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A defining portrait of Burt Lancaster


"Burt Lancaster: An American," by Kate Buford. Alfred A. Knopf. 430 pages. $27.50.

Burt Lancaster was a Hollywood movie star who sought independent and challenging projects before it became fashionable for actors to "stretch." No other star would, at the peak of his popularity, have chosen to portray a vicious and cynical New York City newspaper columnist in "The Sweet Smell of Success" (a box-office failure that is now considered one of the great movies of the 1950s).

What distinguishes Lancaster's career, as Kate Buford proves in her authoritative and unflinching biography, is that he did not seek recognition and fame. He fiercely believed in personal freedom, so when he became an overnight sensation at age 33, he immediately began to take personal charge of his movie destiny.

From that first film role in "The Killers" in 1946 to his final small part in "Field of Dreams" in 1990, he moved deftly between commercial movies and art films. He became a movie hero whose physical presence has never been matched, but he deliberately sought to manipulate that image. Buford's story of Lancaster's film and personal life is full of original material that produces an incisive analysis of an actor, and a man, too complex to be pigeonholed.

Lancaster was a perfectionist who could be insensitive, argumentative and arrogant. As the studio system declined, he established the first actor-driven independent production company, which throughout the 1950s operated as a ministudio. He matured as an actor, and the best of his work ("The Killers," "Brute Force," "From Here to Eternity," "The Sweet Smell of Success," "Elmer Gantry," "Birdman of Alcatraz," "7 Days in May," "The Swimmer," "Ulzana's Raid," "Atlantic City" and "Local Hero") is remarkable for its diversity and quality.

Born to poor, Irish-American parents in New York City in 1913, Lancaster was a modest student but an excellent athlete who left home during the Depression to work as a circus acrobat. After serving with the Army in Italy in World War II, the untrained Lancaster used a great screen test to land the plum "Killers" part.

His work in "From Here to Eternity," including the famous beach scene with Deborah Kerr, raised the acting bar. Buford notes that he held his own against Montgomery Clift, the only actor who ever intimidated him. A string of hit movies allowed his production company to produce smaller projects such as "Marty," the 1955 Oscar winner. But by the end of the 1950s the company went bankrupt after too many projects lost money.

He won the best actor Oscar for "Elmer Gantry" in 1961 and after a decade of top-billed roles became a great character actor who brought the faded small-time gangster to life in "Atlantic City."

After a brief first marriage, Lancaster's second marriage lasted 25 years and produced five children. He was a loving father and a great provider, but was also a compulsive and well-known womanizer. Buford says Lancaster's biggest disappointments were not playing Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Don Corleone in "The Godfather." She also reports that his well-publicized friendship with Kirk Douglas was a partial Hollywood fabrication.

Lancaster suffered a debilitating stroke in 1990 and died quietly in 1994. There was no public funeral or fanfare. Just the body of his work.

Paul Moore is the assistant managing editor/news for The Sun and an avid film collector and advocate.

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