Lancaster's Meaningful Thing
When Thomas E. Gaddis’s Birdman of Alcatraz, the biography of a convicted murderer (1890-1963) who became a world-renowned ornithologist for his studies of avian behavior and diseases while serving a life imprisonment sentence (42 years of which were in solitary confinement), was published in 1955, one of its avid readers was Burt Lancaster. He was so taken with the screen potential of the inmate’s remarkable tale that he followed up by reading Stroud’s Digest of the Diseases of Birds, Stroud’s case documents and letters, and tried to meet the notorious prisoner. In her well-researched Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Kate Buford observes: “Never before and never again would he, obsessive by nature, be obsessed to this level with a movie. If Elmer Gantry [his energetic Academy Award®-winning role] was who Lancaster really was, Stroud was who he wanted to be.” And damned if he didn’t fully become Stroud in the involving and intimate movie made of Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), which opened this day in New York 54 years ago. “Granted that Mr. Lancaster is the virtual king of all he surveys in this saga,” A.H. Weiler wrote in The New York Times, “he does, however, contribute an outstanding performance marked by a restraint, vitality and honesty that make it one of his best.” It began production with Britisher Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob, A Fish Called Wanda) directing, but, Buford reports, he left after only a month, “a casualty of the actor’s impatience and the director’s own unsuitability for the subject; [John] Frankenheimer recognized ‘the chance of a lifetime’ and accepted” the job. Although Stroud was convicted for shooting a bartender in Juneau, AK, in 1909, and later knifing a Leavenworth prison guard in 1916, Buford notes: “It was what he had done since the murders that sucked Lancaster in. A keeper of birds, confined, like himself, in cages, Stroud ‘took a miserable, unnatural existence,’ Lancaster said, ‘and yet made it into a meaningful thing.’ Such persistence appealed deeply to his autodidactic soul and the simple visual symbolism that took him back to the pigeons and tipplets he used to handle on the roofs of East Harlem. He put everything on hold, turned down other, more lucrative movies to, as [producer Harold] Hecht, later described it, ‘tinker’ and groom this very uncommercial project. It was his masterwork, a creation out of the prison of his own self.” Lancaster also suffered the loss of his brother, who died of a heart attack while visiting the set just before the shooting of the Alcatraz riot scene. When the initial cut of the film ran four-and-a-half hours, production was suspended for further work to streamline the first half of the story and Lancaster honored a six-week commitment to act in Stanley Kramer’s all-star drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961, available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray). Rejoining the Birdman of Alcatraz company in May 1961, Lancaster “began a long process that would include, by his reckoning, three months alone of editing the picture with [screenwriter Guy] Trosper after Frankenheimer left to start work on The Manchurian Candidate.” The disjointed, protracted process would nonetheless culminate in a spellbinding movie, earning Oscar® nominations for Lancaster, co-stars Thelma Ritter and Telly Savalas and cinematographer Burnett Guffey, plus Lancaster being named Best Actor at the 1962 Venice Film Festival and the British Film Academy’s Best Foreign Actor prize. One goal Lancaster did not achieve was Stroud’s exoneration. “He hoped Birdman would galvanize the audience to free the real-life prisoner,” Buford wrote. “Instead, the people sitting in the dark around the world didn’t give a damn about Stroud, prisons or penal theory; in Lancaster’s Birdman, they saw themselves.” See the culmination of a formidable actor’s passionate commitment to the storytelling art in TT’s hi-def Blu-ray of Birdman of Alcatraz.