Donald Sutherland Was an Actor of Everyday Profundity

5 minute read

The Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, who died on June 20 at age 88, appeared in so many films over his long career—and was so terrific even in films that barely deserved him—that it’s impossible to come up with a definitive Sutherland performance. He could be unnervingly menacing one minute, only to catch you short with his quavering vulnerability the next. His facial features were pliant and agreeable; he could win you over in a heartbeat with that great, rubbery smile. He had a face you could trust—which is exactly what made him so extraordinarily affecting in, say, Philip Kaufman’s astonishing 1978 sci-fi paranoia symphony Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Once you knew Sutherland’s character, kind, intelligent, trustworthy Matthew Bennell, had been taken over by alien pod people, it was as if the sun had fallen from the sky. There are few more despairing endings in the history of movies: when Sutherland’s Matthew utters the piercing, hollow scream of the alien “duplicates,” we’re left with no hope for anything, ever. Once they’ve got Sutherland, the rest of humanity doesn’t stand a chance.

That’s because Sutherland reflected our best and our worst—or perhaps maybe just our most flawed—selves back at us. Few actors have shown his gift for mingling fearlessness with such jubilant good humor. His career was marked, fairly early on, by two performances showing us men in crisis, fathers facing grief they can barely handle, even as they also feel responsible for helping their wives to heal. In Robert Redford’s 1980 Ordinary People, Sutherland’s upper-middle-class patriarch Calvin Jarrett mourns the loss of his older son even as he tries to protect his emotionally fragile younger child (Timothy Hutton) from the chilly heartlessness of the boy's mother, Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth. Seven years earlier, in Nicolas Roeg’s unsettling 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now, he’d played a husband, John Baxter, trying to reason with his wife, Laura (Julie Christie), who’s desperate to contact the couple’s dead child. In both of these films, he plays characters weighted with the burden of being reasonable, even as they must put their own feelings on hold. You could look at these performances as dual portraits of late 20th century masculinity: even at a time when young people were feeling free to cut loose—or were at least trying to cut loose—the specter of real-life adult suffering couldn’t be escaped. Sutherland, in these characters, was right there in the thick of that suffering, shouldering the responsibility of it. If young people at the time thought becoming an adult meant the stifling act of putting on a suit and tie, Sutherland showed us something else: that it meant facing up to the most challenging emotional circumstances and acutely feeling every minute. To numb out is to cop out.

To temper that heaviness, we also had the pleasure of seeing his playful, mischievous side in movies like Robert Altman’s woolly 1970 comedy M*A*S*H*: As army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, stationed in a field hospital somewhere near the front lines during the Korean War, Sutherland radiated a whistling-in-the-dark bonhomie. And he gave great performances even in dud movies, like John Schlesinger’s metaphor-laden, dark-heart-of-Hollywood-and-humanity clunker Day of the Locust, from 1975. As Homer Simpson (the first Homer Simpson), an unworldly accountant who eventually falls prey to Hollywood’s cruelty, Sutherland resists being turned into a symbol. He could only ever play a person.

Donald Sutherland as President Snow in The Hunger GamesLionsgate

The list of movies Sutherland appeared in, and was often great in, is too long for even a cursory summary. He worked with the greats, directors of all stripes: Bernardo Bertolucci, Claude Chabrol, Federico Fellini, Clint Eastwood, James Gray. But one of his finest performances is the one he gives in Alan Pakula's Klute, as a Pennsylvania detective assigned to shadow Jane Fonda’s high-class New York City call girl Bree Daniel, with the aim of solving a missing-persons case. He falls in love with her, and in a classic trick of Sutherland-style subtlety, we know it before he does. At one point, she tries to manipulate him by offering to sleep with him, for free. She turns around and begins unzipping her slinky black sequined dress, exposing a tempting sliver of skin. He demurs, even as he realizes that someone is sneaking around on the roof above, and he must take quick, quiet action to protect her. Still, for a split second, as she unzips that dress, he looks almost as if he were about to cry—there’s something tender and lost about his Detective Klute, even in the midst of his devotion to duty. That’s the Sutherland touch. And he was disarmingly sexy to boot.

Even if Sutherland’s most noteworthy roles came in the 1970s and '80s, he also gave wonderful late-career performances; he never simply faded out, as so many actors do. Modern audiences may know him best as President Snow in the Hunger Games films. But he gave an astonishing, joyful performance as Mister Bennet, father of Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth, in Joe Wright’s luminous 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. His protectiveness of his daughter, and his love for her, blazes like a quiet star—though he also knows, as he nears the end of his life, that he won’t always be around to guarantee her happiness. Sutherland, once again, as always, made complicated human feelings feel like everyday stuff—probably because they are.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at