by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Donald Sutherland has been acting in movies for over fifty years. He has a long and prolific filmography starring opposite some of the biggest names of all time, being directed by some of the most renowned auteurs in motion picture history, and has appeared in some of the highest grossing films ever made. His role as President Snow in The Hunger Games series brought him a whole new generation of fans and younger movie audiences are now very familiar with his face and voice.
For a career that spans multiple generations and still seems to be going strong even today at age 82, Donald Sutherland has accomplished basically everything an actor could dream of accomplishing while maintaining a successful Hollywood career, everything that is except for earning an Oscar nomination. It is hard to believe that out of all of the great roles and huge movies he has starred in Donald Sutherland has never been nominated for an Academy Award. He has starred in three films nominated for Best Picture, MASH (1970), Ordinary People (1980), and JFK (1991), of those three only Ordinary People took hope the top prize. He has also worked with eight directors who have won the Best Director Oscar. He even has a son, Kiefer Sutherland, who has followed in his footsteps and carved out a very successful acting career on film and television. This guy has established himself as Hollywood royalty, yet the Oscars never bothered to recognize the man for a single performance in one of the many great movies he has acted in.
The Academy has long had a reputation for not acknowledging Canadian born actors and directors. They love Brits and never discount Americans, yet for some reason Canadian actors get a lack of respect from Oscar voters. Sutherland was born in New Brunswick, Canada and grew up in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately that seems to have hindered his Academy chances. Fellow Canadian Christopher Plummer was never nominated despite his terrific work until The Last Station (2009) and then finally won Best Supporting Actor for Beginners (2011) at age 82, making him the oldest winner of a competitive Oscar surpassing the achievement of Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Norman Jewison is a Canadian director who has been nominated several times for classic films like In the Heat of the Night (1967), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Moonstruck (1987), yet never won a competitive Academy Award. Donald Sutherland has not even been given a single nomination and now the Academy is finally honoring him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his career. This is nice, but it is too little, too late.
Donald Sutherland should have been nominated at least once throughout his long and illustrious career. He has appeared in a myriad of outstanding films for some of the best directors of their era like Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, and Clint Eastwood. He has an impressive screen presence with his height, but his best quality has always been his voice. Donald Sutherland can narrate anything and make it sound interesting, it is one of the most soothing and distinctive voices in cinema history and he has utilized it to enhance countless movies and television programs. Shame on the Academy for waiting until now to reward Donald Sutherland with a trophy, but I suppose it is better late than never which has been the case for so many other talented actors and directors.
Here are the top five roles Donald Sutherland should have been nominated for an Academy Award:
1. JFK (1991) directed by Oliver Stone
I already wrote about my love for Oliver Stone’s JFK and Sutherland in particular in his role as ‘X’. This movie is filled with Oscar caliber supporting performances and nominated Tommy Lee Jones for his complex and meatier role as Clay Shaw/Clay Bertrand, the man who was prosecuted for conspiracy involved in the death of President Kennedy. Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, and Kevin Bacon all could have easily been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category that year for their roles in JFK, but I would say that Donald Sutherland’s extended monologue as a mysterious Black Ops agent when he meets Kevin Costner’s District Attorney Jim Garrison in Washington D.C. is the films most compelling scene. He has one long conversation with Costner in front of various D.C. monuments and images as he discusses how our government failed to protect the president. It will have you on the edge of your seat and jump starts the movie. At over three hours, I doubt anybody flinched during Donald Sutherland’s delivery of his mostly fictitious scene describing how our government could have allowed Kennedy to be so vulnerable to assassination. His scene does detract from the factual evidence and it is a lot of Oliver Stone’s opinion of what could have happened, but Donald Sutherland certainly makes it feel as realistic as any other scene from the movie. It is my personal favorite scene from one of my all time favorite movies. I do not know if it could have worked had another actor delivered it. Of the nominees that year, Sutherland certainly could have joined his co-star Tommy Lee Jones and replaced Michael Lerner for Barton Fink, or either Ben Kingsley or Harvey Keitel both nominated for Bugsy in the Best Supporting Actor category that year. The clip below is only part of the long scene that illustrates how gripping Donald Sutherland’s voice is accompanying the images of our government betraying our trust.
2. Ordinary People (1980) directed by Robert Redford
Robert Redford’s directorial debut was an Oscar powerhouse. Ordinary People won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Redford, Best Supporting Actor for Timothy Hutton, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In fact, Donald Sutherland was the only main actor NOT nominated for his performance in that movie. Mary Tyler Moore was nominated for Best Actress and lost to Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Judd Hirsch was nominated for playing Hutton’s psychiatrist and lost to his 20 year old co-star. The most egregious part about Ordinary People being honored while ignoring Donald Sutherland, was that Sutherland is the best performance in the movie. He was the only character that had depth and compassion and his performance anchored the family and therefore the movie from veering into made for TV melodrama. As it is, Ordinary People is a run of the mill drama that could have been made anytime in the past half century about an affluent family dealing with the tragic loss of their son. Mary Tyler Moore is bitter, controlling, and easy to hate as the mother. Hutton is filled with guilt and grief and on the verge of being obnoxious as their teenage son, dealing with the usual struggles of high school and now has to come to terms with the loss of his brother. Only Donald Sutherland as the good natured but deeply hurt father is the performance that creates a likable character that deserves to engage the audiences emotions. The final scene where he explains to his wife that he is not sure if he loves her anymore, is the best scene in an otherwise mediocre and highly overrated picture. The fact that Ordinary People won Best Picture and Director over Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is still considered one of the Academy’s biggest blunders. Surely Donald Sutherland should not have won Best Actor over Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, and Peter O’Toole gave one of his best performances as an eccentric movie director in The Stunt Man, however he certainly deserved a spot in the winners circle alongside them and could have replaced Jack Lemmon for Tribute, John Hurt for The Elephant Man, or Robert Duvall for The Great Santini and it is highly unlikely anyone would have complained. Watch the scene below where Donald Sutherland is absolutely shattering expressing his feelings to his wife. It is the best moment from Ordinary People, and the best example of why Sutherland should have been nominated.
3. MASH (1970) directed by Robert Altman
Donald Sutherland earned his first Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for MASH. He originated the role of Hawkeye Pierce, an army surgeon with a sly sense of humor who had a laid back attitude to his job and along with his fellow doctor Trapper John (Elliot Gould) played practical jokes to lighten the mood while they were stationed in Korea. MASH was the best film in 1970, an era where motion pictures as well as our nation was going through a lot of drastic changes with counterculture and the best films reflected those changes. MASH arguably remains Robert Altman’s masterpiece as he used the Korean War for hilarious improv and social commentary about Vietnam. Sutherland created Hawkeye and with his voice and delivery of lines he made him extremely likable and relatable. Alan Alda would take the role in another direction after playing him on MASH the television series for eleven seasons he made it his own, but Sutherland deserved credit for making the role work when few thought it would be just a footnote in all cast and crews filmography. 20th Century Fox had very little faith in MASH since they already had two more conventional war pictures coming out that same year with Patton and Tora!Tora!Tora!, so they did not know how to market MASH or what people would think of it. Patton turned out to be the most honored film of 1970 winning Best Picture and Best Actor for George C. Scott and it is tough to argue against that film for any of its 7 Oscars, however Donald Sutherland easily should have earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination alongside Scott, Jack Nicholson for Five Easy Pieces and James Earl Jones for The Great White Hope instead of Ryan O’Neal for Love Story. But the Oscars failed and honored a good looking heartthrob and flavor of the month actor for a schmaltzy romance instead of an actor who would end up going on to much bigger and better roles in a movie that has earned its status as a classic. This was the first time many audiences saw Sutherland’s comedic chops and he would later flex his skill for comedy in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), and a classic Simpsons episode ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’. The clip below contains some of his best moments from MASH with his signature whistle.
4. Don’t Look Now (1973) directed by Nicholas Roeg
The second film on this list where Donald Sutherland plays a father grieving the loss of his child, but this one came first and is far more memorable than Ordinary People. That being said, it is also far less conventional, especially for Academy members, and crosses over into horror territory instead of playing as a straight melodrama. Sutherland and wife Julie Christie go to Venice for work and they encounter a psychic who warns them of cryptic supernatural activities that will plague them. Soon enough strange and deadly occurrences start to take place and they are haunted physically and emotionally by the loss of their daughter. Don’t Look Now was most well known for its notorious sex scene between Sutherland and Christie. It is a long scene and the censors at the time went crazy because they thought the actors were actually having sex. That was not the case, but Nicholas Roeg was known for not being one to shy away from controversy and both Sutherland and Christie delivered strong emotional performances that should have earned them Oscar nominations. Had the movie not been classified as a thriller, they might have earned Best Actor and Actress nominations and deservedly so. The haunting imagery is enhanced by the realistic performances, making Don’t Look Now work as effectively as it does. The Best Actor Academy Award Section were filled with terrific performances that year, some of the best from some of the most outstanding actors who ever lived. Jack Lemmon won for Save the Tiger, and it would be hard to say anyone should have won over Marlon Brando for Last Tango in Paris, or Al Pacino for Serpico. However Donald Sutherland was every bit as great as Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail and Robert Redford in The Sting. He should have at least been nominated alongside his peers, all of whom have multiple Oscar nominations and/or wins. Sutherland to this date has none.
5. Eye of the Needle (1981) directed by Richard Marquand
Probably the least well known film listed so far, but no doubt about it, this is one of Donald Sutherland’s best performances. He plays a mysterious German spy trying to escape capture and seeks refuge in the English countryside with a farmer and his wife. Eye of the Needle is a romantic wartime thriller and Sutherland has never been so ruthless, cunning, and charming as he seduces the man’s wife and attempts to flee the country with vital information that could foil the Allies plans. Kate Nelligan was terrific as the wife, but Sutherland really nails it and plays the spy so cold and heartlessly the audience will forget that they should be rooting against him. 1981 was a weak year for the Best Actor category and the Academy should have easily nominated Donald Sutherland over the likes of Burt Lancaster for Atlantic City, Dudley Moore for Arthur, and Paul Newman for Absence of Malice. Henry Fonda would win his first competitive Oscar for On Golden Pond, (The Oscar voters really loved family melodramas in the late 70’s and early 80’s), a year after the Academy gave Fonda the Lifetime Achievement Award. The only actor that really deserved his nomination that year was Warren Beatty who was also the writer, producer and director for the historical epic Reds. Sutherland was overlooked again, but by now he was probably used to it.