On the High Wire with Kirk Douglas

Features — Feb 24, 2020

“Look, Rose, find someone who isn’t sick. The ground’s covered with them.”

Kirk Douglas in The Story of Three Loves

Kirk Douglas’s casual mode is a look of anguished alertness. He has as an inbuilt ability to register tension, anxiety, and anger even in repose. It’s in the masklike sculptural planes of his face, the burning eyes, the pinpoint cleft in his chin, and the equally sculpted torso, and it makes him an improbable human being. He is routinely on edge, an inch away from hysteria, registering urgency whether infused with righteousness or venality, poised on that edge, wrathful, seething even or especially when smiling. Everything he’s feeling is on the surface or near enough to radiate a charge, a threat, a prelude to violence. My friend Jim Robison, another Douglas admirer, notes: “Almost like Kinski, he seems physiologically made for epic movies and epic emotions and unable to play Mr. Anybody, Mr. Average, a guy.” Consider Jimmy Stewart (born in 1908, eight years before Douglas) and William Holden (born less than two years after), long-term Hollywood megastars who, in their respective primes, could convincingly enact feverishness and degradation but whose predominant gifts allowed them to masquerade as ordinary men. It’s hard to imagine either sharing a film, even a frame, with Kirk Douglas in overdrive.

You can say he embodied the vibrating, undisguisable sense of suppressed panic that characterized the fifties and early sixties, before the counterculture invited a more open style of acting and of being and, alongside this, a more subversive notion of heroism. In the late sixties he began to seem inescapably obvious, uncool. Michael Douglas, his own son and near-doppelgänger, bypassed him when producing the film adaptation of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), handing Jack Nicholson the coveted role Kirk had played onstage. (How could Douglas compete with Nicholson’s seductive sarcasm, his lethally relaxed aggression?)

Douglas was authentically savage, raging, tormented. David Thomson aptly called him Dostoyevskian in his capacity to express agony and anguish, to reliably play out escalating stages of a nervous breakdown. In time this could seem stale, strained. There was little peace or grace in him, but rather an athlete’s charged receptivity to action, to sheer intensity. He was like a racehorse unable to simply walk. 

But have you seen The Story of Three Loves? (A three-part MGM anthology film from 1953, in opulently shadowed Technicolor. “This,” the trailer tells us, “is the story of hearts—the strong, the gentle, the demanding, the generous.”) Douglas stars as a death-defying, death-haunted trapeze artist in Equilibrium, the most neurotic/erotic episode. In the scenes on the high wire, you feel his unique physical assurance, strength, courage. In the lines of his body and the coiled, glittering quality in his eyes. These scenes are thrillingly well done. The camera keeps a graceful distance, the soundtrack is emptied of music. You hear the clicking and knocking of ropes, the trapeze, the knock and click and the sense of open air that bodies can fall into, the unmistakably fatal open space. (Gottfried Reinhardt is the film’s director. My memory tells me Douglas did his own stunts. He convinces you that he’s doing his own stunts.) 

The story opens with Douglas rescuing a young woman, Pier Angeli, from drowning in the Seine, a suicide attempt. In time, she’ll become his apprentice and lover. He recruits her because he understands she has no fear; she’s in despair, feels she has nothing to lose. When he visits her in the hospital, their future is projected in what isn’t directly expressed. The dialogue is chiseled and spare in the manner of Hemingway, except Hemingwayesque dialogue in movies is seldom so convincing, so strong. 

In a weak voice, she describes the ski jump at Innsbruck: “It was so green and fresh all summer, and in the winter deep snow.”

“Were you good at it?” he asks.

 “They said so. What does it matter?”

“You don’t look very big or strong.”

“It’s balance and timing and not being afraid of it.”

He looks quietly thrilled, and registers agreement.

“Yes,” he repeats, “balance and timing.” He’s in love—or has he simply discovered a willing accomplice and victim? Maybe this is what moves me about this particular, relatively obscure performance—it’s rare to see Kirk Douglas in love, to even suspect that love is a possibility for him. For all the intensity and torment, his emotions were seldom scaled to intimacy. Here, somehow, in a series of quiet scenes, balanced between his awakening excitement and the woman’s despair, he reaches a true height, registering uncertainty and longing. It’s a performance to set aside, and marvel at, among the many hours of rarefied feeling this actor delivered across an astonishing span of roles and years.

Thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum, who introduced me to The Story of Three Loves in his DVD-crammed Chicago apartment six years ago.

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