Come Back, Little Sheba
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After swooping through The Crimson Pirate (1952) with the greatest of ease and his trademark killer smile, circus acrobat-turned-actor Burt Lancaster did a complete one-eighty, following it with Come Back, Little Sheba (1952). The origins of the project are perhaps even more compelling than the parameters of the story. In the 1950s, Hollywood, at war with TV, relied more heavily than ever on borrowed cachet from the Broadway stage. Come Back, Little Sheba came with a lot of it. William Inge's hit play about a childless married couple sinking into a soul-deadening weariness of soured hopes and an evasion of frankness gave Hollywood an entrée into TV's new brand of realism, domestic in scale, intimate in emotion, finding drama in the everyday.
It also had Shirley Booth in the role for which she won Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, Lola Delaney, on the wrong side of frumpiness, hiding with a desperate upbeat manner her fear of no longer being loved. Daniel Mann, her stage director, also was making his film debut. Booth won an Oscar. Terry Moore, as the young coed who rents a room in their house and upsets the equilibrium with a libido never quite hidden by her ponytail, bobby sox or cheeriness, got a Supporting Actress nomination. Lancaster's role as Lola's emotionally stifled chiropractor husband, is not the kind of role that wins Oscars. He's a character others push off from on their way to Oscars. His nickname, Doc, is part of what's eating him. Every time he's addressed by it, he hears reproach. His shotgun wedding to a pregnant Lola forced him to drop out of medical school and settle for not becoming a "real" doctor. It also has turned his life into a lifelong struggle with alcoholism.
At first Hollywood wondered why Lancaster sought the role of such a recessive character, a loser. Part of the reason was that the '50s were a time of repression, and Doc slotted neatly and credibly into the zeitgeist. Lancaster was a complex man. As an actor he was largely self-taught in a period when his postwar competition came from the star pupils of New York's Actors Studio and Neighborhood Playhouse - Jimmy Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando (to whom he lost the Stanley Kowalski role in the stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire). Booth shushed disparagers of Lancaster by recalling him phoning her at 3 a.m. with questions about a scene and predicted that one day he'd be a great actor. Lancaster later said Booth was the greatest actress he'd ever worked with.
She made the jump from stage to screen look easy, scoring most of Lola's points with nervous fluttering, a too-eager-to-please manner, and too many smiles at odds with the panic in her eyes. Lancaster, by contrast, plays Doc as a man who has imploded. Except for one scene when he falls off the wagon, he's impeccably polite, but almost frighteningly remote. Repeatedly, he tells Lola that despite the loss of their infant, they can't be imprisoned in the past; that they've got to move on. Yet even though she keeps dreaming of their lost little dog that gives the play and film its title, he's the one who seems stuck, immobile. The catalyst for possibly breaking their ice-jam is another new surrogate daughter -- Moore. She looks like one of the Archie comics crowd, but Inge's take on her (and screenwriter Ketti Frings', and Moore's) is more sophisticated than that. Moore's Marie may look the innocent, and behave like it, but she's more complex, too self-aware to be out of touch with her own sexual appetites, or to do something about satisfying them. Before she says yes to the nice young man she's stringing along at home, she means to sow a few wild oats with a coarse, self-satisfied but undeniably virile BMOC (Richard Jaeckel, who went on to a long career playing mostly bad guys). Her presence and the traces of scent she leaves behind after bathing, awaken long-dormant feelings in Doc. He of course is too repressed to take them beyond anything more than fatherly solicitude, or grumpy curtness when she gets too close for his comfort level. The terrifying thing about her is not her wantonness, but the unerring bourgeois calculus that governs her choice of eventual mate.
Besides, Lancaster is on to something in himself. He made affecting contact with the passive side of a mob hit target in his breakthrough film, The Killers (1946), and with the downward spiral of the railroaded athletic great in Jim Thorpe - All American (1951). He crumbles well, obviously sensed it early on, and used it when appropriate. He also projects emotional remoteness well, here most tellingly when Booth harmlessly remarks that she's pooped, and he coldly replies, "Don't use that word, Honey. It seems vulgar," drawing psychic blood by reminding his wife of the social gulf between them. During the shoot, Booth once told him, "Burt, once in a while you hit a note of truth and you can hear a bell ring. But most of the time I can see the wheels turning and your brain working."
Think ahead to Lancaster's etched-in-acid caricature of Walter Winchell in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and you realize the most frightening thing about the powerful gossip columnist wasn't his viciousness, but his coldness. Think about the connection between his self-smothered Doc in Come Back, Little Sheba, his victim in The Killers, his study in decline of Jim Thorpe, his patient lifer in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and his aging small-time mobster obsessed with Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City (1980), and it becomes clear that this side of Lancaster's complex screen persona achieves something few American actors do as they recycle their star personas year after year. Lancaster was able to bring us inside a man's interior life.
By Jay Carr
Broadway actress Shirley Booth won both a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Award for her portrayal of a slatternly housewife in William Inge's play Come Back, Little Sheba (1950). She recreated the role of Lola Delaney in the film version of Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), and won an Academy Award® for her performance. It was an impressive film debut for Booth. And equally impressive was Burt Lancaster's performance as Lola's defeated alcoholic husband, Doc, which for the first time gave him credibility as a serious actor.
Inge's "kitchen sink" drama explores the troubled marriage and faded dreams of a middle-aged couple, which reach a crisis when a sexy young student becomes a boarder in their home. Booth was 45 when she made the film, about the same age as her character. Lancaster was a young 39, virile and physically fit. A former circus acrobat, Lancaster had played mostly action heroes since his film debut in The Killers (1946). His latest film, The Crimson Pirate (1952), was a swashbuckler, starring Lancaster as an athletic buccaneer. According to Lancaster, he begged producer Hal Wallis for the chance to play Doc. Other sources say it was director Michael Curtiz, who had worked with Lancaster in the biographical film, Jim Thorpe -- All-American (1951) who suggested him for the role. (Thorpe was a Native American star athlete whose life was ruined by alcoholism.) Wallis liked the idea of casting Lancaster in Come Back, Little Sheba for box office insurance, but the producer wasn't sure Lancaster could handle the role. Lancaster offered to test for the part, and did so, wearing no makeup and a frumpy suit, his hair plastered down.
Once cast, Lancaster threw himself into the role, wearing sloppy clothes, padding, and unflattering makeup, and adopting a shuffling, stooped walk. The normally confident actor was somewhat in awe of the stage-trained Booth. According to Kate Buford's biography, Burt Lancaster, An American Life, he was so immersed in the character that he would call Booth at three in the morning to explain a scene to him. "Don't sell him short," Booth told someone who had scoffed at Lancaster as "a gymnast." "One day he'll be a great actor." Booth herself had some problems on the film. She had played the part so many times on the stage that it was an effort to tone down her theatrical performance and stage gestures for the film.
In the end, their efforts paid off. Booth received rave reviews, and while there were a few swipes at Lancaster ("Burt Lancaster, far outside his normal range of habits, manages to give off an air of infinite repose, like a statue of Lincoln in a public park," according to the New Leader), most were pleasantly surprised. John McCarten wrote in the New Yorker, " To my astonishment and delight...a man I've always associated with the acrobats...is highly effective." Lancaster's tongue-in-cheek comment was, "Alas, for the first time since I can remember, I was called on to really act. Bear with me." But he was proud of his achievement, and of what he called "extraordinarily interesting reviews for the first time." For much of his career, Lancaster would continue to show his versatility, alternating between crowd-pleasing action roles, and the serious performances that would win him an Academy Award for Elmer Gantry (1960), and nominations for From Here to Eternity (1953), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and Atlantic City (1980).
Making his debut as a film director on Come Back, Little Sheba was Daniel Mann, who had directed the stage version. Mann would go on to direct such films as The Rose Tattoo (1955), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), and Our Man Flint (1966). Terry Moore, who usually played ingénues or sexpots, was cast as the student who disrupts the lives of Lola and Doc in Come Back, Little Sheba. It was the best performance of a mediocre career, and earned her an Academy Award® nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Editor Warren Low was also nominated for his work.
Director: Daniel Mann
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Ketti Frings, based on the play by William Inge
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editor: Warren Low
Costume Design: Edith Head
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead, Hal Pereira
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Burt Lancaster (Doc Delaney), Shirley Booth (Lola Delaney), Terry Moore (Marie Buckholder), Richard Jaeckel (Turk Fisher), Philip Ober (Ed Anderson), Lisa Golm (Mrs. Coffman), Walter Kelley (Bruce).
BW-96m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri