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Remembering Donald Sutherland: A Venice flash that defined a true star

Remembering Donald Sutherland: A Venice moment that defined a true star - pictured: Sutherland at the 2019 Venice Film Festival
Remembering Donald Sutherland: A Venice moment that defined a true star - pictured: Sutherland at the 2019 Venice Film Festival Copyright Arthur Mola/Invision/AP
Copyright Arthur Mola/Invision/AP
By David Mouriquand
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The late actor, whose long career stretched from M*A*S*H to The Hunger Games, died yesterday at the age of 88. Our resident film critic David Mouriquand remembers meeting him at the Venice Film Festival and how one interaction with his fans defined for him what a true celebrity could and should be.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Donald Sutherland at the Venice Film Festival in 2019.  

He was attending the event for the closing film of the 76th edition, Giuseppe Capotondi’s underrated crime thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy. It was one of the last films to screen to the press that year, and the starry cast had made their way to the Lido for one of the final press conferences.  

Obviously, the focus of attention was Mick Jagger, who starred in the film and put on a bit of a show when he entered the press room. He was followed by the director and co-stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki and the great Donald Sutherland. 

My first thought as he entered went to the absence of his glorious white beard, as this was a clean-shaven Donald. There was always something about that imperial facial hair, which had come to define his look in his later years after his formidable moustache had done some of the heavy lifting in the 70s, that did it for me. It gave him an added air of distinguished gravitas that few could pull off quite as majestically. 

He answered the handful of questions directed at him, always with poise and a mischiefful twinkle in his eye. It was that trait and the way he smiled that made him such a joy to see on screen, especially when the characters he was inhabiting had a nefarious agenda. 

Once the press conference was over, I started to grow nervous. I don’t usually get too anxious before meeting talent one-on-one, but this was one of those occasions.  

This was a man with almost 200 credits to his name and who had been in the industry for more than 50 years. And his range was impressive. He was one of those performers who not only made every scene his own, but could play anything. Tortured. Affable. Lover. Tyrant. Leading man. Group player. Anything. 

I’d grown up with his output during the 90s – JFK, Six Degrees of Separation, A Time To Kill, and one which could be described as a “guilty pleasure” - if I believed such a thing existed: the supernatural thriller Fallen. His commanding presence made everything better. But my favourites, the ones I really treasured were his 70s titles Don’t Look Now and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

What’s a horror nut to do?  

Those two films remain staples of the genre for me, and knowing I’d be meeting the man who gave one of the most devastating depictions of grief put to screen under Nicolas Roeg’s direction, and the once-human who shriek-points at the end of Philip Kaufman’s classic sci-fi horror was getting me a little tachycardic.

Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)United Artists

He saw it as I entered the room, as I couldn’t hide the effect this towering figure had on me as he stood up to greet me.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe that he’d be more hunched in his older days. But this was still the handsome, 6ft3 presence I’d seen countless times dominating the screen. 

The interview went well, with the obligatory questions about The Burnt Orange Heresy to start, as well as some chat about his time studying at the London Acadamy of Music and Dramatic Art, and how he felt about being embraced by a new generation of film fans with his scene-stealing character of President Snow in The Hunger Games series. 

I didn’t subvert any expectations when I asked him about being back in Venice, as Don’t Look Now is, alongside Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice and Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove, one of the classic Venice films – one which managed to capture the distinct allure of the city, and stays with me every time I set foot in La Dominante. The place already feels like a film set, almost unreal in its beauty. Don't Look Now captured that.

The fact I was getting to interview him in Venice made it all the more special for me. I had flashes of that heartrending scene where he pulls his daughter’s body from a pond; those erotic scenes with Julie Christie which not only felt authentic (to the point there were persistent rumours that the sex was unsimulated) but had a distinct air of sadness to them, as this was a couple attempting to rebuild their relationship under the chocking weight of unimaginable grief; and that nightmare-fuel moment when the red-coated, razor-happy dwarf is revealed in the misty mazes of Venice’s alleys.

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Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now (1973)
Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now (1973) British Lion Films

When our time was up, I realised I was his final interview of the day. He wished me a good day, walked ahead of me, and headed out of the building.

There’s a mini fan zone of sorts before A-listers can be trotted off to their next event or their hotel, and there are always a few enthusiasts waiting to get an autograph or a selfie.  

I had a disappointing experience in 2017 (a year when Sutherland was also in Venice for the film The Leisure Seeker with Helen Mirren). I had just interviewed a young and in-demand star - who for the purposes of this article shall remain nameless. She walked straight past a congregation of devotees in this very fan zone, after having previously gushed in our interview a few minutes earlier how much she understood and valued fandom. A rehearsed answer which nonetheless felt sincere at the time.

Her disregard could have been chalked up to having a bad day, needing to rush to another scheduled function, or just being sick of having to talk to critics like myself and despairing at repeating a lot of the same answers.

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Understandable, but it comes with the territory. Get famous and find yourself in the rarified position of earning millions for doing a job countless could only dream of, and it’s bound to come with a few obligations. Don’t like it? Work in an office.

But she didn’t even give a polite wave.  

Nothing of the sort with Donald Sutherland. Watch in hand, as I was creepily standing about watching the scene, he spent a solid 20 minutes shaking hands, chatting, signing stills, posing for pics – the lot.  

He didn’t need to. His name and career spoke for itself, and at his age, he was more than within his rights to briskly acknowledge the small crowd, and go about his merry way. But his interactions with the people that had waited for the next Hollywood star to pop out of the building was heart-warming to watch, as he kindly and genuinely communicated with them. 

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Donald Sutherland in the Hunger Games series
Donald Sutherland in the Hunger Games seriesLionsgate

I'll remember Donald Sutherland because of his versatility and distinctive charisma as an actor, his cheeky schoolboy smile that he could mould to be either affable or sightly sinister, or even how his once tigerish-yet-tamed beard still defines scruff goals for me.

But most of all, I’ll remember that moment when he took the time to give back to fans and film lovers, marking the measure of man who not only clearly loved his craft but knew that he owed his success in part to the people that watched and celebrated him as a performer. A true star. 

Donald Sutherland - 17 July 1925 - 20 June 2024. 

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