In Memory of Donald Sutherland – Top 10 Greatest Performances

TOP 10 – From The Dirty Dozen to The Hunger Games, here are our top picks of the performances by the star who defined the 1970s and delivered outstanding work on screen for six decades. Sutherland was a versatile and dependable actor, making each role unforgettable. His characters were always authentic and captivating. Let’s revisit his most memorable performances that left a lasting impact on cinema.



Donald Sutherland, who passed away at 88, viewed his career humbly. “I’m somebody… [who] pursued the creative process within myself as vigorously as I could,” he said in 1993. “And found it a huge amount of fun and a great pleasure.”

Our pleasure was immense: Few actors of his generation were so reliable in such a variety of roles and genres. Nearly every obituary will note that while Sutherland received an honorary Oscar in 2017, he never got an Oscar nomination, highlighting the Academy’s consistent (and shameful) oversight of the subtle versatility he brought to his myriad roles. Just because they didn’t see it didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

In his honor, we’ve put together a list of Sutherland’s 10 finest performances. Sadly, this meant leaving out terrific work in literary adaptations (Pride & Prejudice) and nuanced sports biopics (Without Limits). So let our 10 choices merely serve as a starting point into a dynamic legacy—definitely don’t let it be the end. Indeed, there are plenty more gems from a character actor who gave so much to his art by always insisting on doing the simplest, most honest work he could.



  1. MASH (1970)


Robert Altman’s first masterpiece was infamous for the disagreements between its two stars, Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland. The duo played Trapper John McIntyre and Hawkeye Pierce, U.S. surgeons trying to stay sane while stitching up wounded soldiers during the Korean War. Gould eventually reconciled with Altman, making several films together, but for Sutherland, the feud prevented any future collaboration. Despite this, Sutherland is terrifically caustic as Trapper John’s partner in crime, endlessly cracking snide, wry jokes about the military’s stupidity and the war’s senselessness. Sutherland once mentioned that Alan Alda, who played the character on the long-running TV show, thanked him for giving him his career.



  1. Don’t Look Now (1973)


What does grief look like? As John Baxter, a husband mourning his daughter’s accidental drowning, Sutherland played that emotion with smothering obsession, creating one of cinema’s most haunted portrayals of loss. This horror-thriller greatly benefits from his heartbreaking turn, which registers as an unreachable emotional chasm from his wife Laura (Julie Christie) and a broken spirit likely never to be repaired. Sutherland has two moments of anguish that bookend Don’t Look Now and define this chillingly beautiful film: his pained slow-motion cries as John pulls his dead daughter’s body from the water, and the terrified look at the finale as he discovers his fate is sealed.



  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)


Now immortalized on social media because of the memed-to-death still of Sutherland’s shocked pointing, this remake of the 1956 flick remains a potent horror film about aliens resembling humans lurking within our midst. “One night during filming, [director] Phil [Kaufman] asked me: ‘Do you know what this film is about?’ … And he just said: ‘McDonald’s,’” Sutherland later told Rolling Stone. “I mean, that’s why I did it in basically one word. It was that sense of everything feeling like it was being homogenized to death at the end of the Seventies.” As a public health inspector who eventually comes to realize the menace in his midst, Sutherland personified the paranoia of an era in which we didn’t have to worry about extra-terrestrials—the Cold War and white-picket-fence conformity would get us first.



  1. Ordinary People (1980)


This Best Picture-winner contains a bevy of tremendous performances, but the one standout who wasn’t Oscar-nominated was Sutherland. That’s a testament to his magnificently understated turn as a grieving father now permanently walking on emotional eggshells after the suicide of his son—all he can do is try to serve as some sort of clumsy mediator between his raging wife (Mary Tyler Moore) and their shattered other son (Timothy Hutton). It’s a portrait of gentle masculinity—of trying to be strong while you’re falling apart inside—that will blindside new viewers who aren’t prepared for its quiet power.



  1. JFK (1991)


It’s just one scene—but what a scene it is. As Mr. X, a shadowy man with important intel regarding what really went down when President Kennedy was assassinated, Sutherland embodied the romantic ideal of the deep-state informant—the man who knows where the bodies are buried and has seen too much. Director Oliver Stone had initially considered Marlon Brando for the part, but later said, “I was lucky to get Sutherland because he’s a fast actor. And he was great.” Juiced by John Williams’ jittery score, Sutherland’s seductive exposition pushes JFK into a whole other realm of electric paranoia. Mr. X is barely in this three-hour film, but you never forget him after he leaves the screen.



  1. Six Degrees of Separation (1993)


Director Fred Schepisi had a clear vision of how he saw Flan Kittredge, the posh New York art dealer who would be played by Sutherland in the big-screen adaptation of the John Guare play. “Fred said, ‘He’s like a used car salesman,’” recalled Sutherland, who amplified the character’s oily charm and faux grandiosity—which makes him the perfect target for Will Smith’s sly scam artist. There’s real contempt in Sutherland’s portrayal, condemning the sorts of people who make money off of other people’s creativity while contributing little to society themselves—and getting rich and complacent in the process. Long before our modern takedowns of the one-percent in Succession and Knives Out, Sutherland had this kind of culture-vulture parasite in his sights.



  1. The Hunger Games (2012)


Late in life, Sutherland enjoyed arguably his greatest commercial success playing the evil President Coriolanus Snow, who rules the Hunger Games with an amused detachment. Some movie villains rant and rave, but this veteran actor went the opposite direction, portraying a man confident in his power and unconcerned by the revolutionary rhetoric of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. Where other veteran actors would slum it in a special-effects blockbuster, Sutherland radiated subtle menace, lending the burgeoning franchise a dash of class, wit, and gravitas. He was a pro no matter the assignment.



  1. Kelly’s Heroes (1970)


For a whole generation of adolescents, Kelly’s Heroes was the perfect movie: a heist comedy set during World War Two with lots of action, jokes, and very loud explosions. It’s nominally a vehicle for Clint Eastwood, intended to repeat the success of the same director’s Where Eagles Dare (1968), but he walks through looking slightly confused and the film is stolen by the comic supporting cast of Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, and particularly Donald Sutherland. He plays ‘Oddball,’ an anachronistic hippie sergeant who is permanently spaced-out and gets the best lines, most of them about his precious “waves.” Unfortunately, the shoot in Yugoslavia was no joke and Sutherland nearly died of meningitis.



  1. Klute (1971)


Jane Fonda won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the troubled prostitute Bree Daniels, but this Alan J. Pakula thriller is very much a two-hander, chronicling the deepening relationship between Daniels and John Klute (Sutherland), the detective who tries to protect her from a mysterious serial killer. Klute caught Sutherland at his most steely: Typified by the character’s unfashionable haircut, his investigator is unbending and all-business, but he slowly falls in love with this stormy beauty. Sutherland made competence and smarts deeply sexy, impressing Fonda, who wrote in her memoir My Life So Far, “I found his rangy, hangdog quality and droopy, pale blue eyes especially appealing. He also had something of the old-world gentleman about him.”



  1. Eye of the Needle (1981)


In this thriller, based on the novel by Ken Follett, Sutherland is dashing and deadly as a Nazi spy whose mission is compromised when he falls for a beautiful, lonely—and surprisingly resourceful—Englishwoman, played by Kate Nelligan. One of his most underrated roles, Sutherland’s character becomes increasingly torn between his emotions and his duties, heightening the tension and drama. The story takes a tragic turn, but Sutherland’s performance convincingly reflects the inner conflicts and passion. Eye of the Needle remains one of Sutherland’s best performances, worth watching again and again.

-Gergely Herpai  „BadSector”-

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BadSector is a seasoned journalist for more than twenty years. He communicates in English, Hungarian and French. He worked for several gaming magazines - including the Hungarian GameStar, where he worked 8 years as editor. (For our office address, email and phone number check out our impressum)

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