No Hollywood star has ever exuded more self-confidence onscreen than Burt Lancaster - or seemed to enjoy being in front of the camera more. Tall and athletic, with a killer smile and a staccato speaking style that became fodder for impressionists the world over, Lancaster was every inch the star. All that, and he was a pretty good actor, too, especially when the role either allowed his passion to emerge full-throttle or demanded that he keep it firmly under control.
Tonight's TCM schedule offers four chances to see Lancaster at his best. First up is 1957's Sweet Smell of Success (8 p.m.), with Lancaster oozing menace as New York gossip columnist and self-proclaimed kingmaker J.J. Hunsecker, who enjoys toying with people as much as he enjoys chronicling their peccadilloes in his column. It's a fearsome, fearless performance that, along with Tony Curtis' turn as Hunsecker's lapdog, Sidney Falco, propels one of the tightest, most smartly scripted films ever.
Trapeze (10 p.m.), released a year earlier, lets Lancaster show off not only his physique, but also his aerial skills - he got his start as a circus performer in the 1930s. Curtis again co-stars, this time as the young-buck trapeze performer who spars with his mentor (Lancaster).
Lancaster won his best actor Oscar for 1960's Elmer Gantry (midnight), director Richard Brooks' incendiary tale of a flamboyant traveling preacher trying to outrun his past. Lancaster is appropriately spellbinding as Gantry, pumping enough energy into the role to light a medium-sized city.
Rounding out the night's offerings is 1956's The Rainmaker (2:30 a.m.), offering Lancaster as a charlatan trying to coax rain out of a Kansas sky and love from the heart of spinster Lizzie Curry (Katharine Hepburn). Lancaster and Hepburn - hard to believe there was a movie screen big enough to contain those two outsized personalities.