by Glenn Lovell
Happy B’day, Centennial Boy!
Is it possible? Kirk Douglas — along with swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and frequent costar Burt Lancaster one of Hollywood’s most charismatic and physical leading men — turned 100 years young on Friday. The occasion was marked with a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where family members and friends gathered. Among those in attendance were Douglas’s wife Anne and producer-actor son Michael and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones.
For those of us who grew up on his movies — I’ll never forget discovering his debauched Doc Holliday in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” or his rugged modern-day cowboy in “Lonely Are the Brave” — Douglas was a refreshing departure from Gregory Peck and those other demure, Hollywood-slick leading men. Whether ripping into such characters as Spartacus, Van Gogh or the adulterous husband in postwar suburbia in “Strangers When We Meet,” a personal favorite, he exuded fierce animal cunning. Indeed, there was something primal about his best performances. He hissed his lines through clenched teeth, often in grim, febrile disgust. And when he moved, he was like a caged cat, instinctual, deadly. (Little wonder impressionist like Frank Gorshin loved to mimic the actor.)
Think “Paths of Glory,” the World War 1 classic bankrolled by Douglas’s Bryna company and directed by a young Turk named Stanley Kubrick. He was never better or better suited for a role. His Colonel Dax, a French attorney who finds himself defending three soldiers on trial for cowardice, is always moving — as he tours the muddy trenches, leads his men on a suicide charge across No Man’s Land … paces before a military tribunal-cum-kangeroo court.
And when a supercilious general (played by Adolphe Menjou) suggests the colonel’s actions all along were motivated by a desire for rank and glory, Dax, rather Douglas, explodes in righteous indignation.
“Sir, would you like me to suggest what you can do with that promotion?” he says, voice dripping with contempt. “I apologize for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again!”
Pure Douglas — savage, cathartic, more than a little over the top. We came to expect such outbursts from the actor and got them in “Ace in the Hole,” “Champion” and “Seven Days in May.” They became a trademark, his signature.
But Douglas was capable of quiet moments as well. His scenes with the pregnant Varinia (Jean Simmons) in “Spartacus” come to mind. An even better example: His poignant goodbye to a former love (Gena Rowlands) in “Lonely Are the Brave.” His voice now is heavy with regret. He wanted both this relationship and the freedom to roam. He sacrificed one for the other. “The sun’s still coming up,” he says, combing the horizon. “If I had a big kiss I could probably beat it to the top of that hill.”
Much has been written about the director as auteur. Some filmmakers, the theory goes, pour their souls into each new film, which therefore become extensions of themselves, their quirks and fears. But what about actors? Douglas certainly qualifies for this distinction. Regardless of the director — and he worked with many of the greats, including Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Kubrick and John Frankenheimer — Douglas transformed the material with his physicality and grim intensity.
His was an acting style that suited the postwar era when the movies were in danger of being eclipsed by television. Hollywood, down for the count, fought back with widescreen CinemaScope, three-strip Technicolor — and larger-than-life performances that built to the inevitable fireworks.
In Huston’s mordantly clever “The List of Adrian Messenger,” Douglas hammed it up as a mass killer who’s a master of disguise. Talk about self-reflexive! Here was a postmodern turn before we knew such a thing existed.
Of course, everything changed in the counterculture ’60s, when Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman arrived. The so-called New Hollywood wanted warts-and-all naturalism, not showy star turns. Douglas’s work in DePalma’s “The Fury” and Stanley Donen’s “Saturn 3” felt dated, narcissistic (he showers with Farrah-Fawcett in the latter) … out-of-sync with the zeitgeist. Though son Michael held the rights to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the screen role — and Oscar — went to Jack Nicholson, not Douglas, a slight the actor never forgave or forgot. (Douglas played Randle McMurphy in an earlier short-lived Broadway production.)
Appropriately, one of my first interviews out of college (for The Hollywood Reporter) was with the 57-year-old Douglas, who, in 1973, was just back from Yugoslavia, where as director-star he shot “Scalawag,” a mercifully forgotten mashup of “Treasure Island” and boisterous western. We met at his then-modern-seeming Beverly Hills home, which showcased his impressive art collection.
Douglas talked about how “astronomical” production costs were causing filmmakers to flee Los Angeles to seek better deals/tax breaks abroad. He regaled his guest with war stories and demonstrated how he lashed his right leg behind him to became the peg-leg pirate in “Scalawag.” He hopped about the room. It looked painful, but, of course, was all in an afternoon’s work for the still dexterous, hands-on actor.
This, after all, was the star who had danced on ship’s oars (for “The Vikings”), traded punishing blows in the ring (“Champion”), flown through the air with greatest of ease (“The Story of Three Wives”), become a circus performer (“The Juggler”), led a slave revolt (“Spartacus”) and suicide charge (“Paths of Glory”) … and, as the rugged Jack Burns in “Lonely Are the Brave,” had guided a spooked stallion named Whiskey up a treacherous New Mexico mountain.
My favorite Douglas movies: “Champion,” “Young Man with a Horn,” “Ace in the Hole,” “The Vikings,” “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” “Lonely Are the Brave,” “Strangers When We Meet,” “Lust for Life,” “The List of Adrian Messenger,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Brotherhood,” and, in a role originally meant for Brando, “The Arrangement.”
For an in-depth discussion of Douglas’s work in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “Last Train from Gun Hill,” check out “Escape Artist,” my biography of John Sturges.