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Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland’s greatest cult performances

Culture

Donald Sutherland will be remembered as the ultimate cult actor. Here are his top ten cult performances that will last forever.

Donald Sutherland death is one of those truly sad moments that also brings a lot of fond memories from, as Kiefer puts it, a “life well-lived.” Donald’s performances on screen are some of the greatest in cinema, from one of those rare leading man character actors who consistently appeared in challenging films, a handful of absolute classic, and gave his unique presence to elevate countless others. He could do everything, romance, comedy, horror, drama, war films, the lot, and was as likeable and funny presences you could imagine…unnerving too, when the film demanded it. It was always unconventional men he portrayed and few could stand up against his brilliance.

Here are his top ten best cult performances, meaning the roles that are in themselves cult turns. He appeared in 200 films, but these choices reflect the very height of his abilities and cut through to make a genuine pop culture impact. This means no Hunger Games, sorry it’s just too pap…we’re interested in the cool Donald, the great Donald, the absolute one-off that was Donald Sutherland.

Animal House

One of the earliest things many of us saw of Donald Sutherland was his bum. Yes as pot smoker academic Dave Jennings, he gave a few of the boys from Delta Tau Chi fraternity, a lesson in smoking doobies.

“I’m not going to turn schizoid am I?” one asks.

“It’s a distinct possibility,” Donald replies.

He always had that kind of naughty glint in his eye, which, couple with his distinctive appearance and laconic, highly intelligent manner, made him into a living embodiment of counter-cultural attitudes. He was never an establishment figure, at least in his early career, he was always a left-field figure, which of course made him perfect for cult films on the edge of acceptability like this one.

And meant that his bare bum – memorably displayed here the morning after the pot smoking, when his professor reaches up to a shelf, his jumper rides up, and we see he’s wearing nothing on the bottom half – was often called upon.

JFK

No-one talks about Oliver Stone’s epic conspiracy film JFK these days. It seems to have disappeared from the lexicon, possibly because it seems quite tame given the level of conspiracy theory fever that is the lifeblood of social media – such theories used to be righteous causes exposing the manipulations and corruption of power, now they’re used by the powerful to cover their hustler moves with noisy fat lies. Anyway, JFK was a huge deal at the time, and hugely successful film, featuring monstrously huge performances from the likes of Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek and Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald. Donald featured only in one scene but what a scene it is. He plays Mr X, a government insider with knowledge of shady CIA dealings who meets with Costner’s Jim Garrison and lays out his theory that Kennedy was killed in a conspiracy to replace him with Lyndon B Johnson, because Kennedy wanted to pull out of Vietnam.

The scene comes right at the heart of the film, or at least Donald makes it the heart of the film. It is him at his best: commanding, revelatory, a man you can trust but one who is marked by a deeply corrupt world.

First Great Train Robbery

This is a wonderful knockabout heist film starring our Donald and Sean Connery. It’s directed by Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park amongst many others, and the director of 70s classics Westworld and Coma. Set in 1855, the film is a perioid romp with a 70s counter-cultural spirit with Donald as the goofy foil to Connery’s leading man, the pair plotting to steal gold bullion destined for the Crimean War from the London to Folkestone train. Anyway, it’s loads of fun and the scene everyone remembers is where Donald pretends to be a corpse to get smuggled onto the train. No insensitivity intended here, it’s just that he always did the ugly things utterly brilliantly.

Lock Up

Now you won’t get this one in any best of Sutherland lists, or even in any best of prison films lists, and yet it is a highly enjoyable watch with an exceptional performance by Donald at his very meanest. He plays Warden Drumgoole, who takes over Gateway prison which is hosting the last days of the prison term of Sly Stallone’s Frank Leone. Except Drumgoole has an axe to grind with Leone, and contrives to make sure he stays inside for some seriously hard time. It was one of those films in the dead part of Stallone’s career, when you didn’t have Netflix and the like providing different vehicle for stars – if you had a film that bombed at the box office, then you were consigned to b-movie fodder like this to feed the home video market. But actually, there’s triumph in this too and Donald brings weight to it with some psychopathic sadism of a sort Sly always seems to invite onto his body in his films…but that’s another essay.

Backdraft

Another trash-enlivening turn from Donald, something that is much underrated – taking kind of bollocks-y nonsense seriously and bringing it some eccentric edge. Backdraft was a big deal at the time, a vehicle for Kurt Russell and William Baldwin, as conflicting firefighting brothers brought together by a spate of dangerous ‘backdraft’ fires. Robert De Niro helps give it some weight as arson investigator ‘Shadow’ Rimgale, who takes Baldwin under his wing and takes him to see Donald’s Ronald Bartel, a pyromaniac in prison, who seems to view fire as an animal to harness or let loose. Donald does crazy crazily well, and here he’s in his element. At a parole board hearing, Rimgale steps in to speak to Bartel, knowing full well what he is really is behind the mask. What would you like to do with the whole world, he asks. “Burn it all,” Donald confesses.

Klute

One of Alan Pakula’s 70s ‘paranoid trilogy’ which also included the similarly excellent The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, this has Donald as John Klute, a detective hired to investigate a missing chemical company executive, who seems to have been the john of a New York city call girl played by Jane Fonda. Klute is a true great, right up there with the best scuzzy 70s New York film. And its leading man? Intense, commanding, something of a mystery…and yes, he could do sexy.

Kelly’s Heroes

Oddball! If ever there was a character that did what it said on the tin, it was this one. Yes, Donald crops up in this Sunday afternoon wartime classic as another counter-culture character bringing some groovy stoned japes to proceedings. Clint Eastwood is the star, Telly Savalas the brilliant counterpoint, as Kelly’s motley crew of WW2 soldiers tries to steal some bullion…but, hey, Oddball is everyone’s favourite, with lines like, “Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?” Hippy hilarity with Donald an absolute joy.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Here we go, this is stone cold classic territory, the highly effective remake of the 1956 sci-fi classic. As with the original this is about conformity, though it swaps the McCarthyism metaphor with a more haunting message around control as an inevitable consequence of modern society and government power, but also as part of a deep human need to fit in. The ‘pod people’, those new alien citizens grown in pods to replace the murdered humans, gradually take over the earth. In order to walk among them unnoticed, Donald and Brooke Adams learn to neutralise their faces, show no emotion, go through life as it in a trance. As anyone who has taken a trip to Bluewater shopping centre, it is a prescient look at society. As the years have gone on, and social media has taken hold, its ideas of death coming to anyone who shows humanity have only grown in affect. And Donald? Never better. Is there a scarier moment in film history than his final alien scream?

M*A*S*H

Robert Altman’s immensely smart and funny satirical anti-war film hinges on the freewheeling performances of its iconic anti-film stars: Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland. As with Catch-22, the only response to the horrors of war can be comedy with a large dose of insanity. Donald’s Hawkeye is perhaps the ultimate Sutherland performance, hilarious, iconoclastic, deeply humane, both court jester and angry king. The charisma of the man is off the chart.

Don’t Look Now

Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was for years just considered a cult oddity. Too weird to really rival the big horror hitters. Now however, it is rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made. While Julie Christie is remarkable, the film centres on Donald’s journeys through Venice, a grief-stricken father who sees an unnerving echo of his deceased daughter on the streets of the city. He is a man with a gift of second sight, but one who is in denial of it and instead, despite the warnings to ‘don’t look now’, follows the figure to a doom he had foreseen. There’s so many big Donald moments in this, the heartbreaking image of him rising out of the pond with his drowned daughter in his eyes, the horror in his eyes at the final revelation, and of course the sex scene with Christie: still the only sex scene in film history to convincingly show a long-term couple in the act, with tenderness, re-connection and solace bringing a deeply moving intensity to proceedings. What a film, what an actor.

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