Kirk Douglas, the Fighter

On Film / The Daily — Feb 10, 2020
Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957)

As the lights dimmed for the annual “In Memoriam” reel during the presentation of this year’s Academy Awards on Sunday night, the matchless face of Kirk Douglas was the last to be beamed up on the big screen. Douglas, who passed away last week at the age of 103, starred in over eighty films over the course of a six-decade career, and even a partial list of the directors he worked with reads like a roll call of the top talents of the latter half of Hollywood’s golden age: Robert Aldrich, Michael Curtiz, Stanley Donen, John Frankenheimer, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Otto Preminger, Jacques Tourneur, William Wyler, and most memorably, Billy Wilder, Vincente Minnelli, and Stanley Kubrick.

In the 2014 essay that accompanied our release of Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), Guy Maddin wrote that with Douglas, “whose body has always seemed made up of a series of triangles, whose face is a sizzling griddle cake of unconcealed emotion, and whose voice is a rising staccato spiral of agony, you always know what you’re going to get, but it’s always far better than you anticipate. Burt Lancaster, with his experience as a tumbler, may have been the most physical actor of his generation, Robert Ryan the barkiest, Robert Mitchum the sleepiest, and Chuck Heston the most authoritative and bewildered, but in facial acrobatics Kirk easily takes the gold.” For the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, there was no other actor “in Hollywood whose line readings were so consistently, reliably surprising, original, memorable; they burrow deep into the nervous system.”

Born Issur Danielovitch, Douglas grew up as Izzy Demsky in Amsterdam, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from a part of the Russian Empire that would become Belarus. “My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes,” wrote Douglas in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. “Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”

Walking to school, he wrote, was like running a gauntlet as he dodged roving gangs of boys eager to beat up on the Jewish kid. These years instilled in him an intolerance for injustice and a deep-seated anger that never went away. In the New York Times, David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, recalls reading and studying with Douglas during the last twenty-five years of his life: “He got angry about anti-Semitism, about the government, about Israel and the Palestinians, about things in the Torah he did not like.”

Young Douglas performed in high school plays and odd-jobbed his way through university before landing at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. There he became fast friends with Lauren Bacall, who would eventually recommend him to producer Hal B. Wallis after Douglas’s return from a stint as a communications officer for the Navy during the Second World War. Wallis cast him opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a “lurid noir melodrama, a flambé of lust, corruption, bad memories, and murder,” as Lee Server describes it in Sight & Sound. The NYT’s Robert Berkvist quotes from a 1984 interview with Douglas: “I’ve always been attracted to characters who are part scoundrel. I don’t find virtue photogenic.”

Douglas next played a gangster in Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), which Roger Ebert called “one of the greatest of all film noirs” when he revisited the film in 2004. In an earlier review, Ebert noted: “There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.” A good handful of roles followed before Mark Robson’s Champion (1949) made Douglas a star. He plays a boxer with an irrepressible drive and no scruples, and “as a fantasy of the type of guy a woman should never fall for in real life, Douglas’s Midge Kelly is perfect,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “His wiry build and swooping pompadour are part of his hardscrabble virility. Particularly in the context of all that’s been written about the male gaze in cinema, we pay scant attention to the way movies objectify men, and Douglas was practically built for objectification.”

Women did fall for Douglas in real life, though. A lot of them. A few years ago, Anthony Lane noted in the New Yorker that he found The Ragman’s Son to be “an exhausting read. All the fights and the fallouts, the wrestling bouts, the litany of carnal conquests and contractual flareups: the carnival of immodesty starts early and never subsides.” The title of the introduction in Joseph McBride’s 1976 biography of Douglas is entitled simply: “The Fighter.”

In another essay for our release of Ace in the Hole, Molly Haskell writes that Douglas “gives one of his great over-the-top, sadomasochistic performances as Chuck Tatum, bent reporter (that he’s a liar, a fabricator, and an adulterer just begins to count the ways), desperate for a scoop, a ticket back to a big-city newspaper, who winds up in the hick town of Albuquerque.” For the Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe, Ace remains “the best film made yet about the ethics of the press.”

Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) “is nothing less than the greatest drama about classic Hollywood to ever come out of classic Hollywood,” argues Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. Douglas’s “unscrupulous movie producer, Jonathan Shields, will seduce and manipulate anyone to get what he wants, yet Douglas played the part with a hardboiled fusion of ruthlessness and romance.” Minnelli and Douglas reunited for Lust for Life (1956), “an old-fashioned and in many ways quite dated biopic, in that [Vincent] van Gogh, as an artist, now seems more contemporary than the movie itself,” writes Gleiberman. “Yet Douglas throws himself into the role as if he were tossing himself overboard.”

By this point, Douglas had followed Burt Lancaster’s example and set up his own production company, Bryna Productions, named after his mother. He was approached by the young director Stanley Kubrick and his partner, producer James B. Harris, with the screenplay for Paths of Glory, a fiercely antiwar World War I movie in which three French soldiers are court-martialed as punishment for their entire unit’s failure to carry out an impossible mission. Kubrick and Harris were having trouble getting the project off the ground, but United Artists agreed to come on board when Douglas committed to coproduce and, most importantly, star. In our 2010 essay, James Naremore noted that there was “a productive conflict” between Douglas and Kubrick, but in the end, “they fashioned a dark, emotionally disturbing film in which Douglas serves as the voice of reason and liberal humanism, tempering Kubrick’s harsh, traumatic view of European history.”

Released in 1957, Paths of Glory barely broke even, but Douglas nevertheless called on Kubrick three years later after he’d fired director Anthony Mann one week into the shooting of Spartacus (1960). Douglas decided to take on the sword-and-sandals epic, in which he plays a gladiator who leads a slave revolt against the Roman Empire, when William Wyler, who had directed Douglas in Detective Story (1951), passed over him to cast Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959). Spartacus not only gave us one of the most quoted (and occasionally parodied) scenes—“I’m Spartacus!”—it’s also at least partially credited for ending the Hollywood blacklist. Separately, but at more or less the same time, Douglas and Otto Preminger, who was making Exodus (1960), insisted on giving Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood Ten, full and public credit for writing their screenplays.

For the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver, Spartacus is “an unambiguous statement that any society founded on slavery is rotten at heart and creates its own downfall. In what was then still the Jim Crow era, it was a powerful document.” Douglas and Trumbo worked together again on Lonely Are the Brave (1962), in which Douglas plays a cowboy, a loner out of time who wanders the contemporary American west on horseback. The film was a favorite not only for Douglas but for NPR’s Scott Simon as well. When Douglas died, Simon reread the telegram Trumbo sent Douglas after the first screening. Trumbo’s words “may be the best kind of praise to mark an actor’s career,” writes Simon. “He wrote: ‘I think they are going to leave the theater saying, “That is what I really am. Or at least it is what I want to be in my finest hour.” You did it. You showed the heart of a man.’”

With the rise of the New Hollywood in the 1970s, Douglas’s star began to wane, and by the 1980s, it was being eclipsed by that of his son, Michael Douglas. Watch a clip from Dick Cavett’s 1992 interview with Kirk Douglas, though, and you’ll see a man who could hardly be prouder of his son. Michael had won two Oscars, whereas Kirk, who had been nominated three times, had won none. He did receive an honorary Academy Award, though, in 1996, just two months after suffering a stroke that temporarily robbed him of his ability to speak. 

A few years later, rumors began circulating that Douglas raped Natalie Wood when she was sixteen. The claims were never substantiated, and as Angelica Jade Bastién writes at Vulture, we “will probably never know for certain how or if Douglas was involved in Wood’s life. Nonetheless, the ways their stories have come to be so intertwined in our contemporary conversations is a reflection of how our conception of stars has changed. The image Douglas projected onscreen and off—of undaunted power and blustering machismo—is slowly going out of fashion.”

Douglas and his wife Anne devoted much of their time during Douglas’s final years to philanthropic projects, donating to schools and hospitals and building and rebuilding playgrounds throughout Los Angeles and Jerusalem. “To the world he was a legend,” wrote Michael Douglas in a statement announcing his father’s death last week, “an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard for all of us to aspire to.”

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