsy. When he falls foul of a surly, aggressive villager who perceives him as a love rival, the pair ends up in a fistfight in the churchyard, and the heavyset Arthur Seymour (Terry Plummer), initially overconfident, is soundly beaten by Devlin. All the while Sutherland keeps the tone almost parodically light, quoting poetry at the priest who watches on aghast, yet there are flashes, just a second or two, when you see something different, darker, from another world, on his face. He could beat Seymour to death, wouldn’t break a sweat, and wouldn’t look back.

Another unexpected element plays out in the fitful romantic relationship which develops between Devlin and Molly Prior, an 18-year-old local girl played brilliantly by Jenny Agutter. Prior is young, reckless and headstrong, and falls for Devlin, who tells her, and initially himself, that there is no possibility of a relationship and they are utterly unsuited. What could have been just off-the-peg 1970s older man/younger woman titillation is transformed by two first-class actors into something much more profound and affecting. Sutherland is triumphant as a man torn between competing urges and responsibilities, and they both bring the Tom Mankiewicz screenplay absolutely to life. Lying on a beach at one point, Prior is furious that Devlin will not take her seriously.

“I’m sure you could find a hundred things wrong with me, Mr. Devlin. A thousand. But you wouldn’t throw me out of your bed on a wet Saturday night, I’m sure. That’s men for you! Anything is better than nothing.”

Sutherland compresses amusement, irritation, compassion, attraction and fatalism into a fleeting second or two.

“Wait a minute, come here! You don’t know the first thing about me. Because if you did you’d know that I much prefer a warm afternoon under the pines to a wet Saturday night any day. And the sand has a terrible way of getting where it shouldn’t be.”

It could be hopelessly corny. In fact, in their hands, it is deeply, viscerally, heartbreakingly moving. This will end badly, you know that, but for a moment you hope it might not.

It may seem odd to focus on a relatively forgettable film in Sutherland’s long, dazzling career. There are so many highlights. As Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce, a surgeon newly assigned to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, he forms an irresistible two-hander with Elliott Gould and they stand out even in a film of startling, dark, savagely satirical brilliance.

In Don’t Look Now (1973), Nicolas Roeg’s convoluted, troubling, frightening, erotic thriller set in a misty Venice, he is outstanding as a grieving father trying desperately to manage his relationship with his wife Laura (Julie Christie). She is poleaxed by the loss of their daughter while he is trying to keep his head above water. The sex scene is legendary for allegations that it was real rather than simulated, but that obscures the other 100-odd minutes of the picture. It is unlike anything else, and hard to imagine anyone but Sutherland making the role work in the way he did.

Real politik performance

Sutherland never peaked but simply kept working, often sensationally. As a teacher in apartheid-era South Africa in A Dry White Season (1989), he again makes internal conflict and moral compromise look natural and effortless. His character, Ben du Toit, begins as a comfortable, law-abiding member of white South African society, with neither need nor inclination to look at the darker forces underpinning that existence. Robert Ebert described him as “perfectly cast and quietly effective as a man who will not be turned aside, who does not wish misfortune upon himself or his family, but cannot ignore what has happened to the family of his friend”. It’s hard to disagree.

His fleeting appearance as “Mr X” in Oliver Stone’s magnificent, absurd, bloated, evangelical JFK (1991) should be a footnote. The film runs to 188 minutes, and Sutherland appears once, in a 17-minute scene, in which he meets Kevin Costner’s New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison on a bench in Washington DC. On a basic level, his role as a highly placed government official, is essentially expository, revealing to Garrison the extent of the conspiracy against President Kennedy.

“The ‘How’ and the ‘Who’ is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia, keeps ’em guessing like some kind of parlour game. Prevents ’em from asking the most important question: Why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”

Sutherland is magnetic. He makes the wild, all-encompassing conspiracy theory seem not just plausible but obvious.

“Everything is cellularized. No one has said, ‘He must die.’ There’s been no vote. Nothing’s on paper. There’s no one to blame. It’s as old as the crucifixion. A military firing squad: five bullets, one blank. No one’s guilty, because everyone in the power structure who knows anything has a plausible deniability. There are no compromising connections except at the most secret point. But what’s paramount is that it must succeed. No matter how many die, no matter how much it costs, the perpetrators must be on the winning side and never subject to prosecution for anything by anyone. That is a coup d’état….”

If you haven’t seen the film, don’t worry. It’s an acquired taste. But watch Sutherland’s scene. That’s how you steal a whole motion picture in less than 20 minutes.

By the time he was in his 70s, Sutherland was a secret weapon for Hollywood producers and directors: compelling and grizzled as Matthew McConaughey’s alcoholic mentor in A Time To Kill (1996); funny but slyly believable as a retired air force test pilot in 2000’s Space Cowboys; delightful as amiable patriarch Mr Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005); effortlessly heavyweight for a whole new generation as President Coriolanus Snow in the Hunger Games franchise from 2012 onwards. You knew he would be watchable, always making a film better, and wringing every last ounce of value out of the smallest, most flimsily written roles.

Was it that quiet brilliance, that versatility and an ability to make it all look so easy that made him relatively unrecognised in his profession? He won an Emmy and two Golden Globes, for supporting roles that were glorious but nothing like his best work, and in 2017 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attempted to compensate for its failure even to nominate him by giving him an honorary Oscar.

His acceptance speech was modest, and he told the audience, “I wish I could say thank you to all of the characters that I’ve played, thank them for using their lives to inform my life”. Perhaps, though, the essence of the man was revealed when he closed his remarks, flashing a grin, with a quotation from comedian Jack Benny: “I don’t deserve this. But I have arthritis. And I don’t deserve that either.”

What was his best performance? For me, as a leading man, it has to be as “Hawkeye” Pierce in M*A*S*H: even in a subversive, satirical film, he is offbeat, funny, shocking, peerless. Overall, though, it is hard to look past that superlative cameo in JFK. Whether you love or loathe the film, it would be diminished without Sutherland, a flimsier, sillier, more ranting piece of cinema. Sutherland gives it a moral centre, and a kind of anchor that infuses everything else with more credibility, and he makes it look like he could have done it in his lunch break.

As I said when I began, it’s easy to take Sutherland for granted. One of his first film appearances was the last outing for Tallulah Bankhead, while one of his last saw him on the same bill as Jaeden Martell. He could do anything: grieving father, legendary Italian lover, Victorian spiritualist, reluctant anti-apartheid campaigner, CIA assassin, Regency paterfamilias, fascist dictator. Nothing was unlikely or improbable, just a new challenge.

His son Kiefer, himself a hugely successful actor, said that his father was “Never daunted by a role, good, bad or ugly”. Maybe the man himself nailed it early on. In 1970, still in his 30s, he told The Washington Post: “There is more challenge in character roles. There’s longevity. A good character actor can show a different face in every film and not bore the public.”

Donald Sutherland was never boring. He was never predictable. He was never lazy or underpowered, never looked like an actor in cruise-and-collect mode. He didn’t have the scenery-chewing intensity of Pacino or de Niro, or the tortured abdication of self that makes Day-Lewis and Hoffman so absorbing. Perhaps he didn’t need it. 

Watching him at any point, from the early 1960s to the last few years, you see an actor taking each role as a fresh start, a new challenge. He knew what he could do and he was eager to see what he could make of it. That made him sensational to watch. You will search long and hard—I’d say in vain—to find a performance which didn’t make the film somehow better. Donald Sutherland was that good.

Eliot Wilson is Policy Editor of CulturAll

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Creator: Manfred Werner | Credit: Manfred Werner

Copyright: Manfred Werner (CC-by-sa 3.0)

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Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.