Oscar Profile #532: Bruce Davison

Born June 28, 1946 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Clair and Marian Davison, Bruce Davison is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University and New York University. He made his Broadway debut in Tiger at the Gates, his film debut in 1969’s Last Summer, and his TV debut in a 1970 episode of Medical Center.

Following the success of Last Summer, Davison was given the leads in 1970’s The Strawberry Statement and 1971’s Willard, alternating with further TV appearances. In 1972, he co-starred with Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid, the same year he married first wife, Jess Walton, a marriage that was annulled in 1976.

Davison remained busy with TV work, but his next big screen role was a supporting one as the grown Patrick Dennis in 1974’s Mame, followed by more TV work. His next lead role in a film was in 1976’s Short Eyes. He was part of the ensemble in the 1977 TV Christmas classic, The Gathering. He had lead roles in two fondly remembered 1978 TV films, Dead Man’s Curve and Summer of My German Soldier. In 1979, he was in The Gathering II. In 1980, he took over the role of John Merrick in Broadway’s The Elephant Man and in 1981 he was top billed in a still highly regarded TV mini-series of Mourning Becomes Electra. In 1983, he played Jessica Tandy’s son in a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. In 1986, he married second wife Lisa Pelican with whom he had a son in 1996.

Longtime Companion, filmed for PBS in 1989, was instead released theatrically in 1990, earning Davison Best Supporting Actor awards from the New York Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics, and Golden Globes, followed by an Oscar nomination. Despite the well-earned acclaim, the actor’s biggest exposure continued to be on TV. In 1995, he had a small but pivotal role in the big screen in The Cure, which like Longtime Companion, was an AIDS drama. 1996, he had important roles in yet another AIDS drama, It’s My Party, the romantic dramedy, Grace of My Heart, and the historical drama, The Crucible.

In 1998, Davison had his first role in a Bryan Singer film, Apt Pupil, leading to his casting in the first two X-Men films, which were directed by Singer. He also appeared on the big screen in 2002’s Dahmer and 2003’s Runaway Jury. In 2006, he was divorced from Pelican and married to third wife, Michelle Corey with whom he has a daughter.

While most of Davison’s work in the last fifteen years has been on TV, he has graced the big screen in 2007’s Breach, 2015’s Black Beauty, 2017’s La La Land, and 2020’s Pearl.

With seven films and a TV series in various stages of production, Bruce Davison’s career is far from over at 74. See him next as Pope Urban II in the historical TV series, Glow & Darkness.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

LAST SUMMER (1969), directed by Frank Perry

This was third film for top billed Barbara Hershey, the second for Richard Thomas, and the first for both Davison and Catherine Burns, all four stars of this highly acclaimed coming-of-age film set in New York’s Fire Island. Hershey, Thomas, and Davison play three teenagers who form a close bond, only to be interrupted by Burns with tragic results. A subplot involving a wounded seagull so affected Hershey that she changed her name to Barbara Seagull for several years. Burns received a Best Supporting Actress award from the Kansas City Film Critics and was nominated for sn Osar, losing to Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower.

WILLARD (1971), directed by Daniel Mann

Davison screen tested for his role of a social misfit whose best friend is pet rat with a rat on shoulder. A surprise box office success, it inspired a slew of animal themed horror films that followed. The actor was in a relationship with co-star Sondra Locke from 1969-1971 was undisclosed at the time because she was legally married to someone else in an unconsummated marriage for tax purposes. Ernest Borgnine and Elsa Lanchester co-starred in the film nominated for an Eddie from the American Cinema Editors (ACE) as one of the year’s five best edited films. It lost to Summer of ‘42.

SHORT EYES (1976), directed by Robert M. Young

Davison gave one of his most proclaimed performances as an imprisoned child molester in the film version of Miguel Pinero’s Tony nominated 1975 play. Pinero wrote the play as part of an inmate writers’ workshop while incarcerated at Sing Sing for armed robbery. He gave away the $40,000 he received for the film to homeless friends and former prison-mates. He reportedly lived on the street even after the film’s acclaimed release, using a pay phone as an office. He died of liver disease in 1988 and was later played by Benjamin Bratt in the 2001 biographical film, Pinero.

LONGTIME COMPANION (1990), directed by Norman René

With a title referring to the only way newspapers at the time would allow a gay man’s lover to be listed in an obituary, it’s clear from the outset that this is going to be a film about death from AIDS which dominated the 1980s. It takes place on one day each in the years from 1981-1989 in which many of the film’s character are either diagnosed with the disease or die from it. Campbell Scott, Patrick Cassidy, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephen Caffrey, Dermot Mulroney, Michel Shoeffling, and John Dossett star along with Davison who gives the film’s most moving performance as he says goodbye to his lover.

GRACE OF MY HEART (1996), directed by Allison Anders

Anders’ film was a showcase for Illeana Douglas as a singer-songwriter from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. It also provided memorable roles for four actors, John Turturro as her eccentric manager, Eric Stoltz as her unfaithful husband, Bruce Davison as her married lover, and Matt Dillon as the love of her life, a fellow artist who melancholy she can’t save from himself. Bridget Fonda has a small role as a fellow singer-songwriter based on Lesley Gore. The film’s best-known song, “God Give Me Strength” was a collaboration between Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello who composed it over long-distance telephone calls.

BRUCE DAVISON AND OSCAR

  • Longtime Companion (1990) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
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