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The Top Father/Son Movie Stars, Bar None

Posted: 04/11/2010 5:26 pm

With advance apologies to Lloyd and Jeff Bridges, Henry and Peter Fonda, Martin and Charlie Sheen, both Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks (Senior and Junior), it's pretty evident who merits this special designation.

Did you guess? It's Kirk and Michael Douglas.

And where are they now?

The seemingly indestructible Kirk endures well into his nineties, even gracing this year's Academy Awards with his storied presence, while Michael is settling into classic retirement age (he turns 66 next month), while exhibiting no signs of slowing down.

With both still in our midst, it seems particularly fitting to pay tribute to Douglas pere et fils, each of whom- in their own way and time- managed to scale the summit of the movie business.

To be sure, fame exacted its price, as it usually does. There were indeed casualties around the two men: both endured failed marriages, in addition to emotional and substance abuse issues which plagued Kirk's son Eric (who died in 2004), and more recently, Michael's son Cameron. Then, there was Michael's much publicized womanizing and allegations of sex addiction.

Still, looking at Kirk and Michael today, with the exception of Cameron's ongoing issues, you sense most of the turbulence is behind them. And regardless, it's abundantly clear that the twin appellations of "star" and "survivor" are well-earned for both of them.

Personally, I've always found Kirk the more powerful and interesting actor. I always prized his raw, lit-fuse quality. He was just one generation removed from Eastern Europe's struggling immigrant class, and you could feel it.

Though smoother -- and some might say, blander -- than his father on-screen, Michael's distinct acting chops cannot be denied, and unlike his Dad, he's got the Oscar to prove it.

Both men also produced motion pictures. Indeed Kirk was a pioneer among actors in seizing control of his career as the studios' clout declined, via his own production company. Michael would go on to show considerable flair in this capacity as well, notching up producing credits on such major-league hits as One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Romancing The Stone (1984), and The Rainmaker (1997).

Finally, Kirk will always be remembered for sweeping away the last vestiges of the Hollywood Blacklist by hiring banished writer Dalton Trumbo for his classic Spartacus (1960).

Given their track records, it's hard to argue that both father and son have left their own outsize imprints on Hollywood. To celebrate their impressive legacies, here are ten titles that reflect the very best of the actors Douglas:

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.

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, Vincent 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.).

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 bacause 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.

The China Syndrome (1979) -- To the consternation of her bosses, ambitious TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) wants to get away from doing cheesy lifestyle segments and latch on to a serious story. She inadvertently finds it when she and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) go to cover a day in the life of a nearby power plant, and witness some frightening irregularities. Not surprisingly, the powers-that-be don't want their cover blown on these life-threatening issues, but senior plant official Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) won't accept a cover-up, and bravely attempts to get the story out, with Kimberly's help. This tense and timely nail-biter remains eerily effective not only because director James Bridges gets all the fundamentals right, but because its explosive subject matter would soon hit home with a terrifying real-life incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Lemmon's Godell is a shattering portrayal, for which the late actor received a well-deserved Oscar nod, and Fonda brings off a tricky role as a would-be serious journalist who desperately wants to be viewed as more than a pretty face. When she and Richard finally land the huge story she's always coveted, her scoop comes at a stiff emotional price. Co-star Douglas also produced.

Fatal Attraction (1987) -- Manhattan lawyer Dan Gallagher (Douglas) is happily married to his gorgeous wife Beth (Anne Archer), with whom he has a 6-year-old daughter. After a chance meeting with the sexy, intriguing Alex (Glenn Close) leads to a passionate two-night affair in her apartment, Dan says goodbye and means it. But Alex has no intention of giving up Dan - ever - and proceeds to turn the Gallaghers' placid and wholesome suburban lives into an escalating nightmare. Adrian Lyne's disturbing Attraction remains the ultimate cautionary tale for extra-marital thrill seekers. What begins as an entirely plausible drama about a one-night stand quickly morphs into a shocking psychological thriller in Lyne's hands, with Douglas turning in one of the iconic performances of the 80s. But it's Glenn Close's bestial, unhinged villainess that made this film a box-office smash. Despite a tacked-on, slasher-movie-style ending, Attraction picked up six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Film.

Wall Street (1987) -- Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a hungry young broker who makes a Faustian bargain by becoming the loyal acolyte of oily, ruthless trader Gordon Gekko (Douglas). Dazzled by all that money can buy, Bud sacrifices the values of balance and fair play instilled by his bewildered blue-collar dad, Carl (Martin Sheen), to ride high on Gekko's coattails, until a messy and spectacular fall that feels inevitable. Oliver Stone's poisonous ode to the "the go, go "80s" hinges on Michael Douglas's bravura, Oscar-winning portrayal of Gekko, seemingly a composite of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, whose mantra "greed is good" justifies any means to execute the big deal, including insider trading. Subtle it's not, but then neither was the time, nor its players. Director Stone (whose father was a broker) expertly evokes the dizzying altitude of the mega-wealthy, and young Sheen is perfectly cast as a misguided but willing pawn in a high-stakes game that feels too good to be true-and is. And Douglas, creating a sublime study in upper crust oiliness, was never better.

Traffic ('00) -- This jittery, genre-crossing drama follows three interwoven storylines: the efforts of Mexican narcotics cop Javier (Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro) to bust up the Obregon cartel; the parallel work of San Diego DEA agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle), whose arrest of a drug-trafficking kingpin forces his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to deal with underworld associates; and the ironic ignorance of newly minted U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield (Douglas), a man strikingly unaware that his privileged, high-school-age daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become a free-basing cokehead. Scripted by Stephen Gaghan from an acclaimed BBC miniseries, Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning Traffic is a hard-hitting, superbly stylized exposé of the war on drugs. Visually slick and masterfully directed, the film works beautifully as an ensemble drama of interconnected vignettes, and as a wake-up call to parents, educators, and clueless officials, highlighting the insidious ways illegal narcotics infiltrate the culture-and the mostly ineffective means we have of rooting them out. An exhilarating reality check that'll keep you hooked.

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