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Cover image for Burt Lancaster : an American life
Burt Lancaster : an American life
1st edition.
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, [2000]
Physical Description:
ix, 447 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
The Set-Up 1913-1945 -- New York City Boy -- The Daring Young Man -- The Play 1945-1960 -- Discovery -- Taking Charge of the Asylum -- The Hero Business -- Zenith -- A Cookie Full of Arsenic -- The Fall -- The Payoff 1960-1990 -- Embracing the Zeitgeist -- Burying the Heroes -- Comebacks -- The End 1990-1994 -- Fade Out -- Epitaph.
The story of Burt Lancaster, the star of such films as Sweet smell of success, Elmer Gantry, Birdman of Alcatraz, The swimmer, Atlantic City, From here to eternity, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Judgment at Nuremberg, The leopard, 1900, and Field of Dreams, from his teenage years to the "anti-Communist witch-hunts" and on through his final years.
Geographic Term:


Call Number
921 Lancaster, Burt 2000

On Order



Startlingly handsome, witty, fanatically loyal, charming, scary, and intensely sexual, Burt Lancaster was the quintessential bête du cinéma, one of Hollywood's great stars. He was, as well, an intensely private man, and he authorized no biographies in his lifetime. Kate Buford is the first writer to win the cooperation of Lancaster's widow, close friends, and colleagues, and her book is a revelation. Here is Lancaster the man, from his teenage years, bolting the Depression-era immigrant neighborhood of East Harlem where he grew up for the life of a circus acrobat -- then the electric New York theater of the 1930s, then the dying days of vaudeville. We see his production company -- Hecht-Hill-Lancaster -- become the biggest independent of the 1950s, a bridge between the studio era and modern filmmaking. With the power he derived from it we see him gain a remarkable degree of control, which he used to become the auteur of his own career. His navigation through the anti-Communist witch-hunts made him an example of a star who tweaked the noses of HUAC and survived. His greatest roles -- in Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Gantry, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Swimmer, Atlantic City -- kept to the progressive edge that had originated in the tolerant, diverse, reforming principles of his childhood. And in the extraordinary complete roster of his films -- From Here to Eternity, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Leopard, 1900, and Field of Dreams, among many others -- he proved to be both a master of commercial movies that pleased a worldwide audience and an actor who pushed himself beyond stardom into cinematic art. Kate Buford has written a dynamic biography of a passionate and committed star, the first full-scale study of one of the last great unexamined Hollywood lives.

Author Notes

Kate Buford has been a commentator for National Public Radio's Morning Edition since 1994 and has written for the New York Times and Architectural Digest. She is the author of several articles on the movies for Film Comment She has two children, Lucy and Will, and lives in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

At the height of the Hollywood blacklist, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover received a letter telling him to "check the moving picture Crimson Pirate because in it Burt Lancaster makes a speech about workers" that "sounds like a commie plug." Lancaster's decades-long political involvement with liberal causes (and his constant run-ins with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) are a central theme in this well-researched and engaging biography, which also details the artist's acting career, his turns as a producer and his personal life. Buford, a regular commentator on National Public Radio, has constructed a complex portrait of a man who was a noted womanizer, yet also engaged in sex with men; who was kind and generous, yet often resorted to violence in his personal relationships; who was a mainstream "megastar" (who was parodied in Mad magazine) before reinventing himself as a major figure in Italian art films; and who broke from the imprisoning studio system and revolutionized the industry by beginning an independent production company. By carefully contextualizing Lancaster's more than 50-year career--which began in the circus and included such film classics as From Here to Eternity and Elmer Gantry--within the tumultuous political and economic changes of the postwar years, Buford's finely detailed, sensitive biography ranks among the best of its genre. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

A serious biography of the Adonis who wanted to be considered a thinker . National Public Radio commentator and screenwriter Buford gained the cooperation of Lancaster family and friends to reconstruct his life in great detail, from a genealogy dating back to the Norman invasion to his star-making debut in The Killers to his burial without a ``bullshit'' funeral. Particularly interesting is Buford's interweaving of Lancaster's performances with their impact on the American public. Lancaster's Swede in The Killers embodied the fearsome ``black undercurrent'' of the immediate postwar years; his Sergeant Warden in From Here to Eternity was the ``virile, brave, and focused . . . apotheosis of postwar American manhood.'' Lancaster's achievements as an independent co-producer (Marty, Apache, Vera Cruz, etc.) and their impact on the industry are well-chronicled, as are the anti-Communist roadblocks thrown at the New York liberal (including loyalty requirements and restricted passports) during the McCarthy years. There's lots more here on the films, including how he fought with John Cassavetes on A Child Is Waiting and was considered for the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire; yet unlike some biographies, this does not lead readers to the video store to view filmographies. One reason is that Lancaster's films'whether because they were message-driven (Elmer Gantry, Judgment at Nuremburg, Sweet Smell of Success) or genre-powered (The Crimson Pirate, Rope of Sand) or colored by his prickly persona'don't inspire devotion. The other is Buford's consuming interest in presenting a full view of Lancaster. To her credit, she makes readers think of him as a man, but given his overwhelming energy and relentless inner striving, there's an incomplete feeling to the book. As an analysis of an early Hollywood actor-producer, this is enlightening. But for dish on the man supposedly chased by women ``with mattresses on their backs,'' try former lover Shelley Winters's autobiography. (24 pages photos, not seen)

Booklist Review

There have been several books about Lancaster, one of the last bigger-than-life movie stars, since his 1994 death. Buford laudably concentrates on her subject's doings, which are the stuff of movies in their own right. Lancaster was born in Manhattan's East Harlem, a little less poor than most of the neighbors by virtue of his Irish family's ownership of the building where they lived. He attended a good high school but opted for work instead of college, partly because of the Depression and partly because of the restlessness he later incorporated into his screen portrayals. He chose to work as a small-time circus acrobat and barely eked out a living in the '30s. World War II found him in an army service unit, eventually helping entertain the troops. His good looks in uniform prompted a Broadway scout to recruit him for a war play. The play brought him Hollywood attention. No sooner did he hit the left coast than he met Harold Hecht, with whom he immediately began planning one of the industry's first independent production companies, Hecht-Lancaster (later Hecht-Hill-Lancaster). The rest is movie history, which Buford slogs through by recounting production stories about Lancaster's many high-profile flickers. She ignores what the finished films are like, relying on the odd critic's pronouncement or award citation to suggest a film's quality. Consequently, the book seems full of padding and overstatement as well as short on what it needs to make Lancaster interesting to nonstarstruck readers. Those who are starstruck, however, should enjoy, enjoy. --Ray Olson

Choice Review

A commentator for National Public Radio's Morning Edition and writer for The New York Times and Film Comment, Buford has produced the second major biography of Lancaster. Gary Fishgall covers much of the same material in Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster (CH, Jun'96), but Buford's book is the better of the two. Not only did she interview more of the people important to Lancaster's life and career than Fishgall did, but her writing style is more graceful than his. Lancaster's long career as a movie star began in 1946 in the noir film The Killers. His last major film was Atlantic City, directed by Louis Malle. Between these two landmark films he appeared in such films as From Here to Eternity, Elmer Gantry, and The Swimmer, and in European productions such as Visconti's The Leopard and Bertolucci's 1900. In the 1950s he established a production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, to produce independent films and was successful both financially and artistically. Lancaster was the star of its most important film, The Sweet Smell of Success. Buford includes notes, photographs and stills, and filmographies of Lancaster's films, Hecht-Lancaster/Hecht-Hill-Lancaster films without Lancaster in the cast, and television movies and miniseries. Recommended for all film and popular culture collections. W. K. Huck; Idaho State University

Library Journal Review

Buford, a National Public Radio commentator, has written the definitive biography of the enigmatic Burt Lancaster. Though Lancaster never authorized a biography in his lifetime, Buford was able to gain the cooperation of his family, colleagues, and friends as well as make excellent use of printed and film resources. She traces Lancaster's life from its meager beginnings in East Harlem to his circus career, his role in the 1946 film noir classic The Killers, and the great success that followed for decades. Buford insightfully presents Lancaster as more than a great star; he was also a man of contradictions, sexuality, intellect, and anger. In addition, she analyzes all Lancaster's film appearances, his work as leader of a Hollywood production company, and his political activities during and after the McCarthy era. Of particular note is Buford's ability to capture the social climate in all of the diverse periods of Lancaster's life and career. Recommended for academic and public libraries; highly recommended for all film collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/99.]--Lisa N. Johnston, Sweet Briar Coll. Lib., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 3
Part 1 The Set-Up 1913-1945
Chapter 1 New York City Boyp. 11
Chapter 2 The Daring Young Manp. 28
Part 2 The Play 1945-1960
Chapter 3 Discoveryp. 59
Chapter 4 Taking Charge of the Asylump. 83
Chapter 5 The Hero Businessp. 101
Chapter 6 Zenithp. 133
Chapter 7 A Cookie Full of Arsenicp. 169
Chapter 8 The Fallp. 185
Part 3 The Payoff 1960-1990
Chapter 9 Embracing the Zeitgeistp. 199
Chapter 10 Burying the Heroesp. 262
Chapter 11 Comebacksp. 299
Part 4 The End 1990-1994
Chapter 12 Fade Outp. 339
Epitaphp. 345
Filmographyp. 347
Notesp. 361
Selected Bibliographyp. 421
Acknowledgmentsp. 431
Indexp. 433