First Impressions and Classic Cinema

Today at TCM, Burt Lancaster gets his time in the spotlight with several Lancaster films airing throughout the day and night, including The Killers, From Here to Eternity and The Swimmer.   Lancaster is an actor I initially had a hard time warming to due to his rather stylized and grand way of delivering lines, as if every sentence were a speech or a lecture.    Over time, I came to really appreciate how far he was willing to go, how big he was willing to act, to get a performance just right.  By the time I saw Atlantic City years after seeing him for the first time, I felt like I was watching an old master create his greatest work.  And I still think that Atlantic City is his best performance but what held me back for years with Lancaster was the pigeonhole I’d placed him in after seeing him for the first time, which happened to be his Oscar winner performance in Elmer Gantry.  Sometimes, first impressions really can set up expectations that don’t always flesh out.

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Elmer Gantry was the first Burt Lancaster movie I ever saw and it made one hell of a first impression.   Lancaster, never a subtle actor, played it so big and bold (perfect for the character, by the way) that I really expected that performance in everything else.  When I saw From Here to Eternity next, I was unimpressed.  Not with the movie so much, although it’s not a favorite, but with Lancaster.  He seemed so subdued, almost stilted.  He wasn’t, really, it was just me expecting Elmer Gantry on the screen with Deborah Kerr instead of Sergeant Warden.  Then I saw The Killers and found him much better but still not very Gantry like.  I’m not sure why I was expecting Gantry in every movie I saw with Lancaster but I was and it was only after seeing a few more, including Seven Days in May and The Rose Tattoo (one of the biggest, loudest  and most wonderfully over-baked performances of his career, for what it’s worth), that I finally started to move past the first impression and see the characters separately from the actor.

The same thing happened with a very different actor, Robert De Niro.   I first saw him in Mean Streets, then Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Part II, Raging Bull and King of Comedy.  The first impression I had wasn’t from any one performance but from the body of his work.  As far as I was concerned, De Niro was the King of the Dysfunctional Loser.  I mean, every one of those roles, except for Vito Corleone, is a complete social misfit, a low-life or just a complete weirdo.    When I heard he was making a comedy with Charles Grodin in 1988, called Midnight Run, I thought, “What?! That’s crazy!  De Niro playing someone normal in a comedy?!”  He’d played normal before, and failed, in Falling in Love, but the fault there was with how dull the movie was so maybe he could do it again and this time make it work.  He did.  I was honestly quite surprised at how well he pulled it off and now, after years of not-so-great roles in several not-so-great comedies, it’s kind of reversed.  I think, “The lovably neurotic father in Silver Linings Playbook played Jake LaMotta?  How?”

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Next up was Barbara Stanwyck.  That one really threw me.  First Stanwyck movie I ever saw was Double Indemnity.   From that movie came the idea of Stanwyck the Vamp, a seductress who can lure in men and then destroy them.  Then I saw her in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, and even those they show her softer side in comedic form, it maintained a sense of the character that Double Indemnity had given me.  Still, it was a shock when I saw other Stanwyck movies, like Christmas in Connecticut or a personal favorite, So Big.  It was hard to believe she could be so sweet, so sympathetic.  Double Indemnity had made a first impression that was hard to shake.

Alec Guinness and his entire early career came to me late, quite late.  It’s probably a given for most folks that the first movie they saw Alec Guinncess in was Star Wars, especially now that so many kids grow up watching those movies.  But after seeing Star Wars in the theater multiple times, I finally saw Bridge on the River Kwai and was sufficiently blown away by his performance as self-obsessed British Colonel Nicholson.  Then I saw him in a few other movies, all dramatic roles, ranging from George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to Adolph Hitler in Hitler: The Last Ten Days.  When I started reading up on film history and discovered Guinness had starred in mostly comedies before Bridge on the River Kwai I couldn’t believe it.  That guy, the intense dramatic actor?  Oddly enough, people back in the forties and fifties were thinking just the opposite when Kwai’s casting was announced (“The comedy guy’s going to play in a war epic?!”).  When I started watching The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets, it was a little disconcerting at first.  Guinness had made such a good impression with drama, it took me a while to accept him in the very comedies that made him famous.

Shirley MacLaine is the last one I’ll list here so the post doesn’t get too out of hand with me listing practically every actor whose ever gone against type at some point in their career.  With MacLaine, it was simple:  I saw her in Around the World in 80 Days, The Trouble with Harry and The Apartment first.   To me, MacLaine was sweet and warm, not given to temperamental fits or old age grumpiness.  Then, without warning, Terms of Endearment came out and from that moment on, she played a different character completely.  Moviegoers growing up with her characters from Terms of Endearment through Bernie would probably be surprised to find she once played sweet and innocent so well but she did which is why I had such a hard time getting my mind around her later roles from the eighties on.

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First impressions are meaningful in life and we’re always told to make a good one.  In the movies, they matter too but if you make too good a first impression, you might find yourself playing the same character over and over again because audiences won’t accept you any other way.  It’s called typecasting and it’s the danger of making that first impression too good.  When actors break the typecasting they take a chance but if they’re good and keep at it, eventually, the first impression gives way to a second and a third until the actor is no longer a type you expect but a different character in each new movie.  First impressions count, so long as they’re not the final word.

20 Responses First Impressions and Classic Cinema
Posted By swac44 : November 6, 2013 3:50 pm

I was never much of a Lancaster fan to begin with either, but then I saw The Crimson Pirate and it all kind of clicked into place. For me that’s him at his most entertaining, a kind of nexus that feeds me into his more challenging roles, from The Sweet Smell of Success to The Gypsy Moths. Still haven’t seen Atlantic City though, which I feel is a major oversight on my part, hopefully a copy comes my way (or it shows up on TCM) one of these days.

Posted By Richard Brandt : November 6, 2013 5:59 pm

My mom thought he was at his best in JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG. When called upon he could really dig deep into a character, as in BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ.

Posted By gregferrara : November 6, 2013 6:17 pm

Swac, definitely check out Atlantic City first chance you get. It’s available on Amazon streaming as well as on DVD from there and on Netflix. It’s a personal favorite of mine.

Posted By gregferrara : November 6, 2013 6:18 pm

Richard – I haven’t seen Birdman of Alcatraz in years but I remember liking him very much in it. It was a much quieter performance on his part, which I enjoyed.

Posted By Qalice : November 6, 2013 11:37 pm

I love nothing better than when actors break the mold — for example, I can’t wait to see Ralph Fiennes in the next Wes Anderson film, because I never thought of him as funny. But you have to love the Golden Age of movies for giving actors like Barbara Stanwyck many chances to stretch their wings. I’ve seen Ann Sheridan in so many touching roles that her hilarious performance in The Man Who Came to Dinner is even funnier. And look at all the risks Ginger Rogers was allowed to take, and how well they turned out.

Posted By Doug : November 7, 2013 12:34 am

First impressions-when I first saw Ray Liotta in “Something Wild”
he was so menacing that I pulled back from the screen.
Qalice mentioned Ginger Rogers-I think she purposefully refused to be pigeonholed into any ‘type’ so that she could do it all.
Does anyone else think that De Niro has descended into self parody? Starting with “Dudley Do-right”?

Posted By l.Dan : November 7, 2013 3:42 pm

Is it weird that my first Lancaster film was ‘Local Hero,’ which is one of my favorite comedies. I have not seen ‘Atlantic City’ but I will say that his performance in ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ was frighteningly good, the combination of his intensely rigid physique with the cut-throat screenplay makes his characteristics of delivering lines almost satanic.

I think I had a similar impression with Toshiro Mifune, ans I can see many other people that fall in the same position. Though I have now seen that he is not only one of the most energetic actors ever but one of the most versatile, with such films as ‘Stray Dog’, ‘High and Low’, and ‘Red Beard.’ And, to continue with Japanese actors, it is not that I had a immobile impression of Tatsuya Nakadai but I could never have imagined him playing in a variety of roles in films like ‘High and Low’ (again), ‘Harakiri’, ‘Ran’, ‘The Face of Another’, and ‘Yojimbo.’

Posted By gregferrara : November 7, 2013 5:32 pm

Qalice – Actresses back in the thirties and forties had (it seemed at least) a wider variety of roles than the actors. Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and many others weren’t nearly as varied as many actresses.

Posted By gregferrara : November 7, 2013 5:34 pm

Doug – In reference to your De Niro question, yes, I agree. When I wrote this in the piece – “years of not-so-great roles in several not-so-great comedies” – I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible. What De Niro has chosen to do for much of the last twenty years bewilders me. Even if he’s just in it for the money, surely there have been better offers for good money.

Posted By Mike Lion : November 7, 2013 5:58 pm

Last night when discussing “The Killers” with Burt Lancaster, Robert Osborne repeated a well-known story: Ernest Hemingway once said that “The Killers” was his favorite of all the adaptations of his stories that had been made into movies. That would include a lot of films, such as “A Farewell to Arms,”(twice), “The Sun Also Rises,” “To Have and Have Not,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
But if you read “The Killers,” which is only a short story, you will find that what Hemingway wrote amounts only to the first scene-the killing itself. It is basically another story about Nick Adams. The entire back story–a payroll robbery and double cross– appears only in the movie.
So I think Hemingway was having a little joke with that statement.

Posted By Jennifer : November 7, 2013 9:35 pm

I’m curious as to whether you had a reaction that ended up unfavorably. Someone who was good in the movie you first saw them in but then turned out to be bad in most everything else. For example- I liked Charlton Heston in The Greatest Show on Earth, but I pretty much can’t stand him in anything else, and now I can’t watch him in The Greatest Show on Earth anymore either. Everything he says is so damned important, I suspect a grocery list read by him would be epic. Then there are actors that I can’t tell if I like them or not until I see them in something else and then discover I can’t sit through a movie that they’re in at all. Example- Richard Dix. I watched two Whistler movies before I could tell if he was acting that way or acting badly. I will stick to silent films if I have to watch Richard Dix. Prime example of the point of your article for me is Billie Burke. Because all I knew of her until I grew up was she was the beautiful good witch in Wizard of Oz. Then I saw her in Topper and I couldn’t believe this was the same person. I love her so much in everything.

Posted By swac44 : November 7, 2013 9:52 pm

I’d say try a few of Richard Dix’s early ’30s films before giving up on his sound films entirely, he can be quite effective in some of those, and he’s especially good in the Val Lewton title The Ghost Ship. Those Whistler titles don’t really show him off at his best.

Posted By Jennifer : November 7, 2013 9:54 pm

I’m very glad you didn’t tell me to watch Cimarron. I love Irene Dunne to death, but that movie does not make me happy.

Posted By swac44 : November 7, 2013 10:14 pm

Yeah, that’s one title that’s hard to recommend to anyone.

Posted By kingrat : November 7, 2013 10:48 pm

Doug and Greg, I’m with you on De Niro. Analyze This was fun, but each comedy after that seems a further descent into camp. He’s awful in Stardust, otherwise an entertaining film. I think of this as the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? phase of his career, where what he mostly does is self-parody.

One of those articles about the world as experienced by college freshmen–you know, Jacksonville has always had an NFL team, but not Los Angeles–pointed out that for these young people, Robert De Niro has always been a comic actor.

Posted By Richard Brandt : November 8, 2013 10:15 pm

Qalice…definitely catch Ann Sheridan in HONEYMOON FOR THREE, where her comic timing is worthy of Eve Arden.

Doug: Right with you on Liotta’s knockout of a performance in SOMETHING WILD.

Hey, De Niro still takes on some more challenging dramatic roles: the repressed parole officer in STONE, the delusions-of-grandeur case in BEING FLYNN, and there’s always the volatile dad in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. I guess you have to keep your eyes peeled for them.

Posted By terje rypdal : November 9, 2013 3:42 am

Moreover, I think people often overlook the obvious point about a case like DeNiro’s … Resting on one’s laurels isn’t always a bad thing — if it’s based upon a realistic assessment …

I think the truth is that he’s smart enough to know that in all likelihood, he probably DOESN’T have the wherewithal to muster another Bickle or LaMotta level performance in his seventies! And would we really be entitled to expect him to do so?!?

And if you were him — & you knew what your probable limitations were at this point in your career — & there were people eager to give you millions of dollars to do “Meet the Parents”-type roles … How many would really refuse if it came down to it? A purist film critic maybe — but not many other people would!

And God only knows, for aging Hollywood actresses this situation pertains even to a much more extreme degree, any way you cut it … It doesn’t make much sense for US to be angry at Shirley for no longer being able to play Miss Kubelik the elevator girl!!

Our natural age-ism makes us all guilty parties in this … I almost never have any interest personally in RECENT films featuring actresses I love like MacLaine or, say, Sissy Spacek … Surely, Spacek was wonderful in “In the Bedroom” for example — but I’ll always “need her to be” the young girl twirling her baton on the lawn … waiting to be picked up by some cute psychopathic guy! My ultimate “image” of her is just “fixed” that way … Which I guess is the beauty & power of celluloid

Posted By doug : November 9, 2013 11:59 pm

Having grace to retire and enjoy life apart from work after becoming wealthy enough to do so would be my goal. So what if productions company execs continue to throw money at De Niro to exploit his good reputation and star power? Other stars of greater magnitude protected their reputation by bowing out before being reduced to acting in lesser productions.
It may be that old “Born poor so keep working” ethos, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for remaining in the game due to something like that, but I would encourage De Niro to
seek out fewer clunkers if he wants future generations to remember him for more than “Meet The Fockers”.

Posted By Jennifer : November 11, 2013 1:12 pm

As an actor, I disagree with the notion that people should retire gracefully if they truly enjoy working. DeNiro’s problem doesn’t lie in the fact that he’s still working, it lies in the fact that he’s choosing projects that aren’t good. He’s actually getting ready to do a film with Pesci and Scorsese and, though I know nothing about it, I am looking forward to it.

Posted By robbushblog : November 11, 2013 7:31 pm

You mean….we haven’t always had an NFL team down here? Sorry. I get excited when someone mentions my hometown, regardless of the reason.

How would Lon Chaney, Jr.’s career have been different had he not been so damn convincing in Of Mice and Men? Might Shirley Temple have continued acting longer if she had not been stuck in the minds of moviegoers as that cute little Curly Top? First impressions suck and only matter on dates and job interviews (Unfortunate in both situations).

I cannot remember my first experience of Burt Lancaster, but I do remember not liking him for the longest time just because my mom didn’t. I got over that at some point. He is good in everything I’ve ever seen him in.

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