The first time I ever saw him on the screen was in 1952 and the film was The Bad and the Beautiful. The title fascinated my eight-year old mind. He had one of the title roles and Lana Turner had the other. My mother, who told this story for years, took me to Peoria's Madison Theater. It was a film about Hollywood and she set out to encourage me to get all excited over Tinseltown, a course she established by furnishing me with her twice-read movie magazines.
Mama and I spent the afternoon together. She piqued my interest by telling me we would be spending the day by ourselves... no ill-tempered father, no bratty brother. She further reeled me in with lunch at my favorite downtown cafeteria, just across the street from the theater. She was crazy about Lana Turner and I was pretty loony on another actress from the film, Gloria Grahame. This was going to be fun.
What I didn't reckon on was Kirk Douglas. It's possible I saw him in some movie magazine layouts but I had yet to see him on the screen. Though Turner was top-billed in the film, it was Douglas all the way... growling, snarling, slapping, punching... mean to the bone. That was the beginning of my Kirk Douglas saga and I suspect I haven't missed five of his films from the 40s to the late 60s.
Never one to turn away from a movie star autobiography, I couldn't wait to read Douglas' The Ragman's Son in 1988. I felt I learned a lot about him, even suspecting I spotted a bit of gentleness in him at times. He was born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York. After his Russian Jewish parents were in America for a short while, they changed their last name to Demsky and for years Douglas was known as Izzy Demsky. He had six sisters and the family was quite impoverished. He suffocated through his early childhood and spent most of it wanting to make a quick exit. He said he wanted to be an actor from the time he read a poem in kindergarten and was sucker-punched by the applause. By the time he appeared in some plays in high school, he knew he was good and wanted acting to be his dream-come-true. He never looked back.
He was awarded a scholarship at Manhattan's American Academy of Dramatic Arts where Lauren Bacall (then Betty Joan Perske) and he dated for awhile. She developed a terrible crush on him but at eight years his junior, there wasn't much hope. Another classmate was Diana Dill whom Douglas would marry. In short order, however, Bacall would be instrumental in Douglas' Hollywood start.
First, however, came the Navy, which was ever-present for three years, until he was medically discharged. One thing I have always liked about Douglas is his voice, which was emotional without being whiny and clear and full of passion. Obviously those in radio found something appealing as well because he began appearing on radio, including commercials. His first stage work was replacing Richard Widmark in a role... and then Bacall came calling again.
She was acquainted with producer Hal Wallis and knew that he was looking for an unknown to play Barbara Stanwyck's weak, alcoholic husband in the film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). I expect it was the first and last time birthday boy would play a weakling. Considering I had seen him in The Bad and the Beautiful and a few other films before I saw Martha, I found this role most unusual. Let's face it, he could be as explosive in his acting as she was, but who knew in 1946? Well, he did, and he would put it to good use by the end of the decade.
He supported Van Heflin in Martha and would support others in the majority of his 40s films... all very effectively. He was chilling in his first villainous role, supporting Mitchum in the exquisite noir, Out of the Past (1947). The first of his six theatrical pairings with Burt Lancaster came in 1948's I Walk Alone, as a casino owner who double-crosses his partner.
The Walls of Jericho (1948) had him as a politician whose wife wants to fool around with his best friend. He was fourth-billed after Cornel Wilde, Linda Darnell and Anne Baxter. I just reviewed A Letter to Three Wives (1949) so we won't retrace those steps except to add this is one of the nicest characters Douglas would ever play. It would also be a rare comedic turn and he superbly pulled it off. Too bad he didn't do more this well. The truth is the majority of his future comedies were all pretty weak.
And then everything changed. He was given the starring role in Champion (1949) playing a boxer who misses stepping on no one on his rise to the top. A sports film historian said Douglas shows great concentration in the ring. His intense focus on his opponent draws the viewer into the ring. Perhaps his best characteristic is his patented snarl and grimace... he leaves no doubt that he is a man on a mission. When I got around to seeing Champion, Douglas scared me. Boy oh boy, could he play vicious. This was the first of his three Oscar nominations.
The truth is... Kirk Douglas always scared me. This was a man who could go off. I knew that one real well with my own resident, dangerous, control freak. I called him Dad. Douglas scared me like my father did but he was on a movie screen, not standing over me, and I moved through it easily and his acting excited me. I was still pretty young when I suspected that much of what Douglas did wasn't acting at all or at least not in the traditional sense. He inhabited the skin of other characters but Kirk Douglas, or parts of him, is what we were seeing up on that screen, looking larger and fiercer than life. Some actors one would have to coax fury from them in order to be persuasive in a particular part but in Douglas one gets the sense that his fury needed to be toned down. Did anyone ever really say Kirk, give me more? Let's face it, Kirk Douglas could do less and we'd still clearly get his message.
Over the years I suspect this is a man who's had issues... control, both self-control and a need to control, temperament, so on. There is an angst attached to it all and he brings this to his characters. Couldn't you tell that there was always something in him just busting to get out? Hasn't he probably always had a need to act out? One wonders how many stories there must be in his personal life to attest to this. It is probably fortunate that he chose acting as a way to work out his rage which went all the way to days as the ragman's suffocated son. This man could work a person, work a room, pontificate, charm, rage, howl at the moon, howl at most anyone. I have always loved the purity of his work, the authenticity, secure in the knowledge that he always righted himself on the screen. He mesmerized me. I respected him and yet I am not sure that I could say I ever liked him. Not really. Did he want to be liked?
Champion was followed by Young Man with a Horn (1950), a decent successor. He had almost the same energy level as a boxer that he would for his trumpet-playing Rick Martin (fashioned on real-life trumpet whiz kid, Bix Beiderbecke) who wants to keep his work and his life all very low-key. Doris Day helps, Lauren Bacall doesn't. In real-life it was apparently the other way around. He and Bacall, of course, were fast friends but Douglas and Day didn't quite see eye-to-eye.
The following year, 1951, Douglas rode the wave of success even higher with two films, Ace in the Hole and Detective Story. The former, also known as The Big Carnival, took a few years to hit its stride but it has now been well-regarded for years. Detective Story was a one-two punch at the very beginning and to this day is remembered as one of Douglas' finest roles.
Ace in the Hole concerned a disgraced, utterly cynical reporter who walks over everyone to get what he wants, a twin to his boxer in Champion. Director-writer Billy Wilder's cynicism comes full frontal by showing how the gullible public can be manipulated by the press. Douglas and Jan Sterling are both superb in a tale of a reporter who embellishes a story about a man trapped in a cave.
Detective Story is very much like a filmed play in that most everything takes place in a police precinct. Still another character who tramples over everyone in his path, this William Wyler-directed screenplay gives Douglas one of his best roles ever as a cop obsessed with putting away an abortionist. It is amazing that he was not Oscar-nominated for this role although two actresses, Eleanor Parker and Lee Grant, deservedly were.
When noting Champion, Ace in the Hole and Detective Story, among many others, one sees that at the center of Douglas performances is anger. And when he's pissed off, watch out...stealth-like, pulsating temples, eyes that look like those one sees in the darkness of an alley, dangerous, predatory.
In 1951 he and Diana Dill divorced and Douglas played the field, capturing a lot of media attention. He received his second Oscar nomination for his killer shark of a movie producer in The Bad and the Beautiful and was rightly disappointed when he didn't win and that Gary Cooper (for High Noon) did.
While making the episodic The Story of Three Loves (1953), he worked with and enjoyed a romance with Italian actress, Pier Angeli. While he was in a Mediterranean frame of mind, he undertook the title role in Ulysses (1954). Co-starring with Anthony Quinn (for the first of three times), Silvana Mangano and Rossana Podesta, the film received mixed reviews but my 10-year old mind was enchanted. He ended 1954 with the Disney folks and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He and James Mason were great rivals.
In 1955 he formed his own production company, Bryna Productions, leaving both Hal Wallis and Warner Brothers. For many years afterwards, he would produce many of his own films.
|On the set of Lust for Life|
In 1956 he again hooked up with his The Bad and the Beautiful director, Vincente Minnelli, for Lust for Life (1956). He completely captured not only the look of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh but also his demons. It was one of his favorite performances and I regard it as his best and his most touching. He lost another Oscar (what a shame!) but gained a new wife in Anne Buydens, whom he met in France, and they are still married after all these years.
Producer Douglas first hired maverick director, Stanley Kubrick, to helm Paths of Glory (1957). Another one of those that was not earth-shaking at the time, it has since gone on to be regarded as one of the great anti-war films. Douglas made a number of war films and ideal casting it was.
He got all excited about making The Vikings (1958). His Bryna Productions was producing along with costars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh's production company. Filmed in Germany (Bavaria), France and Norway, it was a lengthy and near-impossible shoot. The story of a slave and a prince, actually half-brothers, in love with the same woman may not have turned out to be the great visionary piece that they wanted, but it was a rousing adventure.
Douglas' work in the 50s wasn't limited to those films we've discussed. How about the westerns? Did you think I'd forget? Well, most were mere Saturday afternoon popcorn fare and some were good. He made westerns throughout his entire career but those in the 1950s were Along the Great Divide, The Big Trees, The Big Sky, Man Without a Star, The Indian Fighter, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Last Train from Gun Hill.
Spartacus (1960) was a great film and another one that Douglas, as producer and title star, had high hopes for. After dismissing director Anthony Mann, he hired Kubrick to direct. Of all the people...! The story of a slave who led a revolt against the Romans was big and exciting, long and well-written. Douglas hired black-listed writer, Dalton Trumbo, to fashion a screenplay and in bravely using Trumbo's real name, effectively ended the damaging blacklist. This is aptly chronicled in the 2015 film, Trumbo, and Douglas is exquisitely played by Dean O'Gorman. It didn't hurt that Douglas assembled a glittering cast including Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, John Ireland, John Dall, Woody Strode and Nina Foch.
|With Gena Rowlands in Lonely Are the Brave|
Douglas has often said that Lonely Are the Brave (1962) is his favorite film. It's easy to see why if one considers his character feels very much like Douglas himself, a gutsy, non-conformist hell-bent on doing things his way. His character gets himself locked up in a local jail so that he can help an imprisoned friend escape. More deeply it is about a man out-of-step with the times, born a few decades too late as the wild west disappears before his eyes.
John Frankenheimer directed a wonderful political thriller with Seven Days in May (1964). It concerns various U.S. military officers out to overthrow the president because he favors a nuclear disarmament treaty. I watched it a couple of weeks ago and was quite taken with such incisive writing. Fredric March, Ava Gardner and Edmond O'Brien were already signed when Douglas suggested his pal Burt Lancaster for a role. Douglas says he always had a good laugh after realizing Lancaster got the best part.
Much has been made over the years about the Lancaster-Douglas friendship which I suspect has been over-imagined. It's true that they made some films together... I Walk Alone, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Devil's Disciple, The List of Adrian Messenger, Seven Days in May, Tough Guys and the TV movie, Victory at Entebbe. In the various bios I've read on Lancaster, little is made of the relationship except that there may have been some jealousy on the part of Douglas. Lancaster apparently felt none. They both started at the same time and either could have played the other's roles with little problem, so closely aligned are their personality types. But Lancaster always got top billing which is always good for Hollywood rankling. Lancaster also had his own production company as Douglas did.
He finished off the 60s with Otto Preminger's all-star Pearl Harbor drama, In Harm's Way (1965). Top-billed was John Wayne, an actor Douglas worked with several times and with whom he had a bit of an uneasy relationship, chiefly due to political differences and the fact that Wayne always derided Douglas for accepting a pansy role like van Gogh.
His films from the 1970s on had a few minor hits, a few curiosities and a number of forgettable ones. In 1973 he had his first directorial assignment when he helmed Scalawag (1973) and also starred as a peg-legged pirate. In 1982 he went to Australia for the yummy The Man from Snowy River (1982). It was a dual role, one of which was also missing a leg. He also began appearing in television movies, most of which were of superior quality.
As his movie career lost some of its lustre, he became a writer. After The Ragman's Son, he wrote nine or more novels.
Everything wasn't all roses and sunshine for Kirk Douglas. He survived a helicopter crash in 1991 and had a severe stroke in 1996
The stroke almost caused him to lose the use of his voice and one might suspect this man's steely determination allowed him to continue speaking, frequently at public events. What a lot of good he must have done for stroke victims. In 2004 his youngest son died from a drug overdose.
It's also time to blow out the birthday candles so there's no time to run through all the awards and honors bestowed upon birthday boy. He received a Presidential Medal of Freedom honor in 1981. Ten years later he was accorded the American Film Institute's Life Achievement award and later that institution said he was 17th among the greatest male acting legends. In 1994 he was a Kennedy Center honoree. He never won that longed-for Oscar but he was awarded an honorary one in 1996. Take that, Burt Lancaster.
He's a little quieter about his philanthropic nature but it's been said the Douglases have contributed over 80 million dollars to charity.
He is at the tail end of the great movie legends of the Golden Age, a riveting actor, one who, let it be said, tore up many a movie screen offering memorable performances. He has long claimed a great love of acting.
Happy, happy birthday to Kirk Douglas. Frankly, I'm not at all surprised he made it to 100 years. Keep going, tough guy.
Inside another movie studio