It is no surprise that Kirk Douglas (who will be 100 in December) has out-lived almost all his contemporaries. In his greatest roles on screen, the Hollywood star has always played survivors. Whether he was cast as a Hollywood producer down on his luck (The Bad And The Beautiful), an arrogant boxer getting his come-uppance (The Champion), a seedy journalist looking for one last scoop to save his career (Ace In The Hole) or the leader of a slaves’ revolt (Spartacus), his characters have a relentless inner drive. They don’t give up. Look at any still of the dimple-chinned actor, whether in a western, a melodrama or a gangster movie, and his expression is always the same. His brow is furrowed. He is staring defiantly and very fiercely at whatever is in front of him.
Last year, in the movie Trumbo, about blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo, Douglas was portrayed on screen as a young man by Dean O’Gorman. It was a skilled piece of mimicry. O’Gorman looked very like Douglas and had clearly researched his role exhaustively. What O’Gorman lacked, though, was the saturnine ferocity that characterised the Hollywood legend and sometimes made him very frightening on screen.
“I came from abject poverty: there was nowhere to go but up,” Douglas once commented of his transformation from ragman’s son to movie star. It was a statement of intent that he never wavered from. He knew exactly where he was headed. You had the sense he would trample on anyone who got in his way. At the same time, even when he was playing heroic types, he was always keen to show us their darker, more vicious side. Look, for example, at William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), in which he plays a New York detective called Jim McLeod. He is clean-cut, handsome, popular and deeply in love with his young wife (Eleanor Parker). It’s an overwrought and stagey movie, almost entirely set in the police station, but has some extraordinary scenes late on after the detective discovers his wife once had an abortion. The all-American hero turns into a near psychopath in his rage and disgust at her betrayal. When he talks about the “dirty pictures”, he sees in his mind, we quickly realise the depths of his own self-loathing and capacity for violence. “I’d rather go to jail for 20 years than find out my wife was a tramp!” he yells at his most abject moment.
In interviews, Douglas often talked about being drawn to play dark characters rather than the “nice fella” on the grounds that “virtue is not photogenic”. Even when he is cast as principled and heroic figures – for example, when he played the French officer defending shell-shocked and traumatised soldiers accused of cowardice in Stanley Kubrick’s First World War drama Paths Of Glory (1957) – he brings a seething, restless quality to the role.
Douglas was born as Issur Danielovich in Amsterdam, New York. His parents were immigrants who had fled to the US from Belarus to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. They changed their name to Demsky. (Douglas as a kid was known as Izzy Demsky.) The actor’s biography reads like the typical all-American wish fulfilment fantasy. The ragman’s son who grew up in dire poverty discovered his knack for acting at high school. He took countless menial jobs (including a stint as a carnival wrestler) so that he could afford to get himself into college. From there, he landed a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
His big break came courtesy of fellow student Lauren Bacall who (after she was established in Hollywood herself.) She recommended that producer Hal Wallis check him out. Wallis watched him on Broadway and promptly signed up Douglas to appear opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Lewis Milestone’s film noir The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946). He wasn’t playing the romantic lead. His role was as Stanwyck’s needy, browbeaten, alcoholic husband but that familiar neurotic energy was already in evidence. Douglas very quickly landed eye-catching roles in films such as Out Of The Past and I Walk Alone (the first film in which he appeared on screen with Burt Lancaster). Within a decade, he was established as a big Hollywood star and had won Oscar nominations for Champion, Lust For Life and The Bad And The Beautiful.
As a screen actor, Douglas straddles two different traditions. He arrived in Hollywood when the old-style studio system was in its last throes and appeared opposite very glamorous stars such as Bacall, Linda Darnell, Jane Greer and Ann Sothern. At the same time, he had a febrile, introspective quality which allied him with the new generation of Method actors. In one of his most famous roles, as Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust For Life, he admitted that he “became so immersed in his tortured life that it was hard to pull back”. His wife grumbled that he was so obsessed with the part that he “came home in that big red beard of Van Gogh’s, wearing those big boots, stomping around the house, it was frightening”. Douglas had his own production company. He stood up against the Hollywood anti-communist blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to script Spartacus. He worked with the very best directors of his era, among them Kubrick, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Minnelli, Joseph L Mankiewicz and Elia Kazan.
I once attended a press conference Douglas gave when picking up a lifetime achievement award at the Berlin Film Festival. He seemed very frail. He had survived a helicopter crash that killed two other passengers. He had had a stroke and his speech had been affected. Feelings of pity that anyone might have felt for him were very quickly swept away. Even in late old age, he was as fiery, combative and as witty as ever – and he knew just how to play an audience. His eyes still had that same gimlet-eyed ferocity. Just as at the start of his career, he gave the sense that he knew exactly where he was going and that no one was going to stop him from getting there.
Kirk Douglas at BFI Southbank runs throughout September
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