2008 has seen an unusually significant amount of passings from great actors and actresses, and it gets one to thinking about those actors of a certain age who, like Heston and Widmark, might not be around much longer. Whenever these passings occur, it always reminds me that it's better to send out appreciations of people when they're still around to hear them, and with Kirk Douglas there is a lot to appreciate. A hell of a lot to appreciate.
Jesus, where do you begin with this guy? Do you start with OUT OF THE PAST, one of his first films and yet one of his greatest? It's not his movie (it's Mitchum's), but what a fantastic villain he made (good thing he never got typecast), a brilliant sleaze and perfect foil for Mitchum. He was on a pretty quick roll after that, and he churned out numerous classics for at least another twenty years, appearing in some of the best movies of the period and some of the greatest films of all time: CHAMPION; DETECTIVE STORY; ACE IN THE HOLE; THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL; 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA; THE INDIAN FIGHTER; LUST FOR LIFE; GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL; PATHS OF GLORY; THE VIKINGS; SPARTACUS and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, in addition to his acclaimed Broadway run in One Flew Over the Cukcoo's Nest, a piece of material he championed when others wouldn't. And some of his later films aren't that bad, either: THE ARRANGEMENT; THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN...; POSSE; THE FURY; THE FINAL COUNTDOWN; THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER and TOUGH GUYS, his last film with the equally great Burt Lancaster. I'm sure that most of you were aware of some of Mr. Douglas' credits, but I feel the need to mention so many of them because in the law of batting averages of performers to great movies, Kirk Douglas is like the Ted Williams of the silver screen. I listed 20 titles there and so many of them are true classics of the medium (and many of them made because Douglas was instrumental in doing so) that Douglas is certainly assured a major place in film history. But the best thing about so many of these films is how great Douglas is in so many of them; a powder keg in ACE IN THE HOLE (and one of cinema's greatest cynics), a smooth Doc Holiday in GUNFIGHT (OK, Val Kilmer trumps him, but that doesn't make Douglas any less good), the soulful conscience of PATHS OF GLORY and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (his final line to Lancaster is one of my favorites), the definitive anti-hero of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and the definitive hero of SPARTACUS, all of them distinct because of Douglas. Beyond just his almost Michelangelo-chiseled physique and good looks, Kirk Douglas had a rare combination of movie star looks and method actor's devotion to craft (along with a great taste in material), an action hero who could also think and feel, a rare thing in most movies.
Something about Douglas that I find fascinating has been his ability to adapt throughout his career, not only to the numerous changes that happened in movies when he started, but to numerous different genres and styles of filmmaking. Unlike, say, John Wayne or Charlton Heston, there's no such thing as a "Kirk Douglas movie". He wasn't defined by a specific genre, so he worked in all of them (OK, except for musicals). Yes, he did a lot of westerns, but he wasn't specifically a cowboy actor; nor was he exclusively an action star, though he did a lot of those, too. He established himself as a great dramatic actor early on with the likes of CHAMPION and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and was then able to move on to bigger, spectacle-type films like 20,000 LEAGUES and SPARTACUS, all the while maneuvering back and forth between the likes of PATHS OF GLORY and LUST FOR LIFE. It didn't bother him to play villains such as in THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER or morally dubious characters like in ACE IN THE HOLE or THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, because he was more interested in challenging material more than his movie star image. As the years went by Douglas had no problem venturing into more contemporary genres (horror for THE FURY and HOLOCAUST 2000, which is terrible; sci-fi for THE FINAL COUNTDOWN and SATURN 3, which is also terrible) and he embraced working with great directors like Minnelli, Huston, Wilder, Mankewitz, Sturges, Kazan, Frankenheimer, De Toth, Fleischer, Robson and, of course, Kubrick. He was a true collaborator instead of "the star", and the film's reflect that. And you can't discuss Kirk Douglas without crediting him with helping to break the Blacklist by not only hiring Dalton Trumbo to write SPARTACUS but also by making sure he got proper credit for it. I can't say for sure if Douglas was an actor without ego (after all, he fired the great Anthony Mann off SPARTACUS), but you can't have accomplished all that he did and made so many great films if you're always thinking about yourself, now can you?
Interestingly though, the Douglas film that I would say is my favorite (and Kirk agrees with me) is one that's all about an individualist going his own way through the world: LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. This is a wonderful film, one that not only defined Douglas the man, but the era in which it was made - the early sixties - one where everything was about to change and an entire way of life was going with it. Douglas is a modern-day cowboy who likes living life by his own code - sleeping under the stars, riding his horse everywhere, having no use for contemporary society - and when he finds himself in trouble with the law due to a bar fight, he decides he'd rather take his chances in the wild than stay cooped up in jail. This is the just basics of it, but LONELY ARE THE BRAVE is more a rich character study (written by Trumbo once again) that's clearly on the side of those who willing go against the grain. While Douglas' character isn't over romanticized (it's shown that he's hurting the people who love him by living this way), it's also clear that Douglas' live and let live code is also one of honor that the modern world no longer has a need for. Little did the filmmakers know that their timing on LONELY ARE THE BRAVE was spot-on, as only a few years after its 1962 release the world changed even more radically than they ever could have expected, so the film is seen now as the death of more than one kind of American innocence gives it even more dramatic heft than expected. But what truly makes LONELY ARE THE BRAVE so great is Douglas himself; this is a performance where you can feel the actor is so good because he's speaking his beliefs, living a character who he feels is the closest to himself and while watching it you sense that, yeah, this is Kirk Douglas in a way. I don't know how much of a cowboy he was, but there's no doubt this is a guy who did things his own way and that's what's made him special. LONELY ARE THE BRAVE still isn't on DVD (I would think that Universal has got to get to it sooner or later) and the VHS and laserdisc (which I still have) are long out of print, but if you can catch this at a screening or on TCM (it's airing on May 15 at 8pm and June 21 at 6pm), please do so without haste and thank me later. (For a series of interviews with Douglas about the film, clicketh here.)
So, Kirk, I don't know if you'll ever read this, but I want you to know that we're all still thinking about you, loving and appreciating your great work in so many outstanding films and hoping that you'll outlive us all. His spirit certainly will.