Burt Lancaster: An American Life
by Kate Buford
Published by Knopf
446 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
He was, perhaps, born too soon. An artistic perfectionist with his eye always on new projects and new ways of doing things, Burt Lancaster managed repeatedly to sabotage his own superstardom in quest of greater challenge and fulfillment in the Hollywood he once called, "nothing more than a big circus." (Coming from Lancaster, the crack probably wasn't entirely derogatory as the star begin his show business career as a circus performer during the depression.) According to Kate Buford, author of the latest Lancaster biography, "From 1946 to 1990, he alternated the artsy with the commercial movie, financing one with the profits of the other to keep himself in play."
Buford says that Lancaster was, "Too earnest to be chic, he hungered to make what he considered grown-up movies that engaged, productively, with the circumstances of his era," ultimately leading the way to, "one of the biggest shifts in the industry since the talkies: from studio domination to widespread independent production."
This was the public Lancaster: Mr Muscles and Teeth, whose hard-edged American babe-next-door good looks were a commodity for the star himself to exploit. The private Lancaster, as reported by Buford, was even more complex. A "serious, compulsive womanizer," Lancaster and second wife Norma had five children together. "That moral juxtaposition was perhaps one source of the melancholy that lurked behind the ice-blue eyes." Buford also writes of "compelling evidence" of Lancaster's bisexuality, that seems less than convincing. The "evidence" consists of little beyond Lancaster's awareness and maintenance of his own good looks; his penchant for hiring, "homosexual personal secretaries," ("They're the best," Lancaster said when asked why he did this. "They protect you. I know they're out there telling their homosexual friends that we're having a big affair or something.") and for being the only matinee-idol type male star to publicly support Rock Hudson when the nature of Hudson's illness was released.
Whether or not Buford herself found her own evidence compelling, she doesn't dwell on ambiguities in Lancaster's sexuality. Buford is a pro and she tells Lancaster's story well. With compassion, respect and a nonjudgmental eye, she takes us through the turbulent early years of Lancaster's career right through to his frustrations at finding his still brilliant mind housed in a body that increasingly let him down. Lancaster died at home in Los Angeles on October 20, 1994 after "one last heart attack."
What emerges most strongly from Buford's well-rendered portrait is the passion, strength and determination of the late star. She shows him as being deeply talented, hardworking -- he was making movies until a massive cerebral stroke left him wheelchair-bound and partly paralyzed in 1990 -- and unforgivably human. We are reminded of the films, some of them -- like Sweet Smell of Success and Rocket Gibraltar -- more critically acclaimed now than they were in the time directly following their release. Others are golden-age-of-film-era standards: Birdman of Alcatraz, Atlantic City, From Here to Eternity (in which he rolls memorably in the sand with Deborah Kerr), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: the list is longer than Lancaster's own well-made arms. Like these films, Kate Buford's Burt Lancaster: An American Life is a lasting memento of Burt Lancaster's place on the silver screen. | August 2000
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.