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Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Paradoxically, the magic of Donald Sutherland—that unique commingling of whimsy and vitality—first manifested in his portrayal of a dying man. Michael Sarne’s guilty pleasure Joanna (1968), a picaresque of a young woman’s escapades in Swinging London and other exotic locales, may be ersatz Richard Lester with a saccharine flavor profile, but it boasts one scene at least in which its modish trappings give way to genuine emotion. As the titular art student–cum–disenchanted globetrotter (Geneviève Waite) camps on a Moroccan beach at dusk with the leukemia-stricken Lord Sanderson (Sutherland), the fragile young man points to the brilliant orb disappearing into the sea, and smiles. Rod McKuen’s music swells as the natural light dwindles, but the incandescence of the moment comes from Sutherland himself, all but glowing as he stresses the importance of living for today: “Look at the sun, Joanna. Can you believe in a God? Can anything be more beautiful than that? How incredible we human beings are, never satisfied, always expecting something better, something more. Expecting an afterlife . . . What could possibly be better than this life? And yet how horrible the thought of having to live forever. It makes sense to die. Only then does it make sense to live.”

These words echoed with renewed poignancy following the announcement of Sutherland’s death on June 20, capping a screen career that spanned over six decades. Yet his stardom was by no means inevitable: the Canadian actor, born in New Brunswick in 1935, double-majored in drama and engineering at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, and nearly made applied science his vocation. Luckily, his time in Victoria’s theater department—“He was a great actor even then,” recalls The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, a fellow alum—convinced him that he was better suited to the humanities, leading him to relocate to the U.K. and briefly study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Repertory theater and British film and TV roles followed, but success came slowly to Sutherland: he was 31 when Robert Aldrich cast him as one of the least fleshed-out team members embarking on a wartime suicide mission in The Dirty Dozen (1967). When co-star Clint Walker refused to perform a bit in which his character impersonates a general, Aldrich delegated the vignette to Sutherland, resulting in the enlargement of his role and the boosting of his profile after the film became a cultural and box-office phenomenon.

He ascended to co-lead (with Elliott Gould) in Robert Altman’s caustic 1970 farce M*A*S*H, a film whose anti-war message Sutherland would champion for the remainder of his life, as both screen star and activist. His iconic performance as medic “Hawkeye” Pierce, immediately followed by his understated turn in the title role of Alan J. Pakula’s New Hollywood neo-noir Klute (1971), began a streak of unqualified classics to rival any actorly body of work before or since. Indeed, when I set out to rank my top five Sutherland roles, that number quickly ballooned to 10, with the addendum of seven runners-up and a sidebar for TV movies.

Instead of yielding handy thematic absolutes to help define his screen persona, the list-making exercise left me wrestling with irresoluble contradictions and more exceptions than rules. The actor’s most outwardly self-identifying trait (besides that deep, resonant voice) was his sheer eccentricity: there was always the sense that wild and woolly thoughts were dancing behind those respectable Canadian eyes, his freewheeling charm and offbeat energy making him an ideal star for the countercultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. Yet in Ordinary People (1980), he abstains from the quirky and quixotic altogether, unobtrusively anchoring the film just as his character—a grieving Midwesterner caught between his wife’s aloofness and his son’s survivor’s guilt—tries to do for his fractured family. Serenity and self-possession were the next qualities that seemed quintessential to the Sutherland image. Whether driven by licentiousness (see his libidinal, pot-smoking professor in 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House), benevolence (his adoring patriarch, beset by matrimonial meddling, in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice), or a demand for excellence in others (his sagacious track coach Bill Bowerman, molding his “Men of Oregon” in 1998’s Without Limits—a spellbinding turn), he meets every on-screen challenge with a twinkle and a game plan.

But certitude and strategy prove utterly fruitless in what is arguably his most demanding and revealing role: the haunted father of a drowned girl in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). That film opens with Sutherland’s architect John Baxter reacting to ominous sounds well out of earshot, suggesting extrasensory awareness, and then rushing to the site of his daughter’s calamity moments too late to avert it. He wails with primal abandon over the lifeless body of the child, who is clad in a bright red slicker; crimson will recur frequently enough to form a macabre motif, but the colors of Sutherland’s performance, after the scream, are muted. Seldom has an actor conveyed a broken psychological state more acutely than Sutherland does here by suppressing his emotions. As his wife Laura (Julie Christie) grapples with her unresolved anguish, John whisks the pair off to Venice, throwing himself into an intricate cathedral refurbishment and hoping (or so we infer) to restore his marriage in the same vein.

“It’s a strange idea to make grief into the sole thrust of the film,” Roeg later mused to The Observer. “Grief can separate people. I’ve seen it happen. Even the closest, healthiest relationship can come undone through grief.” That’s exactly what seems to be taking place as Laura gravitates to a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom, blind and avowedly clairvoyant, claims to bear messages from the dead girl. Meanwhile, John, despite his own experience of second sight, plays the cold rationalist, condemning his wife’s therapeutic forays into the occult. Don’t Look Now is most noted by critics for its elliptical editing style—with split-second cutaways suggesting past events, future occurrences, and connections more subjective than literal—and for a love scene of exquisite tenderness and startling eroticism that’s interspersed with flash-forwards to the couple dressing for dinner, in separate headspaces once again, their coalescence now dissolved. Throughout, Sutherland’s modulation between raw emotion and fear of that same emotion give narrative form to Roeg’s vivid image-making.

Don’t Look Now occupies a high perch in the cinematic pantheon, an enduring fusion of gothic horror and psychological portraiture. But without Sutherland’s quietly unmoored performance, it would not linger in the memory as it does. Everything we associate with Donald Sutherland—his towering height, his regal bearing, his soothing nature, his cool under pressure—is destabilized, as the premonitions John has ignored and the feelings he’s tried to subdue turn on him with inestimable force and cruelty. In a city built on water, this man is drowning.

Not to dwell on institutional failures in a tribute to an iconoclast, but in my view, Sutherland and Edward G. Robinson were the two finest anglophone actors never nominated for an Oscar. Sutherland did receive a career achievement award from the Academy in 2017, “for a lifetime of indelible characters, rendered with unwavering truthfulness.” But that scarcely suffices. I would have given him the award for his audaciously sickening portrayal of the fascist foreman Attila in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 (1976)—a performance he quite understandably could not watch for years. I’d also want to honor his contribution to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), essentially a breathless 17-minute monologue from a shadowy Pentagon whistleblower in which every farfetched theory surrounding the murder of the 35th president is corroborated. But in looking for one moment to exemplify the subtle genius of Donald Sutherland, my thoughts keep turning to the reconciliation scene from Ordinary People, in which he counsels his impressionable son: “Don’t admire people too much. They’ll disappoint you sometimes.” That’s good advice, but one last time, Donald Sutherland demonstrates that all rules have exceptions.

Steven Mears is the copy editor for Film Comment and Field of Vision’s online journal Field Notes, and is a contributing writer to both. His work has also appeared in Metrograph’s Journal, Bloodvine, Galerie, and other publications.