Over on BBC 2, in an excellent Face to Face, Jeremy Isaacs interviewed the film actor Kirk Douglas, now 77, but considerably more vigorous than your average 25- year-old and, apparently, without recourse to skin creams. His third novel is out next year and he said he was working on the second volume of the autobiography. Meanwhile, he could spare 40 minutes to punch Isaacs' questions back where they came from. 'What makes a great movie star? Acting ability or star quality?' 'Why do you give me those two choices? What about luck?'
Douglas was a great choice for the Face to Face format. After all - what a face. He looked like he'd just broken loose from a Greek frieze. Plastered nightly with anti- ageing complex, most big American stars of Douglas's age have a slightly queasy, melted-plastic look. None of that nancy Hollywood primping for Kirk, though. The close-up of his profile revealed some nasal hair and an untrimmed sprig between the eyebrows. While Isaacs probed the canyons of Douglas's mind, we stared into the canyons of his cheeks.
The deeper etchings were clearly the result of the wind and rain of ages, but what about that fresh red scratch about two inches long, high on his forehead? Perhaps he'd sustained this in the car park outside a bar, seeing off an entire chapter of Hell's Angels. Or maybe, right before this interview, some hapless person in make-up had suggested doing something about that nasal hair. It was a relief, a quarter of the way into the programme, when Isaacs eventually asked. Evidently, Douglas had been in bed recently when his dog and his cat had decided to stage an argument on his face. In other words, the scatch was another kind of Watchdog Special. It could have been a lot worse: if either of those animals had fallen into one of the crevices, they would have been lost for ever. Still, this was one of a small portfolio of domestic moments the interview squeezed out, supporting the notion that, for all the tough bluster, Kirk was just a big softie underneath. After all, he did name his film production company after his mum, Bryna.
Isaacs wondered if Douglas had 'lost himself' in the film-role of Vincent van Gogh. Ordinarily, this question would be the cue for an avalanche of lovey tosh, involving the words 'punishing', 'relate' and 'bravery'. Douglas paused only to offer us the variant pronunciations of Van Gogh: the American ('Van Go') and a Dutch-flavoured version which sounded like somebody spitting out a cactus. Then he gave us what he said was his standard line on this: 'I was not lost in the part. You were lost in the part. I created the illusion of Van Gogh, you believed that it was real.' After all, he said, if a painter loses himself, he starts missing the canvas and painting all over the walls. Incredible - an actor who could describe his work as a discipline rather than a metaphysical fairground ride.
Isaacs coped well under pressure, only losing it a couple of times. 'You called your autobiography The Ragman's Son. Who was the Ragman?' 'My father,' said Douglas. Well, it was a dumb question. Still, all credit to Isaacs for not cutting up rough and saying: 'OK, Kirk, if you're so smart, try this. If it takes two men three hours to dig a pit, three feet by four and seven feet deep, how long will it take the same men . . .'
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