Where does one begin? How do you even start talking about Kirk Douglas? A man who was, for the better part of three decades, both one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and one of cinema’s finest actors.
Onscreen he was often a virile, primal performer. He had a chiseled, handsome face with a chin cleft so deep you would swear his face might split in two when he grinned. Looking the way he did, there was no way he couldn’t be a leading man.
He wasn’t exactly conventional-looking, though. His eyes had a wild, razor-sharp gleam in them. When he bared his teeth, he always looked ready to eat everything in sight.
He felt… dangerous. Almost savage, at times. He and Robert Mitchum were anti-heroes before anti-heroes were cool. One could argue that anti-heroes became cool when the two of them made it so.
There was always a touch of madness desperately creeping in from the corner of his eye until it was front and center. You can’t hide that sort of thing—I’m not sure Douglas even tried to.
In so many of his best films, he was either a bit of a heel, or he was the whole damn boot. His classic film noir villain in Out of the Past, his selfish boxer in Champion, his unscrupulous reporter in Ace in the Hole, and his morally bankrupt film producer in The Bad and the Beautiful, are just a few examples of his ability to remain radiant while not necessarily likable.
He came along just before the era of Brando, Dean, and Clift, when method acting bacame all the rage. To me, it seemed like Douglas had been doing it almost a full decade before it was en vogue.
He seemed to become a star by sheer force of will. He always looked hungry, even rabid, as if nature could barely contain him.
Yet, he could do dignified too. Especially when at the service of Stanley Kubrick. In Paths of Glory, Douglas plays Colonel Dax—a man defending soldiers wrongfully accused of cowardice in the hopes of saving them from execution. The whole exercise is a rigged exercise in futility, but Dax never wavers. Not even in the end, facing down failure and returning to the front line, does he lose his dignity. You need a star and a character actor for a role like that. Kubrick found both in Douglas.
Of course, mentioning Kubrick brings us to Douglas’ most iconic role—that of Spartacus in perhaps the greatest swords and sandals epic ever made.
Spartacus was a huge movie. At its center it needed a star who could fill the screen fearlessly and unironically. In 1960, could Spartacus have been anyone other than Kirk Douglas? Perhaps. But looking at it now, it seems impossible to imagine who else that might have been.
While Spartacus may be Douglas’ most quoted and remembered performance, it pales in comparison to what he did offscreen for the film’s main screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, and for our country. Trumbo was a great writer of novels and screenplays, but in the era of McCarthyism, he was labeled a communist and soon found his name on “the blacklist.” He could still write for films, but couldn’t put his name on his own work. The political winds of American fascism made it so that he was untouchable in Hollywood unless he used a pseudonym. So, Trumbo worked in the background, taking pennies on the dollar to keep himself afloat during the Red Scare.
Trumbo was the man responsible for the clever “oysters and snails” double entendre between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis, as well as the now legendary “I am Spartacus!” scene.
Douglas was the biggest star in Hollywood. He did not need to help Dalton Trumbo. It was a dangerous thing to do. But Douglas was no ordinary star. For all the imperfections he may have had as a man, putting up with bullshit past its expiration date wasn’t one of them.
Douglas insisted that Trumbo’s real name be placed on the poster and in the film’s credits. Kirk Douglas bent Hollywood to his will, and the Blacklist came to a sudden end.
Has there ever been a greater use of star power? What even comes close?
After Spartacus, Douglas made a handful of terrific films over the remainder of his career. Seven Days in May was a brilliant political thriller. His western, Posse (which he also directed) is a cult favorite among cinephiles and due for a reappreciation. The Man From Snowy River was a lovely, if a bit sentimental, late career peak.
Many from my generation might know him best as the father of Michael Douglas. Who, as an actor and an icon, is probably 75% the legend that his father is—which is to say, pretty fucking legendary in his own right. I have a feeling Michael would not be insulted by that statement.
His father was the classic “man among men.” Not only onscreen but off.
At time when our country was flirting with its worst, most reactive instincts, he drew a line in the sand, set his toes at the edge of it and refused to move. When everyone else was sitting down, the part of the world that still believed in the concept of right and wrong asked, who will stand up? And so Kirk Douglas stood. Then we rose with him.
My god, he really was Spartacus.
Kirk Douglas died today. He was one hundred and three years old.