5 Favorites Redux #41: Favorite Donald Sutherland Films

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

85-year-old actor Donald Sutherland has shown no sign of slowing down. Before we tell you about his latest role or my favorite films, let’s start at the beginning. Sutherland’s first credited screen role came in 1964 horror feature Castle of the Living Dead. He then went on to star in a handful of Hammer horror films before landing a role as Vernon Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen. From there, he went on to star in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, which elevated his career, leading to numerous important roles throughout the 1970s.

After his Golden Globe-nominated performance in Ordinary People, his ability to draw top tier scripts faded and outside of the occasional film like A Dry White Season, he didn’t have a major starring role until his supporting turn in Oliver Stone’s JFK. From there, he’s had a fairly solid career ever since.

Sutherland co-stars in this weekend’s release The Burnt Orange Heresy as a celebrated painter who becomes the subject of a high-stakes art theft. Of the myriad films I’ve seen of Sutherland’s, I chose the following five to highlight, not because they were his best performances (some could argue for Klute or a number of other films), but because they were films that stayed with me longer.

M*A*S*H (1970)

Before the supremely popular television series won the hearts and minds of millions, Robert Altman directed the original film starring Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce (played in the series by Alan Alda), Elliott Gould as Trapper John (Wayne Rogers in the series), Tom Skerritt (whose character does not appear in the series), Sally Kellerman as Maj. Houlihan (Loretta Swit), Robert Duvall as Frank Burns (Larry Linville), Roger Bowen as Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), and Rene Auberjonois as Father Mulcahy (William Christopher). Only Gary Burghoff as Radar reprised his role on the series. It was because of this film that the series was able to flourish two years later and on into the early 1980s.

The film’s premise is the same as the show’s, which follows the travails of a ragtag bunch of Army soldiers and officers running a Korean War field hospital. Altman’s ability to pull the best performances out of his actors was on full display with this film and Sutherland gave a strong one. The film is darkly humorous as many of Altman’s films have been and it gave audiences the terrific original song “Suicide Is Painless,” which has to be understood in context for it to make any sense. The song’s lyrics were removed when it was transitioned to the opening title theme for the television series.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

A remake of the 1956 sci-fi classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers stars Sutherland as a psychiatrist alongside Brooke Adams, Leonardy Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and others as a host of alien seeds plant themselves in and around San Francisco, developing pods that will hatch emotionless automatons to replace the people around them.

Moving the action from the small town of the original film, gave the movie a grander importance, escalating the conflict that seemed both terrifying and contained in the Don Siegel original. Kevin McCarthy, who starred in the 1956 film, even gets a cameo in this one. As riveting and terrifying as the original, this 1978 version has an even more iconic finale, which has to be seen in context to understand its impact.

Ordinary People (1980)

Another starring role for Sutherland is as the patriarch of an upper middle class family that is recovering from the loss of their eldest son and the attempted suicide of their youngest. The film explores the tensions between mother, father, and surviving son as he comes to terms with his survivor’s guilt surrounding his brother’s death.

Sutherland’s understanding father provides one quarter of the foundation on which the film succeeds with Mary Tyler Moore as the mother, Timothy Hutton as their son, and Judd Hirsch as his son’s psychiatrist, who spends much of the film trying to coax true emotion and understanding out of Hutton’s character. All four deliver brilliant performances, but Moore’s uncharacteristic dramatic performance stands out as a tour de force.

JFK (1991)

After successes with two of the films in his Vietnam War trilogy (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), Oliver stone decided to tackle an incredibly controversial topic, namely the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and an ambitious lawyer’s (Kevin Costner) attempts to show evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone.

This riveting courtroom drama gives plenty of juicy roles to noted actors including Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, and numerous others with Sutherland starring as an unknown figure named “X,” who suggests to Costner’s character that there’s a high-level conspiracy at work. The film’s superb editing, strong performances, and passionate defense of its conspiratorial thinking did more to call into question Kennedy’s death and the events that surrounded it than the Warren Commission’s report. While you may not come away completely convinced, there’s little question that the ideas presented are more than a little plausible.

The Hunger Games (2012)

While Sutherland has done a lot of work using his voice to great effect, his stoic depth was never better utilized than in The Hunger Games and its three cinematic sequels. Based on a three-book series set in a dystopian American future, Sutherland plays the leader of the Capital, a wealthy city at the heart of the nation that uses an age-old rebellion as a means of enforcing loyalty through the annual selection of teenagers to compete for fame and fortune in an arena where only one can survive.

This deadly drama gave Jennifer Lawrence one of her best roles as a principled young woman from an outlying district, one of the poorest, who volunteers in her sister’s stead to represent the young women of her district alongside Josh Hutcherson as the male representative. As the participants battle it out to avoid slaughter, Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen becomes a celebrity and, over the course of the series, transforms literally and figuratively into a symbol of the rebellion brewing against the Capital.

Sutherland’s conniving President Snow is a richly detailed character given all the manipulative menace and snide confidence a man of his position should have. His performance gives the oily political opportunist a complex and nasty demeanor that’s tempered by honesty and forthright grimness. It’s a terrific performance and without it, the rest of the film wouldn’t feel as dire or as plausible.

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