Portrait of a flawed and fascinating idol Most of all, Kate Burford says in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Burt Lancaster wanted to be an intellectual. It's a dubious ambition and in connection with Hollywood borders on the oxymoronic, but of any film star of his era, he may have had the best mental equipment for it.
His physical equipment, however and I am fully aware of all that might imply put him on the more lucrative and esteemed path to megastardom. He was impossibly handsome, had a build a Greek god would die for, and moved with fluid grace across the screen. Everything, in short, to buckle the knees of filmgoers and apparently, of some of his female costars.
Plus, he could act. This is the most dubious of the artistic gifts, and not absolutely necessary to celluloid success, but in combination with a build and brain, it made him an unstoppable force in Hollywood for more than 40 years.
The life stories of film celebrities, especially in the studio area, were so often such a web of half-truths, myths, gossip, and outright lies constructed to protect (or destroy) careers that a biographer could be considered lucky to extract a bare skeleton from its threads. Buford manages to give us a fully formed human being, though not quite a full sense of the man. This lack may not be entirely her fault, not so much because the facts were so slippery, as that Lancaster was so complex. Eternally loyal to those who had helped him, he was also, one screenwriter said, capable of a kind of gratuitous cruelty born of years of Hollywood power.
He was born Burton Stephen Lancaster November 2, 1913, in New York City's East Harlem to a family of respectable poor. Though his publicity always said he had little schooling, in high school he received an education that prepared him academically better than most of today's college graduates, and he later entered New York University. But then he ran away to join the circus.
Lancaster spent most of the 1930s traveling with circuses as a trapeze performer, always playing smaller than small time. His first wife, June Ernst, was a fellow circus performer. She didn't last as long as his acrobatic partner, Nick Cravat, who ended up on Lancaster's Hollywood payroll for decades.
After World War II, during which he performed overseas for troops, came two of those amazing lucky breaks that make you think some people are simply darlings of the gods. Though hardly an actor then, in the fall of 1945 he got a role in a New York play that lasted barely two weeks. That was long enough for him to be seen by Harold Hecht, who became his agent and got his foot in the door of Hollywood.
The second related lucky break was that his first movie, The Killers (1946) was an incredible success. It was an extraordinary debut for a complete unknown, Buford writes. Overnight he was a star with a meteoric rise. He remained a star until his death in 1994, despite the fact that he dropped off the popularity barometer forever in 1964. And despite the fact that, other than Airport in 1970, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1957 was his last truly popular movie. He's still a star, really. The Chiclets teeth, the sneer, the grin, and the laugh, as Buford encapsulates him, are nearly as recognizable now as they were when the star was at its zenith.
Infrequently the author dips her pen in the purple ink. The body armor nature gave him like a surprise bonus would encase the wary child within makes you want to wince for that poor wary child. But she covers all of the ground Lancaster's public and private lives, his aggressive success as an independent producer (with Hecht and later, James Hill); his wholesale womanizing; his liberal battle against the House Un-American Activities Committee; the often troubled existence with his alcoholic second wife, Norma Anderson, who bore his five children.
She is especially good at capturing the movie shoots, such as Sweet Smell of Success, which Lancaster struggled to bring out as an independent production in 1957. A critical and commercial disaster when it came out, it is now widely admired. Despite his many human flaws, so is Lancaster.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.