Posted by gregferrara on November 6, 2013
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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