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In the 1970s, Donald Sutherland’s Career Merged Personal and Political in Auteur Films

Donald Sutherland, for younger generations, is often recognized by his grizzled paternalistic roles, whether endearing in Pride and Prejudice or loathsome in The Hunger Games. However, older moviegoers, like myself, remember him vividly from the cinematically dynamic ’70s. During that period, he emerged as an "oddball" Hollywood outsider with a hard-to-pinpoint but endlessly compelling charisma.

The nickname “Oddball” originated from his character in Kelly’s Heroes (1970). It became a catch-all for his distinct approach: politically engaged, aesthetically complex, and sexually uncategorizable. My scholarly work explores how Sutherland’s performances and interviews suggest a practice of “self-loss” in his persona, revealing elements of surrender, self-effacement, and vulnerability across his projects in the ’70s.

Sutherland thrived under various influential directors. His work in the ’70s encapsulated three distinct phases: his politically charged early years, his collaboration with British and European auteurs, and a transition to more ordinary roles as corporatism took hold in the ’80s.

Initially, Sutherland’s roles in MASH (1970) and Kelly’s Heroes characterized him as a white male middle-class hero, resonating with outraged humor at societal injustices. Simultaneously, he appealed to liberated women with his willingness to support female leads, as seen in An Act of the Heart (1970), Klute (1971), and Don’t Look Now* (1973). He embodied the intellectual left-wing politics of a Norman Mailer but without the chauvinism.

His political-activist phase was notably linked with dynamic women. While Klute wasn’t explicitly about the Vietnam War, offscreen, Sutherland and co-star Jane Fonda were rising anti-war figures, leading to FBI surveillance and participation in the controversial anti-war film F.T.A..

Transitioning into his British and European period, Sutherland engaged with auteur filmmakers like John Schlesinger, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Federico Fellini. This era saw Sutherland delving into projects dissecting fascism. For Bertolucci’s 1900, he portrayed Attila, an embodiment of fascist brutality, in alignment with his study of Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Despite Bertolucci’s grotesque characterization, Sutherland sought to humanize the role, underscoring the unsettling proximity between viewer and villain.

For Fellini’s Casanova, Sutherland endured extensive makeup transformations, embodying a physically exaggerated and unflattering Casanova. Fellini’s extreme directives meant to criticize fascism also subjected Sutherland to harsh critique. This experience was both masochistic and artistically enriching for Sutherland.

In the late ’70s, while Sutherland continued his political advocacy, he focused on nurturing the Canadian film industry. By leveraging Canada’s tax break policy, Sutherland starred in films highlighting Canadian heritage, such as Alien Thunder (1974) and playing Dr. Norman Bethune in a biopic for Canadian television.

His return to American cinema happened with Ordinary People (1980), directed by Robert Redford. The film marked Sutherland’s return to mainstream American melodrama, crucial in rekindling his American fan base.

In his later years, Sutherland aimed to inspire younger generations. His role as the tyrannical Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games depicted a fascistic leader, reflecting the potential for fascism within individuals. In interviews, he called on the youth to tackle pressing social issues like corporate tax evasion, systemic racism, and food insecurity in America, stating the urgency of taking action.

Source: JSTOR, IMDB, The Guardian, Dazeddigital, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, The Star Phoenix, Reel Canada