Should we call him "Spartacus"? Or "Champion"? Both names certainly fit the man.
Kirk Douglas turns 95 tomorrow, and he is still very much with us. (Over the past couple of years, I've spotted him and his beloved wife Anne twice in New York City, once in a restaurant and once at the theatre.)
He embodies the American Dream because he seized it with the same intensity that animated his characters on-screen. Born in Amsterdam, New York to impoverished immigrant parents, from early days he had a burning desire to perform, and saw acting as his ticket to a better life. He received a scholarship at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts, earning food money as a gardener and janitor.
After World War 2, an AADA classmate who'd made good, Lauren Bacall, pointed the talented, ambitious Kirk to legendary producer Hal B. Wallis. The actor's subsequent debut in "The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers" (1946) marked him as a comer. Kirk would rarely, if ever, look back.
An iconic star and producer in Hollywood, he has lived the life of ten men. He was almost on the plane that went down with producer Michael Todd in 1958. He broke the Hollywood blacklist by insisting that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo receive credit for "Spartacus." He survived a helicopter crash that killed two others. He suffered a massive stroke that robbed him of his speech, and then worked ceaselessly in therapy to regain it. He's seen one son become a star, and lost another to a drug overdose.
What has sustained him is his Jewish faith (which he re-discovered later in life), and the love and loyalty of his second wife. Their marriage has flourished for close to sixty years.
He holds most every award worth having, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his longstanding, little-known service as a Goodwill Ambassador for the State Department).
Though he was nominated three times, he never won an Academy Award, but was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1995.
On this milestone birthday, Kirk Douglas should know that he still commands the love and respect of his many fans.
As to his film legacy, the following list is evidence enough that like the man himself, his best work endures and only improves with age.
Out Of The Past (1947)- Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) plays a former gumshoe trying to start a new life who gets dragged back in to his old one. Via flashback we learn slick gangster Whit Sterling (Douglas) hired Jeff to recover his mistress Kathie (Jane Greer), who'd absconded with some of his cash south of the border. When Jeff eventually finds her, she seduces him, claiming she's innocent of theft, and simply escaping from a bad man. But all is not as it seems, and soon enough Jeff has to take it on the lam himself. Now Whit has called him back for a final reckoning, and more surprises are in store. Replete with expressionistic lighting, ominous atmosphere, cynical dialogue, and a sizzling femme fatale, Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" is quintessential film noir. In a star-making performance, Mitchum cemented his image as a laconic, heavy-lidded fatalist, while the white-hot Greer- radiant as Kathie-executes one of the most sensual entrances in film history. A young Douglas also scores as slick gangster Sterling. All conspire to make Tourneur's "Past" damn close to perfect. Remade to lesser effect as "Against All Odds" (1984).
Champion (1949)- After moving to California with his bum-legged brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy), working-class striver Midge Kelly (Douglas) enters the fight game thanks to small-time trainer Tommy (Paul Stewart), who spots a raw talent. Midge rises quickly through the middleweight ranks, but throws aside friends, lovers, the mob, and all moral principles to nab a title bout. Douglas is ruthless and utterly riveting in his hard-charging breakthrough role. Surrounded by a stable of gifted supporting players like Kennedy, Stewart, Marilyn Maxwell (as a high-living, seductive gold digger), and Lola Albright (as Midge's married lover), Douglas embodies the stubborn, selfish qualities that make Midge both a hero and a lost cause. Mark Robson's solid direction and taut pacing further distinguish this excellent boxing drama, which earned six Oscar nods (including one for Kirk) and lots of ringside fans.
Ace In The Hole (1951)- Thanks to womanizing, a drinking problem, and a defiant streak, fiery big-city journalist Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been relegated to working a local beat for a tiny New Mexico Daily, but he hasn't lost his taste for the big time. When a miner is trapped in a cave-in, Tatum savvily exploits and prolongs the man's plight in hopes of engineering his own prime-time comeback to the big-city dailies which have discarded him. Prescient, cynical, and daring for its time, Billy Wilder's acid-tongued satire on media sensationalism stars Kirk in one of his fiercest early roles. As Tatum, he's a mean-spirited multiple loser pursuing self-glorification at any expense. The luscious Jan Sterling wins points, too, for her portrayal of the trapped man's battered, unhappy wife, Lorraine, who threatens to blow the lid off Tatum's whole circus act. Wilder's astute handling of the chaotic scene around the mine - the media hordes, the gawkers and hangers-on, the souvenir and snack peddlers profiting off the situation - has much to say about our culture's lingering appetite for "human interest" tragedy.
Detective Story (1951)- Over an eventful day in New York's 21st Precinct, Detective James McLeod (Douglas), a man of unwavering principle, works over various thugs and thieves with the swaggering confidence of a veteran cop. But his attempts to put away a shady doctor (George Macready) lead him to discover a corrosively painful truth about his beloved wife, Mary (Eleanor Parker). Before "Homicide" or "Hill Street Blues" came this gritty, hard-hitting cop drama based on Sidney Kingsley's play. Honed to tense perfection by director William Wyler, the film is a showcase for fine, colorful ensemble acting by William Bendix (as the no-nonsense lieutenant), Lee Grant (reprising her role as a mousy shoplifter), Bert Freed (as McLeod's sensitive partner), and Joseph Wiseman (as a hilariously "innocent" Italian burglar). But it's Douglas's fierce, tragic performance as a modern lawman who still sees the world in stark black and white terms that provides the gut-twisting dramatic ironies. Absorbing and devastating, this "Story" gets under your skin and stays there.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)- Ruthless, down-on-his-luck producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas) desperately needs a blockbuster to keep his studio afloat, and knows he can get one if he signs up actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), all of whose careers he helped launch. Trouble is, they all hate Shields for turning his back on them on his way up. One of my favorite movies about Hollywood, this sharp, stylized melodrama gets top-flight treatment from director Vincente Minnelli, who certainly knew his subject! Featuring a powerhouse cast-- Douglas, Turner, Powell, Sullivan, as well as Walter Pidgeon and a personal favorite, Gloria Grahame--this scathing look at the inner workings of Tinseltown is a Hollywood voyeur's dream. The intense, Oscar-winning "Bad" is anything but- a first-rate ensemble piece that will keep you glued to the final credits.
Lust For Life (1956)- This superb biopic about tortured 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (Douglas) chronicles the life of the artist from his early years as an evangelical missionary to Belgian miners to his days of squalid living with prostitute-model Christine (Pamela Brown), also focusing on the relationship between Vincent and his art-dealer brother, Theo (James Donald). Through Theo, Vincent meets the great Impressionists of Paris, striking up a friendship with the eccentric Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn), until his volatile nature gives way to full-fledged madness. Based on Irving Stone's popular book, Vincente Minnelli's beautiful, vibrant film tracks Van Gogh's tragic journey into obsessive madness with unusual perceptiveness and insight. Douglas's fiery performance is a career peak, but Oscar winner Anthony Quinn nearly steals his thunder with a brief but indelible turn as Gauguin. Minnelli filmed on location in Holland and France, even borrowing actual Van Gogh works to use in the production. The result is a compelling, inspiring drama about the hazy border between brilliance and insanity.
Paths Of Glory (1957)- Aloof, ambitious French General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) sends his men out on a suicide mission during the First World War, and when they ultimately retreat, selects three soldiers at random to face charges of cowardice, for which the sentence is death. Guilt-ridden and seething with injustice, the soldiers' commander, Colonel Dax (Douglas) defends his men in the court martial proceedings, all the while sensing that his just, righteous cause may already be lost. Few films expose war's insanity more starkly or with such naked power, contrasting the all-powerful, remote armchair generals with young recruits, mere pawns in an obscene political game, who get slaughtered on the front line of the war to end all wars. We share Dax's righteous fury at the plight of his men as the rushed sham of a trial progresses. Menjou is particularly loathsome as Broulard, and Ralph Meeker also registers as one of the condemned soldiers. One of Stanley Kubrick's earlier, less self-indulgent gems, this stark, disturbing anti-war film hasn't aged a bit. (Kirk's production company, Bryna, made this enduring classic possible.)
Spartacus (1960)- In ancient Rome, a slave called Spartacus (Douglas) leads a tortured, monotonous life of backbreaking labor. By chance he's able to improve his fortunes by training as a gladiator. Yet even this promotion spells certain death in fighting contests staged for patricians like General Crassus (Laurence Olivier). When Spartacus stages a daring escape from his captors, he mobilizes the slave population into a powerful army, which sets its sights on Crassus's legions-and Rome itself. This rousing epic was disowned by director Stanley Kubrick after a contentious, difficult production, but "Spartacus" still offers grand-scale entertainment, thanks to bold, sure-handed direction and a powerhouse cast. The brawny, clench-jawed Douglas shines in his signature role, while Olivier is suitably poisonous as the cold-blooded Crassus. Other notables include the rotund Peter Ustinov providing comic relief as a cowardly slave-trader, and Charles Laughton, who lends gravitas as a senior Roman senator. If you're craving generous portions of spectacle and sweep, here's your movie.
Lonely Are The Brave (1962)- When he learns that his close friend Paul (Michael Kane) has been sentenced to two years in prison for helping illegals cross the border, rugged, free-roaming Jack Burns (Douglas) deliberately gets himself incarcerated, too (by punching a cop), so he can engineer a jail break. But the once-rebellious Paul has mellowed since marrying and starting a family with his wife (Gena Rowlands), and has no interest in becoming a fugitive. So Jack decides to go it alone, one man against the world of law. Scripted by blacklist writer Dalton Trumbo from a novel by Edward Abbey, David Miller's "Brave" pits the ideals of radical American individualism against the arbitrariness of social constraints, soulless technology, and land rights. No one was better suited for this role than Douglas, who flees Walter Matthau's sour sheriff on horseback through the southwestern highlands. At one point, he's cornered by a police helicopter, and the gap between modern life and the freedom of frontier existence couldn't be starker. Gena Rowlands, George Kennedy, and Carroll O'Connor round a stellar supporting cast. An under-exposed gem in Kirk's career.
Seven Days In May (1964)- Outraged that US President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets, Gen. James M. Scott (Burt Lancaster) plots a coup d'etat with other Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lyman is alerted to the conspiracy by Scott's aide, Col. "Jiggs" Casey (Douglas), and races against the clock to neutralize the general's traitorous plan. Two years after "The Manchurian Candidate," director John Frankenheimer scored again with this gripping political thriller. Beyond serving as a showcase for two frequently paired stars- Lancaster as a power-mad general, Douglas as a principled whistle-blower--the movie works because in the context of the paranoic Cold War era, the premise feels all-too-plausible. Stark black-and-white photography and brisk pacing only add to the film's breathless tension. Look too for a poignant turn from Ava Gardner as a faded beauty and Washington hostess with past ties to both Jiggs and Scott.
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