Donald Sutherland: The Most Underrated Actor Alive

Donald Sutherland celebrated his 83rd birthday on Tuesday. His first film appearance was 55 years ago in something called The World Ten Times Over. His billing? Tall Man in Nightclub.

Obviously, things got better for him after that. It took a minute though. Sutherland kicked around doing one offs on TV and the occasional film role until cracking the code in 1967 as Vernon Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen. Despite being perhaps the least well-known actor in a cast that included Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and others, Sutherland did not blow his shot. His long, strange face, made up of all the right imperfections, was so expressive and wild-eyed, he could not help but be noticed.

It would be three more years before Sutherland got his hands on another great part. This time in Robert Altman’s classic anti-war satire, M*A*S*H. Thanks to the television show that followed – which lasted longer than the Korean War it depicted – there is an entire generation that is unaware that he is the original “Hawkeye” Pierce.

The popular Dirty Dozen knock off, Kelly’s Heroes followed. Then Paul Mazursky’s scabrous Hollywood satire Alex In Wonderland. A movie that deserves a cult but has yet to gain enough cinematic weirdos to garner a quorum.

It wasn’t until the next year, 1971, when as the title character of Alan J. Pakula’s superior thriller, Klute, that Sutherland would become a true leading man. Having started his career at 28, and finally getting his name “above the title” at 34, it could be said Sutherland was something of a late bloomer.

He quickly made up for lost time, by mixing up lead roles (Don’t Look Now, The Day of the Locust, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), along with stellar turns in smaller character parts in films such as 1900, The Kentucky Fried Movie, and Animal House.

Coming out of the 70s, Sutherland was fully established. An absolute ‘go to’ for directors looking for character actors in parts small and large. His range was absolutely breathtaking. He was convincing as the heartbroken father trying to hold his family together in Ordinary People. Terrifying as a German spy in Eye of the Needle. Droll and low-key as a priest in the sadly forgotten Heaven Help Us. Sutherland was equally convincing as Dave Jennings in Animal House or as the dignified Ben in A Dry White Season.

As he hit the 90s and headed towards senior citizen territory, he continued to do extraordinary work in all types of pictures. What did he have in JFK? Two scenes as X? But does his presence not linger over the nearly 3-hour film? How wonderful was he in Six Degrees of Separation, as the patriarch fooled by Will Smith’s con-man? Or how steadfast as track coach Bill Bowerman in Without Limits?

After Y2K, the consistency of quality parts has often eluded Sutherland. As a true “working actor” his misses often outweigh his hits. Yet, I cannot think of a single bad Donald Sutherland performance. Not as a quasi-Hannibal Lecterish arsonist in Ron Howard’s ridiculous and overwrought Backdraft, nor as the terminally ill father of Joshua Jackson in the overly maudlin Aurora Borealis (yes, I know, you haven’t seen it).

In fact, I don’t think Sutherland has scored a great part on film since playing Keira Knightley’s father in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice. Yet, he keeps coming. He hasn’t bowed out quietly like Connery or Hackman. Every year you can count on Sutherland making two to three additions to his long IMDb resume. In most, he is a welcome, steadying presence in movies that few will see. For every Hunger Games, there is a Dawn Rider, an Assassin’s Bullet, and a Jappeloup. Seriously, he made a movie called Jappeloup. It’s not easy keeping busy into one’s octogenarian years. Not in a youth-obsessed culture. You got to be willing to play a lot of grandpas.

Still, you can count on Sutherland making these old men interesting. Take the FX limited series Trust from this year. Where as J. Paul Getty, he matched and, in my opinion, exceeded the great work of Christopher Plummer in Ridley Scott’s film version of the same tale, All the Money in the World.

Okay. I’ve come a long way now. Not as long as Donald Sutherland, but a great length. Here’s what I’m getting at.

Donald Sutherland has been in this business for over half a century. He has excelled as an actor in all genres. In parts large and small. He has been in a number of stone-cold classic films. Were I to extrapolate his career achievement into that of a major league baseball player, he would be a first ballot hall of famer.

Here’s what you need to know. He has never won an Academy Award for any of his performances (he did receive an honorary Oscar for career achievement at this year’s ceremony). Not only that, and here’s what gives me the red ass, Donald Sutherland has never even been nominated for an Oscar. Not a once.

How can this be, you might ask? Hell, I ask myself that all the time.

Let’s just scan over his best work for a moment. These are the parts I think he was most overlooked for.

M*A*S*H (1970) – In which the OG Hawkeye was passed over along with Elliot Gould, the OG Trapper John. Only Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips Houlihan scored a nom for acting.

Klute (1971) – In which Sutherland’s stoic title character went unnoticed while Jane Fonda’s Bree would take home the Oscar for her all-time great performance as the hooker with a heart of steel.

Don’t Look Now (1974) – In which Nicolas Roeg’s classic horror film has one of the hottest scenes ever captured on film between Sutherland and Julie Christie but garnered no Oscar love of any kind.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – In which despite having one of the greatest final scenes in the history of film, Sutherland goes home empty.

Ordinary People (1980) – In which nearly every damn body in the cast gets nominated except for Sutherland.

Eye of the Needle (1981) – In which Sutherland was likely too stone cold evil to get looked at in the lead category.

A Dry White Season (1989) – In which Marlon Brando gets nominated in a cameo for having the name Marlon Brando, while Sutherland carries this Apartheid thriller on his noble shoulders.

JFK (1991) – In which I don’t give a damn if he only has two scenes. Jane Alexander got nominated for one 6-minute scene in All The President’s Men, and you don’t hear anyone bitching about that.

Six Degrees of Separation (1993) – In which his subtle work was overshadowed by Stockard Channing’s more colorful Oscar nominated lead role as his wife, and by the revelation that the Fresh Prince could act some.

Without Limits (1998) – In which the Golden Globes took note of Sutherland’s excellent supporting work, but the Academy did not.

Pride & Prejudice (2005) – In which his sweet, and beautiful work as the patriarch of the Bennet sisters was left to the side while Keira Knightley scored her first nomination as Elizabeth.

So, that’s 11 shots at the title for Sutherland. The only one that I think is even a minor stretch is Eye of the Needle. In all of the other films, his omission is a head turner. One thing you might notice here is that while acting as Donald Sutherland in a movie may not garner you Academy love, acting across from him sure never hurt anyone.

In these 11 films, 9 other actors were nominated. Just not Sutherland.

I feel like I can make a strong case for a nomination being attached to any of these roles. However, I’m going to focus on the two that bother me most.

First, Ordinary People. As the bereaved father of an upper-middle class family, Sutherland shines perhaps too softly. Timothy Hutton as his surviving son of a boating accident that took his brother’s life won Best Supporting Actor (despite playing the lead, but you know, he was a teenager, and Oscar likes shuffling ingenues into supporting categories even if everyone else in the film is supporting them). He is wonderful in the film. As a suicidal young man, so full of guilt, and desperate for love from a mother who would have preferred his brother survived, he aces every scene. Judd Hirsch, in a precursor to Robin Williams’s role in Good Will Hunting, gets to be the tough and dynamic therapist to Hutton. He got nominated too. In support. And Mary Tyler-Moore. Most known as a darling of the small screen also was Oscar nominated as lead actress for playing against type as a woman so bound up in grief, she has no more love to give. Not even to her remaining son.

All of them are deserving. But what of Sutherland? What happened to his nomination? As the sad and flummoxed Calvin, Sutherland holds the movie together. His work in some ways parallels the efforts of his character to keep his family together. Every scene, he’s negotiating the terrain between Moore and Hutton. You can see it in his mind. “If I just do this, everything will be okay.” It’s not sexy to be the referee. Whether on the field of play, or on film. But what Sutherland does here is a masterful balancing act. And when he finally cracks and lays into Moore for having no heart left for the living, it is among the most quietly powerful things I’ve ever seen on film. He takes your breath away.

As a good friend of mine likes to say when we debate Oscar nominations, “Okay, you like Sutherland, who you gonna take out? In 1981, the nominees were Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull (undeniable), John Hurt for The Elephant Man (undeniable squared), Robert Duvall for The Great Santini (not better than Sutherland, but I get it), Peter O’Toole for The Stunt Man (I love Peter, and he’s fun, but come on), and Jack Lemmon for Tribute. Does anyone even remember Tribute? I mean, if Jack Lemmon were still alive, would he? Clearly, there was room for Sutherland here. If you wanted to switch him to supporting actor (which had a killer field that year), you could simply move Hutton to lead and have Sutherland take his spot in that category.

Alright, that’s robbery number one. Which leads me to Pride & Prejudice. A movie I did not expect to like. Not because I’m a guy and I don’t like Austen (I find her appropriately witty, thank you very much), but more due to my expectation that it would be another costume drama where the place settings and the tea cups were lingered over a bit too long for my taste. My, how I was wrong. I now know it’s sacrilege to prefer the filmed version to the BBC mini-series starring Colin Firth, but I have no issue doing so. There’s a grit in this version I have not seen in other Austen adaptations. When the ladies walk through the muddy thoroughfare, the splashes of dirt cling to the hem of their white dresses. The perilous nature of a woman’s place in society at that time is felt more deeply than in most adaptations. And Keira Knightley is an absolute wonder in the lead.

But where does that leave Sutherland? He who plays the loving father of the three Bennet sisters. What does he get to do? I can go over all his wonderfully subtle work throughout the movie. I could do that. However, it is final scene that left me holding my hand to my chest. As Keira’s Elizabeth expresses her love for a man her father thought she could not abide, you watch as Sutherland takes in his daughter’s plea, and then all but wilts where he sits. Swayed by the force of her passion, he gives his blessing. His eyes as full as his heart. And when she walks away he lets out the sweetest of chuckles. One so disarming that he lifts his hand to cover his mouth to momentarily hide his unexpected joy. It is a moment so full of warmth, I do not know how I did not burst.

What was his comp that year in the supporting actor category? Winner George Clooney in Syriana (okay, fine). Matt Dillon in Crash (he’s great, but Crash?). Paul Giamatti in Cinderella Man (I’m okay with that). Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (why the hell is this considered a supporting role?). And William Hurt who gives a ridiculous performance in the otherwise spectacular A History of Violence. Honestly, I would trade out any of them for Sutherland except Gyllenhaal. Although I still contend he is in the wrong category.

Look, awards aren’t everything. Not even here at Awards Daily. But it is a staggering bit of omission to look through the long, extraordinary resume of Donald Sutherland and find he was not found worthy, even once, of consideration.

His remarkable career is made up of a relentless string of great work. Everyone knows who he is. I just don’t know that we, like the Academy, know how good he has been for all these years. It’s like we’ve been passively aware, but we have not looked closer. We should. Because Donald Sutherland is 83. I hope he has many more trips around the sun in him, but that number means something.

He is one of our greatest living actors. He should be recognized as such. While he is still here.

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