Kirk Douglas 1916 to 2020

Kirk Douglas died in February this year. Recently terrestrial television screened the video of his Hollywood break-through film Champion (1949). Douglas played the title role of Midge, a boxing champ driven by ambition. Throughout the film Midge is ruthless in the way that he uses people to climb to the top. But it is not just ambition, Midge is riven with class envy. In the dramatic finale Douglas plays a boxing bout with the intensity that marked his whole career. The film’s script came from Ring Lardner and Carl Foreman and was directed by Mark Robson. There is excellent cinematography from Franz Planer and fine supporting acting from [among others] Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman. Douglas received a nomination at the Academy in the Best Actor category.

Intensity was what marked out a whole series of Douglas performances over the years. In his debut film in 1946, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, he is one of a pair with a guilty  secret; fortunate to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck at this stage of his career. As Whit in Out of the Past (1947) he is the jealous crime boss in what is the seminal entry into classic film noir. In 1950 he played Jim in one of my favourite Tennessee Williams plays The Glass Menagerie. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) saw Douglas as Chuck, the most ruthless and ambition reporter ever in a Hollywood film and one that subverted the genre to real effect.

“George Stevens, who presented Douglas with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991, said of him: “No other leading actor was ever more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul and thus to reveal the complexity of human nature.” [quoted on Wikipedia]

Then there was the fine Vincente Minnelli film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) where his Jonathan was a producer as ruthless and ambitious in a film studio as Midge was in the boxing ring. And with Minnelli again in Lust for Life  (1956) his Vincent Van Gogh was less accurate than in European biopics but where he made the agonies of this famous painter all too real. He received nomination as Best Actor at the Academy for the last two roles.

His intense physicality meant that Douglas regularly played in westerns. His first film in the genre was Along the Great Divide (1951), which featured a lynching. The Big Trees (1952) saw Douglas as Jim Fallon, exploiting the California forests and the Quaker homesteaders’. In Man Without a Star (1955) , working with King Vidor, Douglas plays drifter Dempsey. A past experience has given the drifter a hatred of barbed wire, which he treats with a savagery equal to his treatment of people. The Indian Fighter (1955) sees Douglas’s Johnny leading a wagon train and romancing a daughter of the Native-American Chief.

In 1955, like  a number of major stars as the studio system declined, Douglas moved into film producing with Bryna Productions. Accounts by fellow artists suggests that he was as intense in his production role as when acting. This led to two classic titles directed by Stanley Kubrick. In Paths of Glory (1957) he played Colonel Drax, the liberal officer confronted by the ambitious and ruthless higher command. The trench warfare scenes are excellent. The court martial and execution of ordinary soldiers is brutal; the film was banned in France for several years. Liberal values also informed Spartacus (1960) with a script about a slave revolt against the Roman Empire by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. The film  has one of the most famous lines in  Hollywood productions;

“I am Spartacus” repeated a number of times.

The film helped Trumbo emerge for his work under pseudonyms and the arguments with Douglas led Kubrick to become obsessively auteurist. The same year saw Douglas producer and star, working with Richard Fleischer, as a rather different protagonist; the one-eyed ferocious Viking leader Einar.

Douglas remained active in the following decades. One outstanding title was an elegiac western, Lonely are the Brave (1962), produced by Douglas also with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo as “Jack” Burns (Douglas) is  man, and his horse,  out of time in a west with fencing, helicopters and large fast-moving trucks.

Unfortunately Douglas, clearly with Zionist sympathies, produced, two films misrepresenting the occupation of Palestine. In Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) he is a US officer working with the Hagannah to drive Arabs from their lands, though the film does not play it this way. And in 1976 there was a TV version, among many, of Victory at Entebbe. He had already appeared in 1953’s The Juggler. A film producer by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk [with a rather different shadow on his career] actually made in the occupied territories.

From the 1960s Douglas worked extensively on television  productions and in international co-productions. The Heroes of Telemark (1962) was a world war II action drama directed by Anthony Mann. Catch Me a Spy (1971) was made in Britain and France an involved, predictably for the period, Russian espionage. Whilst The Fury (1978) was directed by Brian de Palma and involved Douglas an ex-CIA agent dabbling in psychics and telekinesis.

In the 1970s Kirk Douglas’s son Michael started a career in film acting and producing. It was Kirk who acquired the rights to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The film won five major Academy Awards, a rare feat. Douglas himself won many awards including several nominations at the Academy; but he did not win an Acting Oscar, only a Honorary Award in 1996. He is in good company there; it often seems that more of the Hollywood greats’ failed to win Academy Awards than did actually walk off with one. His son Michael has won two, but that probably says more about the modern Academy than Kirk’s acting output.

He worked with many of the modern really fine writing and directing talents: apart from those mentioned this included Anthony Mann, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Aldrich. Surprisingly, given his western output, he never worked with John Ford; [currently being re-examined by Roy]. He did work quite few times with Burt Lancaster, including Doc Holiday opposite his Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at OK Corral, 1957) and scapegrace Richard opposite Lancaster’s Reverend Anderson in The Devil’s Disciple (1959). He never played opposite Olivia de Havilland though both were of the Studio generation, of similar ages and both passing on this year, 2020.

I have seen more of Douglas’ work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was always memorable and, like Lancaster, he appeared to have been a good judge of scripts; not that many bloomers in his career. Whether he was snarling at the excited and baying audience (The Champion): smoothly charming the unwary (The Bad and the Beautiful): or agonizing over life and work (Lust for Life): Douglas always bared the soul of his character to the moviegoer.

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