The Nine Movie Roles—and TV Cameo—That Defined Donald Sutherland

From his spellbinding ‘JFK’ scene to the trauma-horror of ‘Don’t Look Now’ to his ‘Simpsons’ cameo, these are some of the standouts from Sutherland, who died this week at 88

Ringer illustration

Writing about Donald Sutherland in The New York Times in 1970, Guy Flatley opined that the Canadian-born actor—then riding high on the success of the ribald antiwar comedy M*A*S*H—presented a “rather startling split-image: half Christ at the Last Supper and half Mick Jagger at Altamont.”

There is something to the idea of Sutherland as a wry countercultural messiah; no less than peers like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, or Elliott Gould, he embodied the maverick, iconoclastic spirit of the New Hollywood, starring in a series of influential, unconventional, and occasionally audacious features that made ideal use of his left-of-center charisma. The massive outpouring of sentiment online from fans and filmmakers alike Thursday following Sutherland’s death at the age of 88 speaks to both the magnitude and singularity of his stardom; after spending decades cultivating an appealing narrative as an unlikely A-lister—a strident nonconformist who never fully bought into showbiz mythology—he ended up a genuine mainstream icon. His interviews, both about his career and other subjects, were unusually candid and frequently hilarious, and he put his celebrity where his politics were, speaking out over the years on a variety of hot-button issues (he claimed he did The Hunger Games partly because he thought it could help sway the younger generation to activism).

Like a lot of actors of his vintage, Sutherland loved to work, and appeared in his share of lesser—or outright terrible—films, although you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that was worse for his presence. As for the good ones, they were good indeed: Especially in his glory days in the 1970s, he seemed to have an instinct for films whose style and substance would stand the test of time. In honor of an amazing career, here’s a look at some of Sutherland’s greatest performances; an embarrassment of actorly riches.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Throughout his career, Sutherland channeled his innate, antiestablishment skepticism into memorable performances in roles big and small. Case in point: his star-making, scene-stealing showcase in The Dirty Dozen, in which his sardonic U.S. Army grunt Vernon Pinkley is obliged as part of a larger scheme to impersonate a general—a masquerade that brings out a wicked satirical streak. Asked by his C.O. to “walk slow, look dumb, and act stupid” Pinkley adopts a wry, shit-eating grin and proceeds to razz his pals from his phony perch atop the chain of command: he’s having the time of his life, and his exuberance is in line with the film’s brutal, anarchic tone. “I originally had one line in the whole film,” Sutherland told The Guardian in 2005. “The director Robert Aldrich, who had a huge authoritarian streak, turned to me—we’d all had our heads shaved—and said, ‘You! With the big ears! You do it!’ He didn’t even know my name!” It’s a great scene, and it proved that the young Canadian could hold his own with alpha-male costars like Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and John Cassavetes; it also led directly to Robert Altman casting him in his breakthrough role in M*A*S*H.

M*A*S*H (1970)

An ostensible period piece that slyly used the backdrop of the Korean War to comment on Vietnam, M*A*S*H was a countercultural cinematic landmark—a primal scene of profanity, misanthropy, and R-rated gore that ended up as an unlikely and controversial blockbuster. In theory, Sutherland and Altman were a perfect match: a pair of sardonic kindred spirits wary of Hollywood orthodoxy. But history tells us that M*A*S*H was a movie made under extreme duress, and that Sutherland’s gleefully nihilistic performance as a combat surgeon trying to stitch up his countrymen on the front lines was in some ways a reaction against what he perceived as a fledgling director’s inadequacies. The tension is real, but it works; the role of Hawkeye Pierce calls for callowness threaded through gravitas, and the actor’s palpable annoyance bleeds into the character’s prankish antics. Sutherland’s chemistry with costar Elliott Gould is first-ballot Dudes Rock Hall of Fame stuff, but his best moments come when Hawkeye is amusing himself; over a decade and a half before Full Metal Jacket, Sutherland cornered the archetype of the private Joker.

Klute (1971)

At some point, every great ’70s leading man got to play a rumpled, heroic big-city detective: think Popeye Doyle, or Serpico, or Harry Callahan. But Sutherland’s performance as the eponymous investigator in Klute is unusual in that the movie doesn’t belong to him. Instead, his character serves as a sort of conduit for the audience to observe—and become gradually entranced by—Jane Fonda’s pricey call girl Bree Daniels, a neurotic seducer who’s seemingly been targeted for harassment by a former client (or perhaps her vicious pimp). (Fonda and Sutherland were romantically involved at the time, making them the era’s reigning left-wing celebrity power couple; they even toured the Pacific rim with an antiwar road show.) As the kickoff for director Alan J. Pakula’s so-called “paranoia trilogy,” Klute is riven by a sense of ambient unease (epitomized by its jangly piano score), and while Fonda’s nervy tour de force as a woman in the throes of extreme anxiety won her an Oscar, it’s Sutherland who grounds and shapes the script’s disparate elements, subtly modulating his character’s transformation from peeping tom to protector while mining a rich vein of decency at odds with his off-kilter screen persona. If it’s possible for an actor to be magnetic and self-effacing, he pulls it off beautifully.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

For all of its Gothic menace and occultish metaphysics, Nicolas Roeg’s landmark 1973 horror movie is, above all, a study of grief. Playing a man whose life has been irreparably shattered by the accidental drowning death of his young daughter, Sutherland embodies the condition as authentically as any actor in film history. Arriving in Venice with his wife Laura (Julie Christie), Sutherland’s John Baxter tries to sublimate his sadness through work, through leisure, through sex, but as the movie goes on it’s clear he’s at the mercy of his own anguished conscience—as well as an outsider navigating a sunken, foreign city that’s structured like a labyrinth (one with a monster at its center). It all culminates in a final sequence that functions both as a giallo-style jolt and an existential exclamation point, put across by a close-up in which Sutherland wordlessly conveys shivery, overwhelming sensations of surprise and resignation. In terms of behind-the-scenes lore, Don’t Look Now is a load-bearing title in the Sutherland legend, with critics and audiences speculating for decades about whether the modish, mutually-full-frontal sex scene between him and Christie was simulated; all you really need to know about what Sutherland thought about the movie is that he named one of his sons Roeg.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Philip Kaufman’s amazing 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers emphasizes the physical and behavioral eccentricity of its ensemble strategically, so that it feels like there’s something at stake in whether or not they’re replaced by alien doppelgängers; in lieu of stolid sci-fi archetypes, the film gives us weird, lovable, palpably human human beings. Hence the casting of Sutherland, whose offbeat, funky warmth is perfectly deployed alongside such similarly unconventional presences as Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and Jeff Goldblum—a lovely motley crew pitted against a horde of poker-faced emotionless drones. There are great shocks and scares here, but the most enduring moments are intimate ones, like Sutherland effortlessly slicing ginger in his kitchen to make a snack for a famished Adams—a bit of neo-bohemian flirtation that expands into full-blown romance as their characters dodge shrieking, implacable pod people, clinging together for support and survival. We love them as much as they love each other, which is why the final sequences are so devastating; what lingers in the aftermath of the final shot is a terrible sense of loss. As for that final shot: It’s an all-timer, with Sutherland’s face once again serving as an indelible emblem of terror—this time not as a victim as in Don’t Look Now, but as an avatar of inevitable, inhuman conformity.

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

Sutherland was just north of 40 when he was recruited for John Landis’s epochal campus comedy, but make no mistake: He’s on hand in Animal House as a symbolic elder statesman, passing the torch of antiestablishment anarchy he’d helped to light in M*A*S*H to a new generation of ne’er-do-wells. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Landis recalled parlaying his friendship with Sutherland into a cameo role that beefed up the film’s ensemble credibility; the actor only has a few minutes of screentime but he makes them count with every precisely deadpan one-liner. His Professor Jennings is a sublime study in tenuously tenured self-sabotage—a pot-addled intellectual smart enough to understand Paradise Lost while reassuring his students they don’t have to read it. “Teaching is a way of paying the rent until I finish my novel,” he tells his charges before offering them a joint from his private stash; his delight at initiating these innocent undergrads into the world of bleary-eyed cynicism is infectious.

Ordinary People (1980)

In 2016, Entertainment Weekly cited Sutherland not being nominated for Best Actor for Ordinary People as one of the most brutal Oscar snubs of all time, which is fair enough (although 1980 was a truly stacked year in the category). As in Klute, the reason for his being overlooked may have been that his performance was too effortless: Where costars Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton (who won Best Supporting Actor) wear their pumped-up, tragic emotions on the surface, Sutherland submerges them in a role that suggests Don’t Look Now’s fugue of grief played without any supernatural elements. His suburban patriarch Calvin Jarrett is a figure defined equally by pathos and passivity, walking on eggshells around his fractured family’s feelings as well as his own; the scene in which he confronts Moore’s ice queen Beth with a series of painful truths about their (im)perfect marriage is an extraordinary feat of actorly understatement. “You can’t handle mess,” he tells her flatly—a line that exposes both a broken heart and a forthright, fully-formed soul.

JFK (1991)

“Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth,” says Sutherland’s mysterious proto-Deep Throat by way of coaxing New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to bring charges in the Kennedy assassination; never mind that most of the sinister, behind-the-scenes anecdotes he shares during his spellbinding 16-minute monologue are the stuff of pure Reddit-thread fantasy. The brilliance—and danger—of JFK is how it marshals the style and syntax of muckraking docudrama to unravel a largely fictional narrative about homegrown regime change, but when it comes to Sutherland’s acting, any quibbles about authenticity or journalistic ethics are irrelevant. Instead, marvel at the sublime verbal and gestural control with which the actor etches his role as the ultimate insider—a wryly cynical know-it-all who harbors no illusions about what his country’s power brokers are capable of, or even much hope that his efforts will come to anything. (He isn’t just helping Garrison; he’s taunting him about how far through the looking glass he still has to go.) In a movie filled with superbly vivid cameos, Sutherland’s one-scene performance towers above the rest, refracting not only the actor’s radical politics but also his status as the patron saint of cinematic paranoia.

The Simpsons, “Lisa the Iconoclast” (1996)

The DVD commentary for “Lisa the Iconoclast” reveals that the role of tweedy, fife-wielding Springfieldianite historian Hollis Hurlbut was written specifically for Sutherland, possibly in homage to his having once played a very different Homer Simpson in Day of the Locust. Chuffed at the offer, Sutherland joined the honor roll of Simpsons guest stars who disappeared into their roles rather than simply playing themselves; he approaches the material with a veteran character actor’s sense of professionalism. The episode is a borderline-classic in which Lisa’s curiosity bumps up against a revisionist conspiracy concerning her hometown’s origins, which have been unforgivably whitewashed by well-meaning gatekeepers like Hollis; torquing his deep, sonorous voice into a parody of academic blandness, Sutherland makes for an amusing caricature of well-meaning administrative malfeasance. He also gets to deliver one of the show’s most enduring neologisms, parroting the late Jebediah Springfield’s claim that “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”—a perfectly cromulent observation worthy of one of Hollywood’s true idealists.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Toward the end of his career, Sutherland played a lot of glowering villains, including the corrupt, dictatorial villain of the Hunger Games franchise. These were parts that he could have played in his sleep, but cast slightly against type as the heroine’s kindly but status-conscious father in Pride and Prejudice, he seemed wide awake and in total, exhilarating command of his instrument. The sequence in which Mr. Bennet realizes that his daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) has found love with an unlikely but ideal suitor is a master class in patient, small-scale catharsis; Sutherland’s face as he smiles through tears is a lovely portrait of pride and relief. “I cannot believe that anyone can deserve you,” he beams; back at you, Donald.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.

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