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Stories & Ideas

Wed 25 Jan 2023

Soft and Hard: The high-wire career of Burt Lancaster

Film Melbourne Cinémathèque Retrospective
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Melbourne Cinémathèque

Australia's longest-running film society

Notes for the 3–17 May 2023 Melbourne Cinémathèque program.

Burt Lancaster (1913–94) didn’t appear in his first film until he was in her early thirties. Prior to his breakthrough role alongside Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), he had a highly successful career as a circus acrobat and as an entertainer in the Special Forces during World War II. But Lancaster’s impact in Hollywood was virtually instantaneous and as he forged a career defined by his tough, hardboiled work in film noir (including 1947’s Criss Cross) and a series of wonderfully athletic and roguishly charming swashbucklers (best demonstrated by Siodmak’s immortal The Crimson Pirate in 1952). But Lancaster’s long career went on to be defined by its diversity and dexterity as well as the actor’s willingness to play with and against type, his commitment to particular collaborations carrying over into his long-term dedication to various leftist causes.

Over the next 40 years Lancaster would work with a wide range of major directors, carving out an extraordinary filmography incorporating such seminal roles as the acidic gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the title role of the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – alongside four other collaborations with director John Frankenheimer including The Train (1964) John Cheever’s subtly delusional middle-class salary man in Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968), and his pair of autumnal, beautifully modulated performances as ageing patriarchs in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Conversation Piece (1974). As David Thomson has argued, Lancaster was “brave, vigorous, handsome, and an actor of great range”, an ever-graceful presence who “never yielded in his immaculate splendour, proud to be a movie actor. He was one of the great stars. Perhaps the last.”


Soft and Hard: The high-wire career of Burt Lancaster

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Wed 3 May, 7pm
The Crimson Pirate (1952) – Wed 3 May, 8.55pm
The Swimmer (1968) – Wed 10 May, 7pm
Conversation Piece (1974) – Wed 10 May, 8.50pm
Criss Cross (1949) – Wed 17 May, 7pm
The Train (1964) – Wed 17 May, 8.40pm

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Melbourne Cinémathèque

Australia's longest-running film society, Melbourne Cinémathèque screens significant works of international cinema in the medium they were created, the way they would have originally screened.

Melbourne Cinémathèque is self-administered, volunteer-run, not-for-profit and membership-driven. 

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