Actor Remembrance: Donald Sutherland — 10 Films to Watch, in Love and Awe

By Peg Aloi

Here are films I’ve most loved watching the late Donald Sutherland in over the years.

The late Donald Sutherland in 2013. Photo: Wiki Common

Donald Sutherland passed away this week at the age of 88, and was working on a new film project at the time of his death. The actor was nothing if not prolific in his later years, adding more fine performances to an impressive career that spanned over half a century and nearly 200 roles. The veteran actor had eagerly pursued the role of President Snow in The Hunger Games after becoming a fan of the novels by Suzanne Collins, starring in three films in the franchise. In 2022 he appeared in the titular role in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, adapted from a short story by Stephen King. He also took on an iconoclastic part in the art world thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019).

But most of my favorite Sutherland performances were films he made in the earlier years of his career. The rich experimentation of ’70s American cinema offered opportunities for Sutherland, a versatile actor whose offbeat but attractive looks, deep voice, and lanky body didn’t fit the usual leading man mold. Ironically, it may have been Sutherland’s powerful physicality that defined him most memorably as an actor in the first two decades of his career. Sutherland played his share of romantic roles, too: his ice blue eyes, full lips, and thick hair were icing on the cake for fans of this thinking person’s heartthrob.

In no particular order, here are films I’ve most loved watching Donald Sutherland in over the years. But, in addition, I want to mention the excellent documentary F.T.A. (Arts Fuse review), which Sutherland collaborated on with Jane Fonda and other performers. It was a traveling antiwar roadshow performed on military bases in 1971 during the height of the Vietnam war. The footage of the skits — and the reaction of the military audiences — is a fascinating slice of early ’70s life and culture.

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973) This stylish arthouse thriller, based on a Daphne du Maurier story, co-stars Julie Christie and Sutherland as Laura and John Baxter, a couple grieving the death of their child in England. They move to Venice, where John, an architect restoring an old chapel, is visited by occult visions he can’t make sense of. Sutherland is superb as a seemingly rational man who is haunted by unimaginable trauma, plagued with doubts and drawn to danger.

Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) Sutherland is John Klute, a private detective hired to find a missing executive. Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda, in what is considered by many to be her finest screen role) is a high class call girl and aspiring model whose connection to the case puts her in danger, requiring Klute’s protection, which she rebels against. The chemistry between the two is antagonistic but electrifying. Add a terrifying cameo by Charles Cioffi and you have a taut thriller with unexpected psychological depth. This is a classic of ’70s cinema.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978) This smart, subtle remake of a 1956 classic is a standout of ’70s horror/sci-fi. Sutherland gives a charged performance as a man whose loved ones are changing before his eyes, a turn that is suffused with tense terror, embodying the increasing paranoia of a city under siege and a society beset with social turmoil.

M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970) Sutherland originated the iconic role of Dr. “Hawkeye” Pierce, a talented surgeon for a mobile medical unit who resists the military discipline of his workplace. Though based on a novel inspired by real life experiences in the Korean War, this funny but dark adaptation and the subsequent TV series spoke to an America horrified by what was happening in Viet Nam. Sutherland’s humor and nuanced character touches made this a memorable, iconic role for him.

Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980) Because of its raw, realistic emotions, this film dramatically changed the cinematic portrayal of family drama. Sutherland plays a father torn between grief for a lost child, compassion for his embittered wife (the extraordinary Mary Tyler Moore), and concern for his depressed teenage son (a breakout role for Timothy Hutton).

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) Sutherland fought to snag this role as the elite, calculating ruler of a nation where the poorest citizens are forced into fighting tribes. Their battles become fodder for televised entertainment that reflects carefully orchestrated political maneuvers. Sutherland relished portraying Snow’s subtle, narcissistic cruelty.

Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) In a small but delightfully nuanced role as Mr. Bennet, father to the lively Bennet sisters, Sutherland lent warmth and gravitas to a character who is often, lazily, turned into a cartoon in adaptations of Austen’s novel. He rounds out a superb cast in this stunningly emotional and beautiful film, one of the contemporary crop of heritage cinema reimagined.

Donald Sutherland in 1973’s Don’t Look Now.

The Burnt Orange Heresy (Giuseppe Capotondi, 2019) In this compelling art heist thriller, Sutherland plays a reclusive yet charming painter whose surprising decision — to destroy his most famous painting — entangles him with an array of colorful art world personalities played by the likes of Elizabeth Debicki, Claes Bang, and Mick Jagger.

Cloudbusting (Julian Doyle, 1985) Co-written by Kate Bush and Terry Gilliam, this is one of several of Bush’s iconic music videos, a conceptual, artistic short film dedicated to the song. Sutherland plays inventor Wilhelm Reich and Bush his son Peter, who narrates the real-life story of his father’s attempts to hide his controversial work from government agents. An unforgettable, unexpectedly moving portrayal.

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991) Sutherland is X, a political operative who agrees to meet with investigator Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). In a crucial single scene, X sets out, via a detailed, impassioned monologue, what he believes was an elaborate plan to execute President Kennedy. It’s a pivotal conversation and a mesmerizing performance.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She has written on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Dread Central, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Refinery29, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.

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  1. Susan Kirsch on June 21, 2024 at 3:46 pm

    Don’t forget 1965’s “Die, Die, My Darling” with Stepganie Powers and the immortal Tallulah Bankhead !!!

  2. Peg on June 21, 2024 at 10:25 pm

    ahh I have never seen that one! Sounds wonderful; he did some interesting horror films in his early career…

  3. Brightshadow on June 23, 2024 at 1:39 am

    Shocked that you omitted Day of the Locust, his very finest performance.

    You actually don’t need to see Die, Die, My Darling. At least not for Sutherland.

  4. John McEnerney on June 28, 2024 at 5:05 pm

    For silliness, 1970’s Start the Revolution Without Me with Gene Wilder.

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