Perspective | Donald Sutherland was that rare star who never outshined the role

Was Donald Sutherland a movie star? He didn’t look like one: A lanky 6’4,” with a curly mop of hair, a lantern jaw and slightly bulbous, iridescent eyes, he was almost traditionally handsome. He didn’t play action heroes or lovesick swains. He was never even nominated for an Oscar. (Out of sheer embarrassment, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary statuette in 2017.)

True, the Canadian-born, London-trained Sutherland, who died Thursday at 88, rose to movie fame at the dawn of the 1970s, when unconventional looks were in fashion, and he rode out the decade as a top-billed name. He was a gifted, even great, actor, but a star? He took his roles seriously but not the industry game; you sensed, beyond the integrity of the performances, a personal integrity that kept him on an even keel.

Sutherland had the charisma, but maybe he didn’t have the ego necessary to be a movie star. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t a box-office draw like some of his peers (Redford, Nicholson, Hoffman, Hackman). Instead, he was a guarantor of quality and of the pleasurable realization, as the end credits rolled, that he had owned every scene he was in.

There may be no better example of Sutherland’s undervalued commitment to emotional truth than “Ordinary People,” the 1980 best picture winner about a fragmenting suburban family. Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch were all nominated for Oscars (Hutton won), but Sutherland’s performance as the quiet, heartsore father went unrewarded. Tellingly, the actor felt he’d initially been too emotional in the devastating kitchen scene when his character tells his wife he no longer loves her, and he eventually talked director Robert Redford into reshooting a more subtle take.

Hollywood and audiences didn’t know what to make of him at first — couldn’t decide what niche Sutherland fit into — and after a run of British television appearances in the 1960s, the actor found his moment playing a sub-criminal doofus in the World War II action-comedy “The Dirty Dozen” (1967). So he was a comic bonehead for a while — see “Kelly’s Heroes” or the ingratiatingly silly “Start the Revolution Without Me” (both 1970) for confirmation.

But 1970 also let Sutherland co-star as combat surgeon Hawkeye Pierce opposite Elliott Gould’s Trapper John McIntyre in the counterculture hit “M.A.S.H.,” and suddenly he was one of the few actors in movies who seemed to be telling the truth about the war and the world, and with a cynical idealism that made sense.

The films that followed are an essay in what kinds of movie should star an actor who doesn’t seem to be a star. “Klute” (1971) — Jane Fonda won the Oscar, while Sutherland was merely the movie’s unwavering conscience and backbone. “Don’t Look Now” (1973) remains one of the most unsettling films of its era, split evenly between the eros of its controversial sex scene and the catharsis of its shocking ending. Sutherland was a much-derided Casanova for Federico Fellini in 1976, but maybe the fault was ours for wanting a matinee idol instead of the flawed, tempest-tossed horndog we were given.

Sutherland was still enough of a marquee name in 1978 to hold down the center of a fine remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He also agreed to one day of filming as the pothead professor in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and famously took a flat fee of $35,000 instead of a profit-sharing deal that would have netted him about $2 million. But after “Ordinary People,” the phone lines mysteriously went cold and Sutherland couldn’t get an audition for a year.

So he did what other talented actors do when the moment passes: He took what came, and he worked. The Sutherland filmography of the past 40 years is studded with little-known treasures — and misfires and meh and the occasional outright bomb (1985’s “Revolution,” one of the rare times the actor indulged his hambone side as a sadistic fop of a British officer).

A dashing German spy in “Eye of the Needle” (1981), a South African stirred to fight apartheid in “A Dry White Season” (1989), Sutherland’s Emmy-winning role as a Soviet colonel seeking a serial killer in “Citizen X” (1995), his wily track coach Bill Bowerman opposite Billy Crudup’s Steve Prefontaine in “Without Limits” (1998) — all memorable, rock-solid performances. And by the new millennium, Sutherland was ripe for discovery by a new generation of moviegoers, first as an adoring and adorable Mr. Bennett in the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice,” and then — just to show the kids his range — the profoundly evil President Snow in the four “Hunger Games” movies (2012-2015).

Even then, Sutherland refused to stoop to mustache twirling villainy, telling the New York Observer, “Do you think Lyndon Johnson felt he was the villain, destroying a million Vietnamese? George W. Bush or Dick Cheney — they don’t think of themselves as villain … Snow thinks it is expedient. He’s trying to control an empire.”

In his final years, Sutherland took roles with a kind of flinty, evanescent grace. Dig up the 2019 art-world thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy” and enjoy the actor’s rich supporting role as a legendarily reclusive painter. Or just re-watch Episode 4 from the 2020 HBO limited-series mystery-thriller “The Undoing,” in which his Manhattan power broker lets his grandson’s school principal know in no uncertain terms who’s boss. I wish I could tell you what he says, but this is a family newspaper — trust me when I say it’s the kind of scene that sets social media on fire while chilling a viewer to the bone.

Was Donald Sutherland a movie star? I don’t know how you could call him anything else.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at

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