In Memory of Donald Sutherland – Flickside

In today’s The Toast series, we pay tribute to recently passed Donald Sutherland, an Oscar-winning acting great who lit up the 1970s New Hollywood screen, and whose prolific career continued until present-day. From M.A.S.H. to The Hunger Games, Donald Sutherland was a Hollywood icon who will be deeply missed!

Sitting alone at a dark dining room table, his head in his hands, he turned to his wife who had asked why he was crying. The first few words of his response were indecipherable. His following quiet pause was ironically, deafeningly loud. He then let out a sigh, long and seeming to release the heavy weight of the world. As the audience, nearly two hours into watching, we knew where this was going.

Donald Sutherland’s kind, grieving, conflicted father character Calvin then says to his wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) – “You are beautiful, and unpredictable. But you’re so cautious… I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what we’ve been playing at. So I was crying, because I don’t know if I love you anymore, and I don’t know what I’m going to do without that.” What a true “drop the mic” moment in cinematic history. But for those who have watched the stunning family drama Ordinary People (1980), we know that no flashy, trendy phrase is appropriate here. This movie is serious stuff. And it’s one of Donald Sutherland’s finest performances.

The world mourns the loss of cinematic legend, Donald Sutherland, who passed away on June 20, aged 88. He leaves behind an admirably vast, prolific filmography spanning six decades. From his early roles in British films spanning 1963-1967, to his Hollywood breakout hit in 1967’s American film The Dirty Dozen, Donald Sutherland has been a veritable force of nature.

His final onscreen film role was just last year, in 2023’s Miranda’s Victim, starring alongside Abigail Breslin and Luke Wilson. Similar to fellow Canadian actor Christopher Plummer of The Sound of Music (1965), who had acted until age 89 before passing away at 91, Donald Sutherland showed no signs of retiring from the craft that he adored. He was immensely popular and sought-after right until the end. How lucky we movie-goers were.


The Making of a Legend

How did Donald Sutherland get to be so good? Born July 17, 1935, in New Brunswick, Canada, Sutherland was an academically trained actor. He graduated from Victoria University in Toronto, Canada, with a dual degree in engineering and drama. Fortunately for us, he chose to pursue drama instead of engineering. Sutherland moved to London, where he studied at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). He began his career with theater and TV roles, which eventually led to film opportunities.

In 1967, Hollywood came calling, interestingly enough for a movie being filmed in England; he landed the role of Vernon in the highly successful war film The Dirty Dozen. Known for its “who’s who” ensemble cast including acting greats Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, The Dirty Dozen served as an excellent launching pad for 32-year-old Sutherland.

By the time Sutherland finished 1970, he had moved from London to Hollywood, and was one of the hottest, in-demand actors of the New Hollywood era, a new style of filmmaking that prided itself on grit, realism, and provocation. He had leading roles in both MASH (1970) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). The former is a Robert Altman-directed classic, wherein Sutherland plays Hawkeye Pierce, an unruly, though overall likeable, comedically entertaining, and highly skilled surgeon during the Korean War. The latter is another wartime film with a comedic bent. Sutherland plays “Oddball,” part of an AWOL group of GIs aiming to get their hands on (aka steal) some Nazi gold from a bank. 

Sutherland was proving himself to be an indispensable “ensemble” acting player who excelled in offbeat roles – skillfully bouncing off his fellow actors with his superb comedic timing, his magnificently curious “glint” beaming from his soft blue eyes, and an onscreen presence that intrigued us movie-goers. Who is this tall, gentle-eyed, and uniquely-voiced thespian who emanates such undeniable charisma?

And back to that unique voice. If sampling Sutherland’s film catalog for the first time, be prepared for his MASH “whistle” and Kelly’s Heroes “bark.” Iconic! Sutherland was most definitely not the traditionally handsome, suave movie star, who chose to play traditionally handsome, suave parts. He was no sophisticated Cary Grant, but that was perfect for the New Hollywood era. Sutherland was “just what the doctor ordered,” if keeping with Sutherland’s beloved MASH doctor character. Cue that whistle!


Hitting Strides

As Sutherland’s career progressed, other highly notable roles followed. In 1971 he played the title character in Klute, in which he’s a detective in New York City investigating the disappearance of a man. This leads him to the dangerous world of female sex worker Bree, played brilliantly by Jane Fonda in her first Oscar-winning performance.

Sutherland and Fonda are mesmerizing together. They have a natural give-and-take chemistry that feels almost telepathic. Attribute their entrancing chemistry to an excellent script, director, cinematographer etc., but Klute still feels like a film that only Sutherland and Fonda could’ve made. And the fact that Sutherland and Fonda were close offscreen, both romantically and as activists in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the USA, is the “stuff” of pure Hollywood legend. To this day, Klute stands as one of the best examples of 1970s New York City film realism.        

Later, Sutherland starred in 1973’s Don’t Look Now, which earned him a prestigious BAFTA nomination, followed by The Eagle Has Landed (1976), and Fellini’s Cassanova the same year. He also featured in 1978’s comedy Animal House.

That year, Sutherland also took a sci-fi turn down a very murky lane in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here’s an A-list cult classic for those who dare. Sutherland stars as a scientist in San Francisco, who learns that the city is being overrun by aliens who are taking over the bodies of humans via “flower pod” incubation. It’s “botany horror” of the highest caliber, where the actor is positively riveting as an on-the-run scientist. He’s entirely believable, which makes this film’s twists and turns (both literal and figurative) true nail-biters. Can his character save the human race, or at the very least, himself? 

Sutherland then started the new decade with his powerhouse performance as distraught dad in 1980’s previously mentioned Ordinary People. Directed by iconic Robert Redford in his directorial debut, Ordinary People won 1981’s coveted Oscar for Best Picture. A story about an upper-middle-class American family that is torn apart by the accidental death of its older teenaged son, and the subsequent suicide attempt of its younger teenaged son, Ordinary People is beautiful in its subtlety, realism, and heart. And Sutherland embodies so much of this film’s beauty. One might think, “Oh, a suburban father role, how hard can that be?”

But Sutherland brings a quiet, tangible depth to his role where we are profoundly taken into his sad yet hopeful world. He taps into “male sadness” in such an overwhelmingly powerful way that many movie-goers have attested to a “moment of silence” upon finishing watching Ordinary People. This movie can have that silence-inducing effect. Note – for those who love to critique color in film, notice the shade of Donald Sutherland’s eyes in Ordinary People. It is piercingly blue, which is his natural color, and strikingly symbolic in terms of mirroring the emotional “blueness” of his character.


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Sutherland’s Later Years

After starring in 1989’s A Dry White Season alongside classic film legend Marlon Brando, Sutherland ushered in the 1990s with a string of Hollywood blockbusters. Cue Backdraft (1991), JFK (1991), Disclosure (1994), Outbreak (1995), and A Time to Kill (1996) with his son Kiefer Sutherland. That’s right, Donald Sutherland was the proud papa of 1980s and 1990s movie star Kiefer Sutherland of The Lost Boys (1987) and A Few Good Men (1992) fame. He also starred in Without Limits (1998), which earned him a Golden Globe nom.

The new millennium saw Sutherland starring in the beloved historical period piece Pride & Prejudice (2005) and The Hunger Games (2012-2015) dystopian sci-fi franchise. There was no role Sutherland couldn’t rock. And for the newer generation of cinephiles, where The Hunger Games might’ve been their entry point into Donald Sutherland’s vast filmography, what an impressive introduction!

His President Snow has been revered as one of the greatest villains in all of moviedom. What’s more, similar to Sutherland’s “symbolic” piercingly blue eyes in Ordinary People, is everyone loving Sutherland’s “symbolic” snowy white beard in The Hunger Games? President Snow is indeed diabolically, evilly cold! Now yes, while these natural physical features in both movies aren’t exactly acting-related, they certainly enhance our experience of these two memorable characters.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Sutherland’s career, at least for his legions of ardent fans, came in 2017 with the Honorary Oscar. After fifty years in Hollywood showbiz, he had become known for being one of the most talented actors to never receive an Oscar nomination. Not only had he never won an Oscar, he had never even been nominated. Blasphemy.

Thankfully, this egregious error was identified, and Donald Sutherland was deservedly honored. He was thanked for his contribution to cinema, and cited “for a lifetime of indelible characters rendered with unwavering truthfulness.”


Made Up, But Still True

The world has lost a giant with the passing of Donald Sutherland. He was an actor who had stood the test of time, and was continuously thriving. Embodying a uniquely gentle, thoughtful, and simultaneously passionate, offscreen persona, he was the “brightest of the bright” movie stars onscreen. No surprise that tributes have been sparking the airwaves this past week, from fellow co-stars such as Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Elliott Gould, to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and American President Joe Biden.

However, lucky for us, this isn’t a permanent goodbye. Donald Sutherland’s memoir Made Up, But Still True is set for release this November. Indeed, let’s reserve our copy now. Thank you, Donald Sutherland, for sharing your immense talent with the world for all these many years.

Catch all the features from The Toast series here.

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