Some acting careers are made by a single role. Think Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1973), Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack in the box office behemoth Titanic (1997).
A similar connection can happen on a more personal basis. You watch a movie and an actor — for whatever magical, alchemical reason – clicks with you. You suddenly remember the other times you’ve seen him or her, you want to know more about what they’ve done, what they’re going to do. From that moment, their name in the credits means something to you.
And in that great, romantic way Hollywood dream-making works, they may not even be stars; never were, never will be. But they are somebody you respond to, somebody’s who work touches you.
For me, Charles Durning was one of those actors. At the news of his passing on Christmas Eve, it came back to me that the role of his which did it for me came in 1977. By then, Durning had already been acting in movies and on TV for 15 years, and his stage career went back even further. He’d been nominated for a Golden Globe for his outstanding work in Dog Day Afternoon, as the very picture of a New York cop: frumpy, rough around the edges, and a bit fried trying to keep the Big Apple’s latest episode of Gotham insanity in check.
As great as he was in Dog Day, that wasn’t the movie where he clicked for me. It came, ironically, in a movie that was a flat-out box office flop: Twilight’s Last Gleaming.
Burt Lancaster plays a disaffected Air Force general who takes over a missile silo and threatens to send nukes flying toward Russia if the president – Durning – doesn’t publicly release a secret document detailing the brutal realpolitik thinking behind the country’s decision to become engaged in Vietnam.
Up until then, I’d seen presidents in movies portrayed as either sly old-timey political maestros (i.e. Lee Tracy in The Best Man ; Franchot Tone in Advise and Consent ), or saintly public servants pledged to the highest ideals of the office (Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe ; Fredric March in Seven Days in May ). Durning’s David Stevens was neither, nor did he fold into the later more cynical models that came with a more cynical age: the buffoon (Robert Culp in The Pelican Brief ; Dan Aykroyd in My Fellow Americans ), or the big-headed, self-justifying villain (Gene Hackman in Absolute Power ; Donald Moffatt in Clear and Present Danger ).
Durning’s president was simply…human. Smart, yet a bit naïve; understanding of the unpleasant pragmatics of the job, yet not so inured to them as to execute them without pause or regret.
In an early introductory scene, Durning sits with an old college professor of his (Roscoe Lee Brown) who has come to ask Durning to intercede on behalf of one of his young protégés, guilty of assassinating a foreign dictator. There’s no question of the young man’s guilt; Durning cannot move on his behalf. But as soon as his old friend leaves, Durning sinks into a mope over the unconfessed truth of the matter; the boy was given up to secure overseas missile bases.
A decent man but no committed idealist, chafing under the sins-of-the-father-visited-on-the-son circumstances of being asked to atone for the missteps of his predecessors, just as afraid as anybody else at the possibility of dying. When Durning’s advisors tell him his only option is a face-to-face meeting with Lancaster which could very well get him killed, Durning angrily balks. “I will not be crucified for the sins of others…period!” he declares before storming out of the room.
But there were two other moments I’ve never forgotten, two moments that particularly stirred me then, and still do.
Durning is re-reading the document Lancaster wants released; a transcript of a conversation between the then president and his advisors during the early days of the country’s Vietnam involvement (FYI: the policy espoused in the movie is loosely based on a 1957 book by future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in which he promoted the idea of fighting limited wars to avoid larger, potentially nuclear conflicts). He reads the transcript aloud to his own advisory team; the advocating of continuing to fight an acknowledged unwinnable war to prove to North Vietnam’s Soviet backers that the U.S. could be just as “capable of inhuman acts” as our enemies.
As he reads, Durning simmers, then begins to boil, his outrage barely suppressed…and then he detonates in a tirade of moral outrage. He turns to one of his advisors, a Washington veteran who’d been part of that long ago decision-making, and, almost quaking with anger, demands, “What in the name of the Holy Father were you thinking of?”
He retreats from the meeting to his private office where his aide – and only friend in the White House (Gerald S. O’Loughlin) — finds him staring at a painting on the wall, drink in hand. “My wife painted that,” he says quietly, the rage gone, his voice soft and wistful. He turns to another wall: “She painted that one the following year. She might’ve been a really fine painter some day.”
In just those few lines, Durning brings home the isolation, the loneliness of the Man at the Top, and with it, the desire to be in some other place, in some other time, the sense of loss that comes with knowing those other places and times are gone forever.
Durning knew both feelings: the outrage over wasteful carnage, and painful loss.
He was a decorated veteran of World War II: a Silver Star and Bronze Star for gallantry under fire, and three Purple Hearts for wounds received in action. He’d been the only man in his unit to survive landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Wounded, he’d been shipped back to England, recovered and was returned to duty just in time to be swept up in the Battle of the Bulge where he was taken prisoner and was one of a handful of captured Americans to survive the infamous Malmedy Massacre. The emotional wounds never quite healed; Durning would rarely speak of his military service.
And as for loss? He’d been born into a poor Irish family, one of ten siblings. His five sisters didn’t survive childhood, taken by illness and disease.
“There are many secrets in us,” the actor once said, “in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about… horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”
And it was there in those two moments, tapped and released, and I guess that’s what scored with me: their authenticity.
Call them what you will – character actors, supporting players, familiar faces – we often don’t quite fully appreciate their artistry, eclipsed as they are by the front-and-center stars. Often, they’re asked to do only one thing in a movie: be the funny guy, be the best friend, be the cuddly dad. It is only in looking at their body of work as a whole that we can appreciate the range — for some of them, their extraordinary range — and there was little Durning couldn’t do: he played cops and bad guys and dads and even, on several occasions, Santa Claus. He could go over the top for the big laugh (To Be or Not to Be ), or dial it down for a more life-sized chuckle (Tootsie), or break into song and dance (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ). And then he could turn around and wrap himself in the darkness of an ice-blooded thriller (When a Stranger Calls ), or cop a Tony for playing Big Daddy in the 1989 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was just as comfortable on the small screen, playing it heavy as Denis Leary’s dad on the firefighter drama Rescue Me, or bringing the laughs as the exasperated priest trying to corral the craziness of the Barrone family on Everybody Loves Raymond.
What struck me – and still does – about Twilight’s Last Gleaming, was it was one of the few times he was asked to play more than one note, to present a three-dimensional, flawed human being who eventually stumbles his way to the moral high ground.
In his book on writing, On Moral Fiction, novelist and essayist John Gardner stated, “Art begins in a wound.” In the deepest of wounds, Charles Durning found his art. I’d like to think that in the decades of laughs and poignancy and all that lies in between that he gave us, he found some measure of healing. He’d certainly earned it.
– Bill Mesce