Donald Sutherland: 10 essential films

We look back at some of the crowning achievements of one of the finest actors of his generation.

Mike Sutton
Updated:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Funny, intelligent and shrewd in his choices, Donald Sutherland is an actor who can steal a scene without seeming to do anything at all. He was born in Canada but left in 1957 in order to study acting in Britain. During the 1960s, he began to get work and made his film debut alongside Christopher Lee in Castle of the Living Dead (1964). Here are 10 of his finest films.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Director Robert Aldrich

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Having been a useful supporting player in British films and television for several years – notably appearing in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Fanatic (1965) – Sutherland received his big break in Hollywood in Robert Aldrich’s rowdy, nihilistic, vaguely anti-war ‘guys on a mission’ movie. Finding himself in the heavyweight company of Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and John Cassavetes, the young Canadian made his mark by playing Pinkley, the most sweetly eccentric of the no-hoper prisoners recruited on a death or glory mission during World War Two. He even gets the most memorable comic set-piece when he is required to impersonate a general and takes to the part rather too enthusiastically.

MASH (1970)

Director Robert Altman

MASH (1970)

MASH (1970)

Following a series of minor roles in Hollywood, Sutherland got the chance to play the leading part in Robert Altman’s satirical comedy about surgeons in the Korean war. Although it was reportedly not a happy set, and the actors were initially unsure about Altman’s free-wheeling improvisatory style, the result is a comedy classic in which the jokes pile up in struggling heaps having been half-heard or thrown away. Sutherland plays Hawkeye Pierce who, along with ‘Trapper’ John, respects nothing except surgical excellence and rebels against everything else. It’s a great showcase for Sutherland’s laid-back comic style and his rapport with fellow actors, notably Elliott Gould with whom he would team up again in S*P*Y*S (1974).

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Director Brian G. Hutton

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

For a whole generation of adolescents, Kelly’s Heroes was the perfect movie: a heist comedy set during World War Two with lots of action, jokes and very loud explosions. It’s nominally a vehicle for Clint Eastwood, intended to repeat the success of the same director’s Where Eagles Dare (1968), but he walks through looking slightly confused and the film is stolen by the comic supporting cast of Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and particularly Donald Sutherland. He plays ‘Oddball’, an anachronistic hippie sergeant who is permanently spaced-out  and gets the best lines, most of them about his precious “waves”. Unfortunately, the shoot in Yugoslavia was no joke and Sutherland nearly died of meningitis.

Klute (1971)

Director Alan J. Pakula

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Jane Fonda is the star of Klute, a moody detective thriller in the noir style, and she received an unexpected Oscar at the lowest point of her popularity with middlebrow America. But her showcase performance as Bree, a prostitute stalked by a psychopath, wouldn’t work without Donald Sutherland’s contrasting portrayal of John Klute, an introverted detective drawn into Bree’s world when he taps her phone and follows her. It’s a very subtle and self-effacing performance in which Sutherland finds a way to portray basic decency without becoming sentimental. The gradual development of the love affair between him and Fonda is beautifully handled by both actors.

“Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Director Nicolas Roeg

Don't Look Now (1973)

Don't Look Now (1973)

In Nicolas Roeg’s astounding study of grief, Sutherland has the leading role as the father of a young girl who has drowned in a terrible accident. He goes to Venice with his wife, played by Julie Christie, who becomes obsessed with the idea that, somehow, their daughter is trying to contact them. It all ends in one of the most famous climaxes in horror film history, but the journey is gloriously exhilarating, full of imaginative filmmaking and unforgettable visuals of an off-season Venice. Sutherland is sympathetic and entirely credible, and the central relationship between him and Christie is established in a classic love-making scene – so intense that for many years it was rumoured that they had done it for real. Needless to say, the rumour was false. 

Casanova (1976)

Director Federico Fellini

Casanova (1976)

Casanova (1976)

Federico Fellini was never likely to turn the story of Casanova into a standard period drama and the resulting film is quite unique in its heavily stylised visual form and its strange and deliberately un-erotic tone. Fellini’s own dislike of the character means that Sutherland is required to play the legendary lover as a ludicrous figure who only becomes sympathetic at the end when he attains a measure of self-realisation and is allowed to go off into the mists of history with a mechanical doll. It was a trying experience for Sutherland, who had to wear extensive makeup and shave his head, but his performance, for all the grotesquerie, is ultimately very moving.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Director Philip Kaufman

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel was much criticised on first release for being inferior to Don Siegel’s original, but time has been very kind to it, particularly when it is seen as a kind of companion piece, dealing with big-city rather than small-town anxieties. Donald Sutherland makes the perfect urban hero, a witty and slightly detached food safety inspector who gradually realises that people around him are changing as a result of an insidious alien invasion. His strong performance demonstrates that he was able to carry a Hollywood movie as the leading man and he is particularly memorable at the end when he gets a moment which can, for once, justifiably be labelled as iconic.

Ordinary People (1980)

Director Robert Redford

Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People, the directorial debut of Robert Redford, is often written off as the film that undeservedly won the best picture Oscar over Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). But, to these eyes at least, it has considerable merit as a scalpel-sharp analysis of the breakdown of a WASP family following the death of the favourite son. Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch and Mary Tyler Moore get the big set-piece roles, but the centre of the film is Sutherland, who plays the father, desperately trying to hold his family together and understand the rift that has opened up between him and his wife. Once again, Sutherland’s understated playing makes the character very moving.

JFK (1991)

Director Oliver Stone

JFK (1991)

JFK (1991)

Somewhere in the middle of Oliver Stone’s madcap fantasia on the theme of the Kennedy assassination, Kevin Costner’s straight-arrow hero meets a mystery man, X, and has the entire plot of the film explained, both to him and slower members of the audience. It’s a pivotal scene which has to keep the audience’s attention during a lengthy monologue. The stroke of genius was giving it to Donald Sutherland. It’s a masterclass in how to deliver a long speech without becoming boring or repetitive, and in how to grip the audience’s attention while putting across complex information. In the space of 15 minutes, Sutherland – as he also did in a cameo in the same year’s Backdraft – walks away with the film.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Director Joe Wright

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Sutherland may be turning 80 but he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, turning up on TV and in movies with remarkable regularity. The role which I most enjoy from the past 10 years of his career is Mr Bennet in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. It’s a tricky part, calling for great restraint and understated humour. Mr Bennett is a gentle man but has a core of steel and a copious measure of wisdom. It’s a perfect role for Sutherland, allowing him to play to his strengths and dominate his scenes, often through nothing more than a slight change of expression. When he finally gives his consent to his daughter’s marriage at the end of the film, we feel that if he approves then it must be the right thing to do. 

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