Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Best Actor 1962: Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz

Burt Lancaster received his third Oscar nomination for portraying prisoner Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz.

Birdman of Alcatraz is a problematic film for a few reasons. The most obvious is the real Robert Stroud. The film wants to show prison as problematic and hindering great minds, and that even changes are only for conformity. This might have worked if Stroud was not reportedly a psychopath in real life, therefore trying to make him look like a great hero is just wrong. The other problem was I did not even sympathize with the sanitized version of Stroud, because there was one thing they did not change and that was his two murders. The film does not show the first but the second instantly made me not be able sympathize with him. Sure the guard was a bit of a jerk, but Stroud certainly had no right to kill him. That in itself makes the film fail in its point, they should have instead used the bird loving ideas, and fictionalized the rest including the main character in name and personality because Robert Stroud seemed to honestly be an a very bad person. All in all I still did enjoy watching the film to a degree and after 1991 I really see that older most of the time are better even when deeply flawed.

The portrait of Stroud early on actually hinders Lancaster's performance. Stroud early on is shown to belligerent and some what psychopathic. He acts angry to the Warden who really is at first just doing his job, and he acts psychotically to other inmates over his mother despite the other inmates only very passively asking about her. Still Lancaster is properly effective in showing the defiant and somewhat psychotic Stroud. He shows the appropriate inner anger to the man, and possibly hinting at his psychotic, and mother's boy nature intertwined quite well. The only problem with this is this portion of the character and Lancaster's performance is completely forgotten about for the rest of the film. Once his sentence for killing a guard is changed to life sentence the film and Lancaster completely change the portrayal of Stroud suddenly. It is not really Lancaster's fault that is characterization is not consist it is the direction and script which makes him change so quickly and not even allowing him time for a character transition period.

After this initial scene Stroud is shown to be a fairly pleasant man who dislikes the prison system, but plays by its rules mostly. He calmly spends his time in his cell. I will admit there is a slight hint of the earlier portrayal but not much of one. Early Lancaster acts as a bit of a jerk demanding everything from his friendly guard without ever thinking of common curtsy. He gets over this flaw too to become almost a perfect man by finally thanking the guard. Lancaster acts his slight jerky nature well, enough but after that short part Lancaster finally settle as Stroud, as just a decent man who tries to live a life while calmly fighting the conforming prison system. I think Lancaster does well despite how simple his character ends up becoming. I did certainly find him always watchable, and certainly knew how to command the screen even when he was just washing a bird cage or building one. Somehow despite doing so little in these scenes where he takes care of birds Lancaster stays watchable, which obviously shows how and why he was such a star.

Still the film presents more problems for Lancaster due to the strangeness of some of its plot elements. For example Stroud marries a woman who he started a bird business with. They get married in attempt so he can stay where he is with his birds. There scenes at first are brief, and unromantic including when he proposes to her. But later in the film it their last scene together it is implied they actually loved each other which was not earned by the film. Lancaster does try to make this and all of the other elements tossed together in Stroud's character. Lancaster does a fine job despite the poor writing of Stroud, which really is some sort of achievement. The writing though stops him from giving a great performance. His best scenes are his scenes of the agreed Stroud. Lancaster subtle shows a man who now has come to treasure life, and the idea of freedom. He both obviously states this with the proper passion but also shows it carefully in his eyes and his face.  The film never helps him but he still gives an okay performance.


dinasztie said...

I really don't remember him that much. I saw the movie very long ago. But I think I agree with your thoughts.

Could Lemmon be the next one? I cannot wait to hear your thoughts about him.

Louis Morgan said...