Are the Oscars trolling Donald Sutherland?
He has never received a competitive Oscar. In fact, the Canadian has never even been nominated for one, despite terrific performances in at least a dozen great films by directors such as Robert Altman, Federico Fellini, Nicolas Roeg, Alan J. Pakula and Robert Redford. But, if you're a regular Oscar watcher, you may have noticed him some years. While the winners walked to the stage for their trophies, he was the anonymous voice saying stuff like, "Sound editor Sue Smith has been a fan of the movies ever since she saw my naked butt in the classic comedy, "Animal House.' " (This example was invented for illustrative purposes.)
Although the Academy Awards did finally give him one of those sorry-we've-ignored-your-entire-career lifetime achievement honors four years ago, that still doesn't explain how one of our finest, subtlest actors has never gotten so much as a whiff of a real Oscar.
If you think of an actor's tools as the person's voice and physical presence, Sutherland seems limited; there's no disguising those pale eyes, his elongated face or that silvery voice. But he has played a wide variety of characters with subtlety and conviction, including the supportive coach who invented a new kind of running shoe in the beautiful "Without Limits," the heedless sensualist in "Casanova," the vicious politician in "The Hunger Games," the naive accountant in "The Day of the Locust" and the glib one-percenter in "Six Degrees of Separation."
I'm a fan of Sutherland but it wasn't until I scrolled through his more than a half-century's worth of credits that I added up how many wonderful movies he's been in. That's a tribute to his taste and to his capacity for storytelling.
Sutherland has been the lead in plenty of movies, particularly in his '70s heyday, but you'd never call them "Donald Sutherland movies" because his performances don't call attention to themselves. Which, by the way, is why he's never been nominated for an Oscar. To paraphrase something often said about movie composers, the best Sutherland acting is when you don't notice he's acting.
Sutherland has been in his share of bad movies, too, but it's always worth finding out how he builds a performance — when he chooses to emphasize a character detail, how he uses his physicality (he's 6 feet 4) and what his eyes are telling us about his character's relationship to the people around him.
Paying attention to what he's doing is always a good strategy, especially in a blah movie like the serial killer drama "The Calling," or HBO's recent "The Undoing." If another actor or a bit of dialogue seems fake, shift your attention to Sutherland, and he'll show you something to believe.
That's especially true in these career-best performances.
More Oscar shenanigans: Virtually everyone else was nominated, including Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton won the supporting actor prize. One issue might have been categories. Is Sutherland a third supporting actor contender? A lead? Either way, Sutherland's most nakedly emotional performance, as a father trying to hold his family together in the wake of one son's accidental death and the other's suicide attempt, is the movie's soul. The whole thing hinges on a tender scene in which he figures out what his surviving son needs.
Even though he played "Casanova" for Fellini, "sexy" isn't a word you'd generally apply to Sutherland. But the most famous sequence in this classic chiller is an erotic scene with Sutherland and Julie Christie, in which cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg mixes up time to suggest the wounded, animalistic frenzy of the grieving characters' coupling.
Jane Fonda and the haircut that sent millions of women to the beauty parlor for shags are probably what you picture when you think about the creepy thriller. But Sutherland plays the title role and provides much of the mystery. His acting is so buttoned-up (he actually flinches from human contact) that we spend most of "Klute" unsure if he's a virginal perv or a quiet hero. Sutherland also employs the old actor trick of reserving his smile for the end, when it'll have the most impact.
It's probably ridiculous to worry about spoiling a 43-year-old movie but Sutherland's pivotal scene is so iconic that I won't say a word about it. The ensemble cast (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams) is aces but Sutherland's wit and intelligence suck us into the suspenseful tale.
I've probably watched Sutherland's lone scene 100 times. That's a credit to the cinematography, editing and direction but mostly it is to the calm, sane persuasiveness of Sutherland as Mr. X. He's given the impossible job of making us (and Kevin Costner) buy an elaborate patchwork of conspiracy-theory poppycock and, in one monologue spoken as the Washington Monument looms behind him, he does.
Robert Altman's film is much darker than the TV show it inspired (and truer to the Richard Hooker novel that inspired it), and Sutherland's brilliant-to-the-edge-of-smugness Hawkeye Pierce is not as lovable as the Alan Alda version. The emotional remove of his acting matches the movie's, though, and positions this performance in the chilly first half of his career, as opposed to the softy second half.
Like "JFK," Sutherland's is a small role that makes an enormous impact. He plays the patient father of the boisterous Bennet sisters and he speaks for the audience when, his eyes brimming with tears, he concedes that daughter Elizabeth may have met her match, saying, "I cannot believe that anyone can deserve you but it seems I am overruled."
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367