Kirk Douglas, one of the few remaining survivors of Hollywood’s golden age and possessor of the most famously dimpled chin in cinema, celebrates his 100th birthday on Friday. Born Issur Danielovitch into abject poverty in Amsterdam, New York, Douglas, in the classic American immigrant rags to riches story (literally: his father was a ragman), overcame his impoverished early life to become a major player in the movie world, both as an actor and as a powerful, risk-taking producer.
Douglas wasn’t just a talented actor and movie star, he was a raging bull, a force of nature, who, especially as a younger actor, was often bigger than his roles.
Making his first movie in 1946, Douglas came along at an opportune time, with a new breed of virile leading man emerging in post-war Hollywood as the studio star system began to break down. Although not a method actor per se, the seething intensity and restlessness Douglas brought to his roles, often playing all round SOBs, pioneered the model of the anti-hero and helped lay the foundations for Marlon Brando and others who followed in his wake. In a near six-decade screen career, Douglas was nominated three times for an Academy Award. An acting Oscar eluded him, although he was given an honorary award in 1996.
Here are the top 10 essential Kirk Douglas movies taking in his finest performances.
10. The Vikings (1958) director Richard Fleischer. Quintessential boys’ own Viking romp with Douglas in typical scenery chewing form, and splendid scenery it is too, with locations including Brittany and the fjords of Norway, all in glorious Technirama, as producer Douglas spared no expense. Douglas plays a violent Norseman who loses an eye to half-brother Tony Curtis’s hawk, and lusts after English princess Janet Leigh. The best way to enjoy The Vikings is to suspend disbelief (Ernest Borgnine, a year younger than Douglas, plays his father, and a pre-“silly moo” Dandy Nichols is Leigh’s hand maiden), insert tongue firmly in cheek and allow yourself to be swept along until the memorable climactic swordfight on the castle ramparts. Oh, and try not to be distracted by Douglas’s blond thatch and Leigh’s brassiere, both of which should have won best supporting Oscars.
9. Seven Days in May (1964) John Frankenheimer. Produced by his own Byrna company (named after his mother), Douglas found himself up against some heavyweight acting talent in Burt Lancaster, Frederic March and ace scenery chewer Edmund O’Brien, but held his own as the army whistleblower who uncovers a plot by Lancaster’s general to overthrow the government with a military coup. Made with the tacit approval of the Kennedy administration, Seven Days in May is an authentic, absorbing and suspenseful thriller, with March playing the kind of liberal president that perhaps in the light of recent events many would welcome.
8. Amos (1985) Michael Tuchner. Douglas played Randle McMurphy in the original stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but was too old for the role by the time the movie version was made in 1975. Consolation of sorts came around with this plum role in a similarly themed television movie with Douglas as the titular elderly sports coach who rebels against the murderous head nurse of the retirement home to which he is confined. It came as something of a shock to see Douglas as an old man, but he gave an outstanding Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated performance and Amos helped immeasurably to focus public attention on the abuse of the elderly.
7. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Vincent Minnelli. One of the industry’s finest insider movies, full of in-jokes and knowing fictionalised portrayals of major Hollywood figures such as Alfred Hitchcock (Leo G Carroll) from a brilliant cast. Douglas himself played ruthless backstabbing producer Jonathan Shields, believed to be based on David O Selznick with nods to Orson Welles and Val Lewton, and seized the opportunity with relish to give a magnetic Oscar-nominated performance, losing to Gary Cooper for High Noon.
6. Spartacus (1961) Stanley Kubrick. Producer Douglas has been credited with breaking the insidious blacklist by openly hiring Dalton Trumbo who had fallen victim to the McCarthy witch-hunts, to write the screenplay. However, Otto Preminger had previously announced that he had hired Trumbo to write Exodus, and the current feeling is that Douglas’s role in breaking the backlist has been exaggerated. Regardless of the truth, Spartacus remains one of Hollywood’s most famous and impressive sword-and-sandal epics, with Douglas leading a slaves’ revolt against the Roman empire. Much celebrated and parodied thanks to the “I’m Spartacus” scene, which has entered movie and popular folklore.
5. Champion (1949) Mark Robson. In the role of driven, unscrupulous boxer Midge Kelly, Douglas tapped into a part of his own personality to play one of his most unsympathetic roles and earn himself his first Oscar nomination. Broderick Crawford lifted the Academy Award for All the King’s Men, but Champion established Douglas’s vibrant screen persona and made him a bankable and powerful star.
4. Lust for Life (1956) Vincente Minnelli. Douglas again lost out on the best actor Oscar (to Yul Brynner for The King and I) but lifted the Golden Globe for his memorably impassioned performance as tortured artist Vincent van Gogh in this superlative drama. Douglas later said that his whole persona had been consumed by the role of Van Gogh. It ranks as arguably his greatest performance.
3. Lonely are the Brave (1962) David Miller. Douglas’s favourite of his movies is a modern day Western from the Edward Abbey source novel, with Douglas as an out of his time cowboy who refuses to adhere to the demands and mores of the modern world. Still living by the code of the old West, he is hunted down by lawmen utilising modern means, led by a saturnine Walter Matthau, in a beautifully photographed film now regarded as a cult classic.
2. Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder. Inspired by real events, Douglas plays venal, resentful reporter Chuck Tatum, who manipulates the human interest story of a man trapped in an ancient Indian ruin for his own gain. Douglas at his most searingly intense and arch cynic Wilder make for a dream pairing in this unrelentingly caustic examination of self interest and the power of the media, although Tatum does get his comeuppance in the end. The film may be 65 years old, but it and Douglas’s performance have barely dated a jot.
1. Paths of Glory (1957) Stanley Kubrick. Producer Douglas brought Humphrey Cobb’s novel based on real events to 28-year-old director Kubrick and the result is quite possibly the greatest anti-war film ever made. During the First World War, a self-serving French general orders his regiment on a hopeless suicide attack, and when it fails he orders three soldiers to be tried and executed. Douglas plays the colonel of the regiment who defends the soldiers in their kangaroo trial. Stunningly directed by Kubrick and featuring a uniformly brilliant cast, none better than Douglas, whose rage and disgust is palpable in his climactic confrontation with the regimental chief as the insanity and futility of war is brought into sharp and terrifying focus.
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