R.I.P. Kirk Douglas

A day I thought would never come to pass has arrived: Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch, b. 1916) has passed away at age 103.

A post about this actor is a can I have kept kicking down the road for years. The reason I’ve delayed is mainly that the topic is too big, how do I wrap my arms around it? I finally resolved to do a post that focuses just on his westerns, as I have done with many male stars. But I’ll save that one for his birthday in December. The other reason I’ve dragged my heels is that, though he comes from Jewish immigrant stock, Douglas (unlike most of the folks we write about here), didn’t have much of a show biz background per se. He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was in a handful of dramatic Broadway plays prior to his first film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers in 1946.

But though he was not in vaudeville or anything like it, there is a way that Douglas was VERY much “show biz”. Not very long ago I was watching a scene between him and Ava Gardner in Seven Days in May (1964), and found myself STARTLED at what I was looking at. Something about seeing the pair of them together was jarring, it made me see the extent to which neither of them resembled human beings. In fact, their physical features were so extreme that the word that sprang to mind was “freaks”. Don’t get me wrong — these are two EXTREMELY good looking people. In fact, TOO good looking. They look almost as though they had been bred, as one breeds dogs, to come up with a different strain of human, the movie star. Douglas with his dimples, his enormous cleft chin, his huge head, his dazzling smile, and pompadour. He was a kind of walking caricature — one reason he was a favorite target of impressionists like Frank Gorshin, George Kirby, David Frye, and Joe Flaherty. That crazy intense voice, the smoldering violence. When people want to stereotype Jews, Kirk Douglas is the first person I think of as exhibit A in refutation. Kirk Douglas was a Jew so macho he played Odysseus.

I also associate Douglas with statements of conscience. I was a teenager when I first saw Spartacus (1960). It effected me tremendously — I still think about it all the time when I need inspiration. And there’s the other one he made with Kubrick, Paths of Glory (1957), also influential on me as a young man. A third one I’d like to recommend on this score — his adaptation of Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple (1959) which he co-produced and co-starred in with Burt Lancaster, with Laurence Olivier nearly stealing the picture from both of them. I am convinced that this Revolutionary War story is still destined to be a future annual 4th of July classic once the public discovers it. Though maybe that’s my idealism talking — there are reasons for not rating the American public very highly at the moment.

Douglas also had more range than you might think: consider his idiotic oaf character in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1955) vs the tortured genius Van Gogh whom he played in Lust for Life the following year. He was still a going concern as a movie star well into the 1980s, in things like The Man from Snowy River (1982), Eddie Macon’s Run (1983) and Tough Guys (1986). His last role, in the tv movie The Empire State Building Murders was in 2008! At any rate, there’s much more to be said about this major force in our lives, and like I said I’ll be doing a post about his work in westerns towards the end of the year. Go with God, Ragman’s Son!