If Cyril Connolly had ever heard of Burt Lancaster, he might have been moved to say that within him there was a thin actor wildly signalling to be let out. To begin with, Lancaster paid his dues with muscular roles in The Flame and the Arrow, The Crimson Pi- rate and Trapeze, in which his logos were what he called "the grin" and a curious gesture with his hands that was not unlike a magician's "Hey, presto!" Then, when he obtained quite another kind of muscle, he went after what he called "stretch" parts, and it was his magnificent physique that let him down.
It was difficult to believe in Lancaster as the washed-up alcoholic Doc Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba, or the malignant Winchell-based gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success, or Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, contemplating his own death and that of the old order in Visconti's The Leopard. In each case the intelligence and emotions were there, but he had a limited dramatic range, and that superb body did not go with the character. One did not acquire those biceps or that torso - an inverted triangle - by sitting in an off-campus bar-room or scavenging for sleaze at the 21 Club or living out one's twilight in a Sicilian palazzo.
Robert Stroud, on whom Birdman of Alcatraz was based, was a rabid homosexual and, in Lancaster's words, "a real evil son of a bitch", and yet the star portrayed him as hero and victim - as the hunky Burt Lancaster, in fact - and was unrelenting in his attempts to have Stroud released. Instead of inhabiting the skin of the lifer who had murdered two people, one of them a person guard, the star did the reverse, so that Stroud, in the best tradition of Hollywood bio-flicks, was metamorphosed into Lancaster.
Burton Stephen Lancaster - he had a film star's name from the beginning - was born on November 2nd, 1913, in East Harlem. His father, Jim, and mother, Lizzie, were the grandchildren of Belfast Protestants who had emigrated in 1880 and 1875 respectively. They lived in, but were not of, the slums. Lizzie was an extraordinary woman; she weighed 250 pounds and used a strap to beat honesty into her children. She invited black neighbours in for tea, which was unheard of in that time and place. Her death, when Burt was 16, left a life-long wound.
He was bookish until he was 13, when he discovered an aptitude for athletics. He took up acrobatics in partnership with a ferocious undersized kid named Nick Cuccia - nicknamed "Animal" - who, as Nick Cravat, would play mute "buddy" roles in several of his friend's action movies and was kept on Lancaster's private payroll for life. The pair joined a circus, and in 1942 Burt was drafted and saw active service with the US army in Italy. There is something rather icky about his mental image of himself: "I was always sticking up for the little guy and fighting their battles for them".
There was something unlikely, too, about how, when the 32-year-old soldier was on demob leave in New York, a talent scout named Jack Mahor saw him in an elevator. In a succession of cliches worthy of the discovery of the young Lana Turner sipping a soda in Schwabs Drugstore, Burt went into a Broadway play, which flopped, leaving him free to go to Hollywood. His first film role was the star-making part of Swede in Robert Siodmak's version of Hemingway's The Killers.
He became a top star and remained so. There were two marriages; the first was a non-starter; the second, to Norma Anderson, lasted for 22 years. Norma was an alcoholic, which may have been either partly the cause or partly the outcome of Lancaster's many extra-marital flings. According to Kate Buford, who has written as fine a showbiz biography as one could possibly expect, the star was bisexual. One doubts it, but out of respect for Norma's feelings, he delayed taking another wife until after her death.
When United Artists was set up in 1919 by Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith, one Richard Rowland quipped "the lunatics have taken over the asylum". A generation later, Lancaster was the first actor to found a Hollywood production company. His partner, well qualified to do the dirty work, was a scoundrel named Harold Hecht, and later another blackguard, named James Hill, came along, and Hecht-Hill-Lancaster was born. The company produced some good movies, including Separate Tables and The Sweet Smell of Success, but its biggest success was Marty, in which Lancaster did not appear. He was, perhaps apocryphally, quoted as saying: "Who wants to see a picture about two ugly people?"
Lancaster's life was a melting pot of contradictions, of kindnesses and cruelties, which his biographer wisely makes no attempt to reconcile. He flew into rages which left him bewildered; "Why did I do that?" he would ask. He ensured that his writers were given fair pay and yet could reduce his co-star, Kirk Douglas, to tears by teasing him about his elevator shoes. Douglas, with a perpetual chip on his shoulder, was jealous that Lancaster was easy with people, was neither Jewish nor a mere five-feet-seven, and had concepts of loyalty which Douglas admitted he himself lacked.
One suspects that some aspects of Lancaster's loyalties - to Nick Cravat, for instance, and to his wife, Norma - were little more than self-imposed ideals, not to be lost sight of. It was as if a movie, starring himself, was happening inside his head: an old-fashioned movie where the hero wore a white hat and got the girl in the last reel. Early in his career, he felt that he was losing control of himself, that he was being turned from a person into a star. The conflict was never resolved, but by his own lights he kept struggling. The battle was his essence. He won an Oscar for Elmer Gantry. As he grew older, his art mellowed and became rich; he was superb in Atlantic City as Pasco, the has-been hoodlum whose finest hour is yet to come, and in his last feature film, Field of Dreams, a movie I take down and play as one re-reads a well-loved book. In 1990, he suffered a massive stroke, was wheelchair-bound and died four years later, aged 80.
Kate Buford's book is a model of its kind - a slow read because the writing is tight-packed - and, warts and all, she has done her subject proud. There are a few gaffes, such as when she confuses Betsy Drake with Betsy Blair. And she perpetuates the shameful hoax played by John Huston with The List of Adrian Messenger. This had a gimmick in which small-part characters reappeared at the end and pulled off latex masks, revealing that they were Hollywood stars in disguise. In the body of the film the actress Marie Conmee is seen as a protestor at a hunt; later, a "woman" who looks vaguely like her, reveals "herself" as Burt Lancaster. Others - Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra - who had never been in the film, were parties to the same con trick. Venial sins apart, this is a rich biography that has the priceless advantage of a hero who never knew who he was.
Hugh Leonard is a playwright. His first novel A Wild People is to be published by Methuen next year