Rob Edelman: The “Other” Donald

Jan 22, 2018

One way in which to market a new film featuring an older star is to hype that star’s presence and performance. This is especially helpful if that star has never earned a competitive Academy Award, or even an Academy Award nomination. So the message here is: Let’s honor this actor. Let’s go see this actor in this film, and then shower this actor with career-defining kudos.

A case in point is Donald Sutherland, whose latest film is the soon-to-be-released THE LEISURE SEEKER. Sutherland has been in the spotlight since the 1960’s. His credits range from THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, a 1964 Christopher Lee horror thriller, to THE DIRTY DOZEN, M*A*S*H, KLUTE, and so many other A-list titles. In fact, in a recent 60 Minutes profile of Sutherland that appeared to primarily be publicity-inspired, the longevity of his career was stressed as well as the fact that he never has been spotlighted by the Academy. Cited was his presence in ORDINARY PEOPLE, which dates from 1980. This film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (that would be Robert Redford), Best Supporting Actor (that would be Timothy Hutton), and Best Screenplay. It earned nominations for Best Actress (that would be the late, great Mary Tyler Moore) and Best Supporting Actor (that would be Judd Hirsch). But Donald Sutherland? Nothing! And it is not that his performance was anything less than laudatory. Simply put, there was a lot of Best Actor competition that year and Sutherland simply did not make the cut.    

In THE LEISURE SEEKER, Sutherland and Helen Mirren star as John and Ella Spencer, a long-married couple. Without informing their offspring, they hop into their beloved 1975 Winnebago and head off on a road trip. Ella may be best-described as chatty. John, meanwhile, is dealing with an increasingly horrific case of memory loss. At one point, they come upon a Trump rally, and a movie theater featuring a “Make America Great Again” marquee. John enthusiastically joins the Trump crowd, even though he’s been a Democrat his entire life. What this tells us about the state of the nation in 2018 is anyone's guess.

At its core, THE LEISURE SEEKER features characters who exist in a world in which they are casually written off, just because they are senior citizens. For after all, in our contemporary culture, all seniors are old and addled. All are fossils of the past. All are to be laughed at. And so, at its best, the film works as a sobering look at old age in our modern age, and a portrait of our world in 2018: a time in which history has become ever-so irrelevant. With this in mind, appearing briefly onscreen is Dick Gregory, cast as Ella’s long-ago beau. One only can wonder: How many recognized his name last year, upon the announcement of his passing?  

Dramatically-speaking, THE LEISURE SEEKER is by-the-numbers. Its storyline is repetitive and way-too predictable. It is uninspired cinematically. But its view of old age is telling and, while it is a pleasure to savor the presences of its stars, THE LEISURE SEEKER is not going to earn Donald Sutherland a competitive Oscar. Happily, however, it has been announced that he is receiving an honorary one, for career achievement. One only can congratulate this Donald for a job-- and a career-- well-done!

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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