"DEAR LIZ, I am not Spartacus! I'm your friend. Many pleasant memories. With affection, Kirk." That is what is inscribed on the opening page of Kirk Douglas' hugely entertaining new book, "I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist." Now, even if Kirk hadn't autographed his book so sweetly, I would have read it. But the note propelled me to finish it in one day.
The movie would star Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis and the ravishing Jean Simmons. Kirk, of course, was Spartacus, the rebellious slave/gladiator who actually made Rome tremble for a year or two.
What juicy fun is found in Kirk's memories of trying to pin down his cast, the various adventures and trials each put him through. The shock of dining with Olivier and Vivien Leigh, when she suddenly interrupted a charming dinner with "Larry, why don't you f*ck me anymore?" (Leigh's mental health was in steep decline at this point) ... how Tony Curtis nailed a role in the movie--though there was no part written for him, so he could get his way out of his detested Universal contract...Charles Laughton's imperious first critique of the script--"this is shit," his refusal to accept his role, and then a sudden reversal. This was Laughton's pattern, Kirk would learn...reluctantly testing his former flame Gene Tierney, for the vital
role of the slave girl who loves Spartacus, and seeing instantly that her emotional problems had robbed her of her former charisma. Kirk would suffer a great deal when he eventually had to tell Gene she did not get the part.
Kirk would suffer even more after hiring a beautiful German girl, Sabine Bethmann, as the female lead. She learned English, but couldn't act. Kubrick fired her, much to her shock (her appearance had already been widely publicized.) Douglas was then compelled to hire Jean Simmons, whom he didn't want originally because of her British accent. Kirk's divinely pragmatic Anne, said with exasperation, "What does her accent matter if she can act?!" Of course, Jean turned out to be the perfect choice.
After that, things still don't improve stress-wise. Kirk Douglas has to hear the four most terrible words a producer can hear, in the wake of a first screening. After a long silence in a crowded room, somebody pipes up, "The music will help."
There were re-takes, revisions, a brilliant 78-page manifesto/critique from Kubrick on why the film was great, and where it was failing. Arguments over certain scenes, clashes between director and producer, stress, stress, stress. In the end, Kirk was not crucified, as Spartacus was.
His film was a huge hit, and it broke the back finally, of the blacklist. (Five years later, Trumbo wrote the script of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie "The Sandpiper." Hedda Hopper, a year away from her death, attended. When Trumbo's name appeared on screen she began to audibly complain. Miss Taylor turned in her seat and said, "Hedda, why don't you just shut the fuck up.") I know it seems I've told a lot, but believe me, there's much, much more!
George Clooney has written the foreword to "I Am Spartacus!" He says: "Kirk Douglas is many things. A movie star. An actor. A producer. But he is first and foremost, a man of extraordinary character. The kind that is formed when the stakes are high. The kind we look for in our darkest hour."