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The Best of Donald Sutherland

Updated: Jun 30


One of our best American actors, Donald Sutherland has starred in some of the best films of the past five decades. Always with an undercurrent of mischief or danger, Sutherland could be the funniest guy in the scene, or the most dangerous.

His passing this morning at the age of 88 inspired instant reflection on my most memorable Sutherland moments on film.

Here are some of my favorites in no particular order. Each helped carve his unique career or were the fruits of his many years on the big screen.


M*A*S*H*

Back in 1970, NO ONE had seen a film like Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. If you've only seen the terrific TV series that started two years later, you're in for a very different experience with this film classic.

Until M*A*S*H, most war films were like "The Longest Day" or "The Great Escape", staunchly pro military and flattering toward the command.

Altman's film is a brilliant, episodic treat as it details chapter after chapter of Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland, fantastic) and Trapper John (hilarious Elliott Gould) as the surgeons who fill their spare time with debauchery of every sort and constant challenging of authority.

Robert Duvall is excellent as the by-the-book pain in the ass Frank Burns, who only bends the rules to romance Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman, incredibly sexy in her film debut).

Audiences LOVED the film, embracing its new, non-linear and hilarious story telling style, with often overlapping dialogue, a story that fits and starts without any traditional flow, buckets of operating room gore and a cast as obsessed with sex as they are survival.

Some scenes have become comedy classics. Radar (Gary Burghoff, who would repeat his role on TV) sneaking a microphone into Hot Lips & Franks loud lovemaking session and broadcasting it camp wide, the climactic football game with Fred Williamson as a drafted NFL player and Gould & Sutherland's golfing excursion are LOL highlights.

This is jet black comedy at its finest, executed by a cast up to the task. In just three years, it will be 50 years since its original release in theatres, which is pretty hard to imagine.

The title song "Suicide is Painless" is damn dark and will be a shock to those that only know the song from the TV show. The TV series was fantastic in its own right, with excellent writing and acting, but this is a very different animal and it earns its R rating.

There's a great story around the production that Fox execs called Director Altman after seeing dailies and said that the soldiers were too dirty, that their uniforms were always clean in war movies. Altman told them that he served in Korea and everyone was filthy all the time. Rumor has it that Zanuck called the team working on "Patton" and told them to make their soldiers more dirty!

Robert Altman made plenty of excellent films in his own remarkable style after this breakout hit, including "Nashville", 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Gosford Park" to name just a few.

If you haven't seen this in awhile, its worth a revisit to laugh all over again. If you've never seen it, check out the first huge anti-war film of the seventies. It changed the movies for good.

M*A*S*H is a hilarious masterpiece and gets an A.


Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Ready for some suspense, scares and gross out moments? 1978's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is an intelligent sci-fi thriller and a true film rarity, a remake that improves on the original!

Director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) brings an offbeat tone to every angle of the film as he tells the story of a small group of friends that begin to suspect something different about their loved ones and customers.

As the phenomena continues to expand across the city of San Francisco, Health Inspector Matthew (Donald Sutherland) his asst Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) and husband & wife acquaintances Jack and Nancy (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) find themselves falling deeper and deeper into a massive conspiracy.

Alien spores are hatching exact replicas of humans and as they take life, the real person shrivels into a giant dust bunny that's casually swept into those ever roaming trash trucks.

While that description makes it sound funny, the real transformation is anything but humorous. Even today, the special effects teams work holds up well as the spores and their offspring deliver that perfect combo of spooky, weird and gross.

Sutherland and cast are terrific, as is Leonard Nimoy as a renowned psychologist who attempts to cast the rumors of what's happening as a mass delusion.

The music score by Denny Zeitlin is offbeat and strange, the photography by Michael Chapman (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) is great and the entire production is first rate.

Film buffs should watch closely for the star of the original 50's version Kevin McCarthy as the man in the streets yelling "They're Coming! You're next!" and the director of the original Don Siegel, cast as the taxi driver that takes Matthew and Elizabeth toward the airport.

One of the best sci-fi films of the 1970's, INVASION is a suspenseful, crazy ride, right up to its famous, last image. We'll hatch it an A.


Eye of the Needle

Based on the book by Ken Follett, this 1981 WW2 thriller/romance holds up pretty well past its 40th anniversary. Donald Sutherland is great as a Nazi spy masquerading as an Englishman who wonders into the life of unhappy bride Kate Nelligan on the barren, aptly named Storm Island.

Is there an American actor alive better at portraying a good guy so convincingly that you almost refuse to accept his real mission?

George Lucas hired director Richard Marquand to direct 1983's 'Return of the Jedi" after seeing his work here. Sutherland at his multi-faceted best.

Good stuff. B



The Great Train Robbery

One of the best film adaptions of any Michael Crichton novel, The Great Train Robbery is an excellent thriller with Sean Connery at his best.

Connery stars as Pierce, a man with an elaborate plan in Victorian England to execute the first train robbery in history.

Connery works with the fastest pickpocket and key replicator in the business, Agar (Donald Sutherland in a fun, great performance) and his right hand girl Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down, funny and stunning) who plays many different parts in the illusion and the plan.

This is Crichton's best film as a director and he does an excellent job adapting his own book into a fast, enjoyable, exciting thriller that will leave you smiling.

The last half hour details the robbery in real time and you will be amazed when you see the stunts that Connery pulls off. That is really him on top of that train in pre-CGI filmmaking! It's fantastic stunt work, photography by legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Superman) and music by Jerry Goldsmith. This is one of Goldsmith's best scores and knowing he wrote the scores for Coma, Damien: Omen II, The Boys from Brazil and Magic in 1978, the same year as this film, his output is pretty amazing.

Sit back enjoy this classy, funny, suspenseful and exciting Crichton classic!

It steals a solid gold A.


Kelly's Heroes

1970's KELLY'S HEROES is by an interesting comedy/adventure set in World War II with Clint Eastwood leading a band of misfits in a Nazi gold heist.

After a German officer spills plenty of secrets about a bank filled with gold bars to Eastwood over a bottle of brandy, he gathers an eclectic bunch to go behind enemy lines to steal it.

Telly Savalas is Big Joe, the most reluctant and loudest of the bunch. I haven't seen one actor yell this much in a movie since Ernest Borgnine in The Poseidon Adventure, but Savalas somehow pulls it off.

Don Rickles is terrific (in his biggest film role until "Casino" much later) as Crapshoot, the wheeler dealer of the platoon that can get anything from anyone. Rickles stays in character but manages to meld in a lot of his act in a funny performance.

Donald Sutherland seems to have wandered in from another film set in 1970 in a performance that has a lot more to do with being an anti-war statement than fitting into the times depicted in the film. His hippie character is very jarring in the WWII setting and seems completely out of place. That said, Sutherland is hilarious and no one does hippie soldier better than Sutherland, who had perfected the type earlier the same year in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H.

Carroll O'Connor (TV's Archie Bunker) is brilliant and nearly steals the film as a General in search of glory and look for Gavin McLeod (from TV's Love Boat and Mary Tyler Moore) as Moriarty, who is constantly disrupting Sgt Oddball (Sutherland's) good vibes.

Director Brian G. Hutton also was at the helm of Eastwood's "Where Eagles Dare" two years before this film and he knows how to craft a good war adventure.

Kelly's Heroes is never great, but it has a lot of fun along the way. Once the gold heist actually kicks in, so does the entertainment.

The film being at least 30 minutes too long and the horribly dated songs knock down our overall rating, but Eastwood and company steal a B- for their efforts.


JFK

Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK is a three-hour plus barrage of facts, speculation, theory and terrific movie making that ranks as one of the smartest films in Stone's controversial career.

Kevin Costner gives one of his best performances as Louisiana DA Jim Garrison, the only man to ever bring a case to trial to question the dubious findings of the Warren Commission.

By the time you have witnessed Stone's clever education on the hundreds of facts (along with his theories) that cast serious doubt on Lee Harvey Oswald being the lone gunman in Kennedy's assassination, you will be ready to argue the point as well.

As Garrison peels back layer after layer of facts that build an ever growing picture of a conspiracy to murder Kennedy, military contractors, Vietnam war contracts, Cuba, communist sympathizers and our own government are all in the mix.

The genius of Stone's screenplay and direction is that he immerses you in Garrison's investigation, with the viewer making the discoveries along with his team. As the facts pile up, the Warren commission findings become paper thin.

Costner is surrounded by an all-star cast down to the smallest roles, with Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek and Joe Pesci making strong impacts.

The greatest support comes from the great Gary Oldman as Oswald. Oldman captures a weak, angry little man looking to be something bigger. Whether he is the patsy for much bigger forces at play as the film depicts or truly the lone gunman, Oldman is brilliant.

So is Donald Sutherland in a covert role he was born to play. Sutherland and Costner on that bench, uncovering the biggest secrets in world politics as John Williams music lurks around them...movie magic.

The Director's Cut of the film is over three and a half hours long and never lags for a moment. It's a tribute to Stone's writing and the Oscar Winning editing by Pietro Scalia (Prometheus, Gladiator) that the film moves so quickly.

John Williams provides some of his best film music here, with an ever present score that matches the film in excitement and power.

This film certainly swayed my opinion on the long gunman, as it did many. As a result of the film, sealed records around many of the police findings and evidence from 11/22/63 will now be released two decades sooner than they were originally planned. Now we only have two more decades to see all the evidence, a fact disturbingly in line with the picture Stone paints so well.

This is a powerful, exciting, intelligent film. Hugely controversial upon its release because of Stone's murky blending of fact and theory, its undeniably a superior film, no matter which side of the grassy knoll you are on when it comes to the facts.

One of my all time Top Ten favorite films and an A+.

It's brilliant filmmaking.


Ordinary People

1980's Ordinary People is a powerful debut from Director Robert Redford, featuring an all star cast as a family with everything on the surface and many troubles underneath.

Mary Tyler Moore shattered her perfect TV woman image as Beth Jarrett, the emotionally cutoff wife from her husband played by Donald Sutherland and son Conrad, perfectly played by Timothy Hutton.

Conrad's older brother died in a tragic boating accident and the guilt of that accident has driven Conrad to a suicide attempt.

The film opens as he returns home and to high school, pretending to be fine but struggling to live every day.

Conrad starts visiting therapist Dr. Berger, perfectly played by Judd Hirsch. I was only familiar with Hirsch from "Taxi" and had no idea what a terrific actor he is until I saw in this film.

As Dr. Berger begins to bring emotions and feelings out of Conrad, his father is thrilled and his mother is horrified as she has spent her life hiding any sign of human emotion.

This was a brave role for Moore, who plays a completely unlikeable character as far removed from Laura Petrie as you can get. She's terrific and is matched by Sutherland as the rock of the Jarrett family. Look for Elizabeth McGovern is an early big role as Hutton's girlfriend.

Redford proved he was the real deal as a director his first time out. Ordinary People is anything but ordinary and earns a strong A.


RIP Mr. Sutherland, and thank you for an incredible body of work over the last 50+ years.

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