cover image Burt Lancaster: An American Life

Burt Lancaster: An American Life

Kate Buford. Alfred A. Knopf, $27.5 (464pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44603-3

At the height of the Hollywood blacklist, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover received a letter telling him to ""check the moving picture Crimson Pirate because in it Burt Lancaster makes a speech about workers"" that ""sounds like a commie plug."" Lancaster's decades-long political involvement with liberal causes (and his constant run-ins with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) are a central theme in this well-researched and engaging biography, which also details the artist's acting career, his turns as a producer and his personal life. Buford, a regular commentator on National Public Radio, has constructed a complex portrait of a man who was a noted womanizer, yet also engaged in sex with men; who was kind and generous, yet often resorted to violence in his personal relationships; who was a mainstream ""megastar"" (who was parodied in Mad magazine) before reinventing himself as a major figure in Italian art films; and who broke from the imprisoning studio system and revolutionized the industry by beginning an independent production company. By carefully contextualizing Lancaster's more than 50-year career--which began in the circus and included such film classics as From Here to Eternity and Elmer Gantry--within the tumultuous political and economic changes of the postwar years, Buford's finely detailed, sensitive biography ranks among the best of its genre. (Mar.)