With his chiseled face, famous grin, and string of Hollywood blockbusters, Burt Lancaster isn’t necessarily the stuff of art-house film series. At least in the popular imagination, he was more like a proto-George Clooney: a fine actor and even finer face, but not exactly an innovator. Often dismissed as “Mr. Muscles and Teeth,” he was the first star in Hollywood history to command a $1 million salary, and is now best known for broad blockbusters like From Here to Eternity. But he also played against type — quietly at first, and then aggressively at the end of his career, with a series of artier, weirder films that conspicuously eschewed the All-American image he’d cultivated earlier.
And that’s exactly what fascinates Steve Seid, who’s currently curating a Lancaster series for UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive (2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley).”This really is a tribute to an actor who had a spectacular career and changed greatly as an actor,” he said, speaking with the sort of excitement and depth of knowledge that can only come from a serious fan.
Indeed, the series, which spans 22 years of Lancaster’s career, presents surprising range. It begins Friday, November 27, with The Killers, the 1946 noir film that started Lancaster’s career. After that, we see Lancaster inhabit nearly every role imaginable in a full spectrum of genres: a trapeze artist caught in a love triangle (Trapeze, November 27); a bloodthirsty gossip columnist (The Sweet Smell of Success, December 4); a convicted-murderer-turned-bird-expert (Birdman of Alcatraz, December 9); a crusading child psychologist (A Child Is Waiting, December11); and even a pirate (The Crimson Pirate, December 4).
The series, which Seid calls a “mini-retrospective” because it includes only a fraction of Lancaster’s films, is presented mostly chronologically, which Seid said was an intentional choice to help the audience witness Lancaster’s transformation. “It begins with him as this stern, athletic young man, but he became a much deeper actor,” he said. “There was this effervescence about his presence, but then as he got closer to the Sixties, you see the transformation of his conscience — you see how his intellectual maturity is matched by his ability to act in a more profound way. It’s a very interesting journey for an audience to see how an actor isn’t just one thing.” “Grin, Smile, Smirk: The Films of Burt Lancaster” runs Friday, November 26, through Saturday, December 11. Check web site for full schedule; $5.50-$9.50 per show. 510-642-1412 or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu