Kirk Douglas at 100: Tough Guys Never Die
Before Bruce Campbell, before Jay Leno, Kirk Douglas wielded the most famous chin in show business. He can also safely boast the strongest, most rugged chin of them all – stern and divited. But a famous chin was least of Kirk Douglas’s attributes. A producer, writer, and of course an actor, he garnered three Best Actor nominations (for his leading man debut Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life) and the acclaim and respect of millions in a career spanning sixty-four years. The list of important directors he’s worked with spans from Stanley Kubrick to Richard Fleischer (the late filmmaker whom he very nearly shares his 100th birthday with this year. Fleischer was born December 8, 1916; Douglas arrived the next day, December 9, 1916), from Vincente Minnelli to Brian De Palma. And those are just some of directors he’s worked with more than once.
In the dark times of the Hollywood blacklist, in which a wide array of film industry professionals suspected of communist leanings were kicked aside, with many outright barred from working, Douglas was among the first to bring back order. As producer of his starring vehicle Spartacus, Douglas fought to see blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo property credited. At least, that’s Douglas’s version of the story. But, whatever the actual degree of his involvement in the Spartacus screenplay kerfuffle, Douglas proved to be on the right side of history, a champion on whatever level he operated.
With us for over a century now, Mr. Douglas has, in real life, survived a helicopter crash, a stroke, and being the initial presenter at the Franco/Hathaway Oscars.
Known in part for a solid run of pictures co-starring with friend and fellow leading man Burt Lancaster (from 1948’s I Walk Alone and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to 1986’s Tough Guys), he also allowed his filmography to run in all sorts of interesting directions in the 1970s and 80s, turning up in adventurous genre-driven work such as time traveling aircraft carrier yarn The Final Countdown (1980), the sexually odd sci-fi Saturn 3 (1980), the live-action Road Runner cartoon The Villain (1979), and squaring off with no less than Johnny Cash in the no-nonsense titled A Gunfight (1971). And lest we forget (we can’t!), it was Douglas, with merely a harpoon and a guitar, who held his own against a giant squid in Walt Disney’s most glorious of live action productions, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) – one of the original spare-no-expense epics of the summer blockbuster template.
With us for over a century now, Mr. Douglas has, in real life, survived a helicopter crash, a stroke, and being the initial presenter at the Franco/Hathaway Oscars. If anyone in showbiz is that unkillable, we’re happy for it to be this defiant and dedicated Ragman’s Son! He continues even now to lead, with his chin.
What follows are own thoughts on our individual most important Kirk Douglas movies that we’re only now getting around to seeing, arranged from most recent to earliest of the batch. Enjoy…
– Jim Tudor
Seven Days in May
(1964, Seven Arts Pictures, dir. John Frankenheimer)
by Sharon Autenrieth
I’ve watched several political thrillers recently, most of them old favorites like A Face in the Crowd and The Manchurian Candidate. But Seven Days in May was new to me. It’s less flamboyant than those other films, and more grounded in a recognizable political climate – even, perhaps especially, this strange new climate we are living in now.
Fredric March is a principled, conscientious president, Jordan Lyman, who supports a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The treaty horrifies the more right wing members of congress, and of the military. A coup d’etat by the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in the works, led by a powerful, charismatic Air Force General, James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). Scott trusts the wrong man, though; allowing hints of the plan to be discovered by Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas). Casey agrees with Scott about the nuclear arms treaty, but is appalled by the planned overthrow of a duly elected executive. And so he risks his career to warn the president of the danger he faces.
There is a tremendous amount of leading male power on display in Seven Days in May. Lancaster is thoroughly in command in every sense. His spine is ramrod straight, his words clipped, his conviction that he is in the right utterly unwavering. His patriotism has become almost a mania, and the gifts that undoubtedly served him well on the battlefield now make him a threat to the very system he’s been protecting. As Casey, Kirk Douglas is cooler and quieter, but he still exudes the shrewdness that marks so many of his performances. Casey is not eager to be a whistleblower: he respects Gen. Scott and considers him a friend. But unlike Scott, Casey sees loyalty to the Constitution as non-negotiable, regardless of one’s view of any particular president.
Director John Frankenheimer created a thriller that feels like it could happen in the corridors of power right now, if it hasn’t happened already.
Seven Days in May doesn’t insist that Lyman is right or, for that matter, wrong about nuclear disarmament. The script (by Rod Serling) gives the president a lot of eloquent words about America’s values and virtues, but he’s a weak character compared to both Scott and Casey. In a military culture in which masculinity and the warrior ethic are primary, it’s easy to see how Scott may have come to view this president with contempt. This is really a battle of wits between two soldiers. Douglas and Lancaster both exude such force and intelligence on screen that March is largely overshadowed.
In an typical modern political thriller, the final victory would be indisputable and won in ways that satisfy our hunger for retribution: something like fictional president Harrison Ford shoving the villain off of Air Force One while shouting “Get off my plane!” Seven Days in May is much smarter than that, and the resolution is something that might happen in the real world of Washington, where political pressure can draw blood more effectively than physical violence. Director John Frankenheimer created a thriller that feels like it could happen in the corridors of power right now, if it hasn’t happened already.
Lonely are the Brave
(1962, Joel Productions, Inc., dir. David Miller)
by Robert Hornak
Didn’t know a thing about this movie other than Kirk Douglas was in it and called it one of his favorites, so I got sideswiped by a great example of one of my favorite subgenres: the elegiac, loss-of-the-West Western. Douglas plays an anachronism, riding his horse like a laconic Don Quixote under the wide-open New Mexico skies that are nevertheless streaked with the contrails of fighter jets. It’s a world of war, but it’s no longer homesteaders vs. cattlemen; most of the world’s borders have been rooted deep by now, barriers separating an individual from his own prowling sense of wanderlust and planting him in a fixed fate of glass and steel and concrete. But not Douglas’s Jack Burns. The sight of him lolling out of the barren landscape onto a busy modern highway is something straight out of Serling – the man out of time and place.
I got sideswiped by a great example of one of my favorite subgenres: the elegiac, loss-of-the-West Western.
He’s left his self-imposed exile to visit his best friend, Paul, in the flat suburbs, only to find Paul’s in jail and Paul’s wife (the impossibly unerring Gena Rowlands) still burns quietly for the rugged loner – their affair of yore got squelched by Burns’ restless detachment, but the flint’s still sparking. The first sign of the movie’s unexpected maturity is the fact that Burns doesn’t make a play for her in the friend’s absence, but heeds the greater mandate to free Paul, or anyone at all, from the shackles of prison, the law, any boundary whatsoever. This is a character study of a man who goes to the end of logic to remain true to the cowboy ethos, even to the point of breaking into jail to help his pal get free, along the way revealing a man whose commitment reflects not so much life-won wisdom as sun-beaten mania. When Paul doesn’t want to get freed – he has people to return to once he’s done his legit time – the look in Burns’ eyes, turning toward the camera as he himself escapes alone, is a perfect mix of love for his friend, anger at the effort he made, and quiet, sudden self-awareness at his utter aloneness in his desperate need for undiluted sovereignty. The movie’s full of impressive acting, but the best of it comes from unexpected corners of Douglas’s persona, and this moment might be my favorite from any Kirk Douglas movie ever.
There’s too much worthy of mentioning for this short write-up. The last half of the movie is mostly re-focused through the eyes of Walter Matthau’s Sheriff Johnson who’s tracking Burns post-escape. Matthau is his usual frumpy curmudgeon, but here framed by his authority and the open land that he seems to command like a general, he’s a more to-heart character than usual. His eventual respect for Burns’ ability to escape every gambit is somewhat predictable, but Matthau’s soft world-weariness sells it. Such easy-going authority might be the wishful re-imagining of rule enforcers by writer Dalton Trumbo. It was Douglas, only two years before, who was the first to rip the Hollywood blacklist in two by putting Trumbo’s real name on Spartacus. Here, Douglas gives Trumbo full canvas to air out grievances – and to his credit, Trumbo does it with a combination of broad, but not over-the-top, cops and forgotten, ruthlessly-committed, but not overly-idealized, independents. The final act of the story, Burns’ Fitzcarraldo-like effort to get himself and his horse over a mountain and to freedom is the stuff of epic metaphor that, even so, ends in a fashion like the cruelest O. Henry short. I love this movie.
(1960, Universal Pictures, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
by Krystal Lyon
Eight thousand extras for one battle scene! Universal’s biggest moneymaker for ten years! Successfully putting an end to blacklisting in Hollywood! The only film disowned by Stanley Kubrick and not included as part of his canon! Spartacus is an epic on the screen, in production and in film history, and the man behind it all is our birthday boy, Kirk Douglas. Douglas fought to get Dalton Trumbo back on the Universal Lot and to have his real name used in the credits for Spartacus after a decade of being blacklisted by Hollywood. Douglas had the connection with Kubrick and brought him on as director after an abysmal first week with Anthony Mann. Douglas’ production company, Bryna Productions, beat out Yul Brynner for the rights to Spartacus and initially took on the enormous cost of the epic. Douglas put his name, money and reputation on the line for Spartacus and it paid off. But what is Spartacus about and does it live up to it’s epic reputation?
Douglas describes Spartacus as a love story: “Love predominates all through the movie: love between Spartacus (Douglas) and Varinia (Jean Simmons), love among the men; the whole revolt was based on a love of freedom, a love of humanity.” This encapsulates what I truly loved in Spartacus. The relationship that grows between slaves, Spartacus and Varinia is sweet and subtle. Here are two people who long for freedom and see each other in all honesty. And the loyalty between these gladiator men and their fight for freedom is no joke! Draba, the fantastic Woody Strode, gives up his life for Spartacus and the hope that freedom can be attained. That hope and loyalty lead to the climax of the film where all the men yell out “I am Spartacus!” in resistance to Rome’s tyranny. While Kubrick thought this line and drama were “a stupid idea” I’m glad that Douglas fought to keep it in the film. It’s not cheesy, it’s not stupid, it’s hope!
I’m thankful for the love and loyalty and sacrifice that are shown in Spartacus
Thanks Kirk, for standing up for writers and directors that were outcasts. Thanks for making a blockbuster movie about the abolition of slavery during the Civil Rights era. I’m thankful for the love and loyalty and sacrifice that are shown in Spartacus, and the example of thinking beyond yourself. Thanks for using your name and all you had to make something that you are proud of! This is what Hollywood legends are made of! A century with Kirk Douglas is all right with me!
Lust for Life
(1956, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, dir. Vincente Minnelli)
by Jim Tudor
Well he is just a modern guy.
Of course he’s had it in the ear before…
That‘s referencing an altogether different “Lust for Life” – yet somehow it maybe still applies? The film in question is, after all, the life story of artist Vincent Van Gogh. Yet, I must admit that even after experiencing Vincente Minnelli’s work of care and precision, the rollicking Iggy Pop song is still what the phrase firstly brings to mind. Part of me remains disappointed that the song couldn’t have been somehow incorporated into the film, even though that would be both impossible and probably inappropriate. I confess to not knowing what “I’ve had in the ear before” is referring to, and I’m not sure that I want to know. But if one knows only one thing about Van Gogh’s personal life, it’s that in a fit of depressed passion, he sliced off his own ear. A lust for life, indeed. The film opts to tackle this much the same way Tarantino handled the ear slicing in Reservoir Dogs – off camera.
Anchoring the whole thing is Kirk Douglas, who gives 110% as Van Gogh.
This ornate event picture (filmed in Belgium, France and Holland – many being actual Van Gogh locations) opens with a good bit of synergy. Van Gogh’s unmistakable trademark first-name-only signature appears splashed across the screen. One letter short of also being the name of the acclaimed director of this picture, it is Minnelli who should rightly should be signing this piece. (This being a less common non-musical for the genius filmmaker behind the rise of “the integrated musical”. He’d already made Meet me in St. Louis, The Pirate, An American in Paris, and more). Although, apparently, George Cukor swooped in and did some uncredited co-directing on the film, as he’s want to do. Numerous museums and private collectors threw in so that the actual artwork could be featured. All of the most famous pieces and then some are depicted.
Anchoring the whole thing is Kirk Douglas, who gives 110% as Van Gogh. With dyed-red hair and a natural resemblance, this is where he earned his third of three Best Actor Oscar nominations. (Much later, he’d be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award.) It’s his costar, Anthony Quinn, however, who took the gold for his supporting performance as fellow artist Paul Gauguin. It’s great to see so many of the actual locations that inspired both artists’ work, and to watch it come together. But the emerging madness that disquiets the ever-struggling Van Gogh is as uneasy as it ought to be. As with most biopics, the facts of the life being depicted don’t lend themselves to a conventional narrative. Here, they don’t try to force it. Although Van Gogh falls away from his devout Christian faith that’s so effectively shown early in the film (where all the good 1950s movie speechifying is), his penchant for self-sacrifice, made evident as gave away all his belongings when he was studying to become a man of the church, eventually warps dangerously into self-mutilation as his untreatable mental illness grows. This leads to both “The Night Cafe” and his death by his own hand. The film sees this through to the end.
Yes, Van Gogh must’ve been some kind of modern guy. Maybe he never “had it in the ear before”. But we do know that he had it in for his ear.
Young Man with a Horn
(1950, Warner Brothers, dir: Michael Curtiz)
by Dean Treadway
Not being a particular fan of jazz, it’s no surprise that I’ve held off so long on watching Young Man with a Horn, an adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s 1938 novel inspired by the life and music of jazz coronet god Bix Beiderbecke, who revolutionized the musical form all throughout the 1920s before dying of acute alcoholism at 28. But I am a Kirk Douglas fan, and I’d seen nearly every one of his most well-regarded movies, and so this one stood as the lone outlier. Unfortunately, I feel Douglas is terribly miscast in the lead role.
For the film’s first half, drama is nearly nonexistent. Composer and actor Hoagy Carmichael, cannily cast as Douglas’ piano-playing best friend Smoke, serves as our narrator (Carmichael’s most famous song, “Stardust,” was written with bandmate Bix Beiderbecke’s horn inspiring its lilting chorus). He takes us on a by-rote tour of the musician’s rocky early life, and his discovery of jazz via late night peerings into a black nightclub, where the band is led by Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez), who mentors the young “Rick Martin” in the playing of his chosen instrument (among the most notable features of the film is the presence of a large black cast in a story that never mentions race as a point of division).
Young Man with a Horn stands as a disappointing misstep, even if you happen to adore the music it purports to idolize.
By the time Douglas finally hits the screen, Rick’s already being hailed as a genius in his field, though when he goes to get a job in a more squarish orchestra led by sweetie-pie singer Doris Day, he instantly finds his gifts for musical improv being squashed by a bandleader who insists on his keeping to the notes on the page. Throughout this section, it’s clear that Douglas’ gift for explosive rages are being squashed, too. He’s really given nothing to do, with Ray Heindorf’s adapted score (centered by the extraordinary horn solos by Harry James) taking over in every scene. At least he passably mimes the brass playing.
In the humdrum screenplay by Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North–two superstar scripters who did far better work throughout their careers–there’s a hint of a romance between Douglas and Day (who apparently hated each other on-set), but that’s swept aside when Lauren Bacall saunters into the movie as Day’s friend, a psychiatry student with a troubled past that mirrors Rick’s own disastrous upbringing. She says she hates jazz, so naturally, this guy who lives for music alone asks her to marry him, and he pays the price for it. But at least now there’s some conflict in the movie, and we finally get to see Douglas let loose (taking a Bacall slap like a pro) as he navigates this stultifying relationship with a woman who couldn’t be more wrong for him (it’s eventually revealed that Bacall has lesbian tendencies, in a quick but jolting scene that concludes her participation in the film).
Stalwart Warner Brothers mainstay Michael Curtiz is a long way from Captain Blood and Casablanca here. His storytelling acumen is beaten down by a tale that cannot stop stopping for a tune every two minutes (Doris Day, alone, warbles five numbers, all quite charmingly vanilla). When the music dies down a bit, the director is able to drum up occasional sweat, with Douglas’ descent into alcoholism and his frantic struggle to find a specific sound that may or may not exist—conflicts that honestly are lightly drawn at best. The film doesn’t stick closely to the details of Bix Beiderbecke’s life; even the author of the novel acknowledges her work was inspired more by the music than the facts.
In typical fashion for the period, Young Man with a Horn sidesteps Beiderbecke’s homosexuality, and slaps a happy ending on this unrelentingly grim tale that never really lets us in on the joy of playing music (unlike, say, Bertrand Tavernier’s superb 1986 jazz-centric film Round Midnight). In the end, we have to make do with small pleasures: Hoagy Carmichael’s amiable performance, and Juano Hernandez’s dignified one; some terrific New York location photography, expertly shot by Ted McCord; the lush art direction, highlighted by Bacall’s improbably swanky pad, complete with a cockatoo named Louise; and Harry James’ impressive musical athletics, which obviously take precedent over Kirk Douglas’ lead performance. In the prime period of this fine actor’s long career, which I would posit reaches from his 1946 debut in The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers all the way to John Frankenheimer’s 1964 political drama Seven Days in May, Young Man with a Horn stands as a disappointing misstep, even if you happen to adore the music it purports to idolize. At any rate, I wish a happy 100th birthday to Douglas, a true star if there ever was one.