Critic's Notebook: Kirk Douglas, a Titan of Big-Screen Intensity

MGM/Photofest
Kirk Douglas in 'The Bad and the Beautiful' (1952)

The vital, versatile actor epitomized a distinctly masculine, Old Hollywood grit, energy and elegance both onscreen and off.

One of the most fantastic final scenes in all of cinema is the climax of The Bad and the Beautiful, a lushly noirish 1952 MGM melodrama about movie people in which Kirk Douglas’ unscrupulous film producer essentially alienates himself out of the business; no one wants to work with him anymore. All the same, at the end, when he’s on the phone to the studio, several of his “victims” can’t resist leaning in to the receiver to listen to what he’s got up his sleeve. Such is the allure of the movies, as well as of Douglas himself.

So tenacious, vital, powerful and in control was Douglas that, if you had to guess which big Hollywood star would live to 100 and beyond, he would have to have been anyone’s first pick. His was an outstanding career, one that began as the studio system was about to start its slow fade, saw the actor take an active role in producing and attempt, from time to time, to make films with a pronounced degree of social and political relevance.

Douglas was always intense, especially in his early days, when his oft-clenched anger and fury matched the crime and tough action melodramas in which he was most frequently cast. He was a lower-class New York street kid, raised to use his wits and cunning, and these traits persisted throughout his life. Still, he could wear, and wear well, fancy garb, and he had terrific hair and a muscular build that was evident in suits and when he stripped to the waist, which he made a point of often doing; there was something of the preening show-off about him. But it was his sense of determination that dominated everything, marking his character and performances no matter who he played.

Turbulent dramas and Westerns dominated the first few years of his career, which properly began once he was 30 after being flushed out of the Navy following an injury. Quite soon he was working with some of the best writers and directors — Wyler, Wilder, Hawks, Tourneur, Mankiewicz, Walsh — and he also exhibited shrewd instincts for juggling sure-fire commercial fare and riskier ventures, a trait he shared with fellow New Yorker and tough customer Burt Lancaster; their paths were to cross later on.

During his first decade as a star, Douglas made a point of testing himself and pushing limits; for him, the dramatic and the physical seemed unusually intertwined, certainly with his all-in performance as a boxer in Champion in 1949. Perhaps no other actor in the 1950s played as many gruesome and bloody scenes as he did; for kids going to movies during that decade, witnessing Douglas’ van Gogh cutting off his ear in the very good Lust for Life was disturbing enough, but far worse was the star having his eye gouged out in The Vikings, which pushed new boundaries for bloody violence as of 1958.

This was a time when a star like Douglas was still expected to make multiple films per year, and there were quite a few that merit serious attention and remain well worth seeing today. Douglas is as relentless playing a desperate reporter in Billy Wilder’s hard-hitting Ace in the Hole as he is engaging — even when he’s singing to a seal — in Disney’s huge 1954 hit 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He starred in quite a few Westerns and seems to have been partial to the genre; some of his better ones include The Indian FighterMan Without a Star, Gunfight at the OK CorralThe War WagonThere Was a Crooked Man and Posse, which he also directed, in 1975.

One personal favorite that deserves far more attention than it gets is Strangers When We Meet, an exceptionally insightful and moving melodrama of adultery in a very real Los Angeles starring Douglas and Kim Novak, both in peak form in 1960.

The turning point for Douglas came that same year, when he took control of his own career with Spartacus. Unlike most of the other Roman-era spectacles of its time, this one had no religious messages but, rather, concentrated on politics, spectacle and violence, the latter, once again, beyond the norm for the time. The star served as executive producer and ran the show, beginning with firing the original director, the esteemed Anthony Mann, after a week’s shooting and making way for Kubrick. Significantly, Douglas used his clout to break the blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo at the same time Otto Preminger was doing so on Exodus.

Spartacus was a gigantic production, arguably the first of its size to be personally co-produced by an actor. In this it was a sign of things to come in the industry. It also marked a financial windfall for Douglas the likes of which he had never experienced before. Unfortunately, it also proved to be the turning point in his career in a negative sense. After 1962, when he acted to considerable effect in the melancholy modern Western Lonely Are the Brave as well as in Two Weeks in Another Town, a quasi-sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas appeared in nearly 40 more feature films in addition to numerous television shows, but, to be blunt, very few of them are worth seeing or talking about. Especially disappointing was his outing with director Elia Kazan on The Arrangement in 1969, as well as, to him, the fact that he became too old to play the lead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — a property he’d long harbored and ultimately passed along to his son Michael to produce.

Olivia de Havilland is still with us, at 104, and actor Norman Lloyd is 105, but Douglas was the last of the great studio-era male stars to make it this far into the 21st century. With his passing, the end of a major chapter in the history of Hollywood can be marked not with a period but with an exclamation point.