Posted by Richard Harland Smith on June 29, 2007
Keep an eye out for Keir Dullea within the crowded frames of Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd (2006). Dullea’s patrician bearing and cold, senatorial stare are put to good (albeit limited) use in the small role of Angelina Jolie’s politician father. The actor appears in a few scenes, has no real dialogue, is given one significant bit of business (ushering a sexually betrayed and understandably enraged Jolie out of a Skull & Bones sit-down dinner) and then he’s gone, killed off offscreen; the place card acknowledging the passing of his character gets the close-up he never did.
I’ve been familiar with Keir Dullea’s work for over thirty years, having seen most of his important film roles and even the oddball sci-fi TV series, The Star Lost, he did in Canada in 1973. Yet I never considered myself a fan. Dullea was, I suppose, too handsome for my taste, too collegiate, too Ivy League, too Kennedyesque. I’ve always preferred gnarly character actors to pretty boy movie star types. And yet, as the camera tracked by him in The Good Shepherd, I had him pegged at first glance. I even called out “Hey, that's Keir Dullea!”
In that moment, I felt an inexplicable rush of affection for the man. I’d be hard pressed to name one distinctive physical trait Keir possesses and yet, as anonymous as that makes him sound, he is instantly recognizable. The son of Greenwich Village bookshop owners, Dullea made his film debut as a juvenile delinquent in The Hoodlum Priest (1961) but it was as an emotionally disturbed youth in David and Lisa (1962) that put him on the Hollywood map. Dullea’s prickly haptephobe is tough to like but you wind up not only rooting for him to get his life together but to fall in love with schizophrenic fellow patient Lisa/Muriel (Janet Margolin).
Third-billed in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Dullea got to play the Ugly American as the sardonic journalist brother of a fragile woman (Carol Lynley) whose child goes missing after her first day in a London pre-school. Dullea gets many good scenes and some tart dialogue exchanges with star Laurence Olivier and seasoned troupers Martita Hunt, Clive Revill and Anna Massey. Stephen Lake's almost mathematical Yankee bluntness is a tonic to the maddening British understatement that seems to slow the investigation… until one begins to suspect that Stephen's directness hints at an essential cruelty. Dullea was off to Canada next, for The Fox (1967), an adaptation of the D. H. Lawrence story starring Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood as a pair of college chums whose unnatural closeness is compromised by the arrival of Dullea’s alpha dog. Despite the beautifully stark winter settings, the piece is dreary and deterministic, with Dullea firmly in Big Weirdo mode.
The role with which Keir Dullea will be associated from now ‘til the end of time is astronaut Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Dullea gets star billing even though his character doesn’t turn up until 57 minutes in. Dave Bowman is Dullea’s ultimate cold fish role and yet, for all that has been written about 2001 over the course of the last forty years, little has been dedicated to Dullea's acting. Mission commander Dave Bowman is one of Dullea's least complicated characters, yet it is his essential aloofness that makes him such an unlikely and worthy hero. Fearing what he dare not say aloud (under the deadly custodianship of supercomputer HAL 9000) and then daring to go where no man has ever gone before, Dave is a subtle tour de force for the actor. Never rising above a 5 on the intensity meter, Dullea nonetheless convincingly portrays a mere mortal whose mind is blown from here to infinity.
Keir Dullea’s star ascendancy was solidified with the lead role in American International Picture’s randy biopic De Sade (1969). Based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson (taking a tip or two from Fellini), De Sade was to have been directed by Gordon Hessler but was passed off to the more rugged, less cerebral Cy Enfield. Allegedly Enfield balked at shooting the requisite orgy scenes and so Roger Corman was flown in to take the reins of the ribaldry. Whomever gets the credit, De Sade's sex scenes are its weakest link; shot through a red filter, these fleshy vignettes are rich on lusty laughing and hard kissing but very poor on the unfettered copulation or transgression that would seem to be the main attraction. And yet… the film shows Keir Dullea at the top of his game, finally shedding the chilly Otherness that characterized his early film roles. Dullea seems to really be enjoying himself and his combative scenes with John Huston (as Louis Alphonse Donatien’s avuncular corruptor) are worth the price of admission.
De Sade’s failure at the box office seemed to seal Keir Dullea’s fate as a leading man. Cutting his losses at home (where ethnic actors like Al Pacino and, interestingly enough, Robert DeNiro were getting the plum roles), Dullea returned to Canada for a number of interesting but distinctly B-grade films (Welcome to Blood City with a pre-comeback Jack Palance) and the continent for guest starring roles in poorly-received art house productions (Pope Joan with Liv Ullmann) and the occasional thriller (as Mia Farrow’s disbelieving stuffed shirt of a husband in The Haunting of Julia). A favorite among cult film fans is his turn as a temperamental pianist and red herring in the murder of sorority girls in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974). Dullea returned to the stage in the mid-70s and to television, where his career had started (he was a suave master criminal out to “steal” a famous Paris landmark in The Hostage Tower); his last big film role was as the now-spectral Dave Bowman in Peter Hyams’ workmanlike 2001 sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984).
Maybe I had Keir Dullea wrong all those years ago. Looking back on his long career, maybe he never really was that pretty boy I typed him out as. Maybe he was really a character actor all along. It's great seeing him on the big screen again. Now in his 70s, Keir Dullea looks a lot like they made him up to appear in the final frames of 2001: a little grayed, a little wrinkled but still strapping, dead-handsome, icily imperious… and even a little weird.
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