Kirk Douglas: a career in clips
Born Izzy Danielovitch into a poverty-stricken Jewish family in 1916, Douglas legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas on joining the navy during the second world war. He went on to become one of Hollywood’s most charismatic actors, and a producer of considerable influence too.
After establishing himself as a stage actor after the war, Douglas was cast in his first significant film role, as the weak-willed husband in 1946 noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, opposite Barbara Stanwyck, after producer Hal B Wallis spotted him in a play.
Noir was Douglas’ natural home, but he quickly switched to the nasty roles. In Out of the Past, he’s rich gambler Whit Sterling on the track of former PI Robert Mitchum. And in I Walk Alone, he plays Burt Lancaster’s treacherous former partner in the illicit booze game. In both films he stood up brilliantly to the nominal lead: this was a star in the making.
It took a boxing movie to get Douglas his first shot at a lead: Champion, in 1949, earned Douglas an Oscar nomination for its portrait of ambitious fighter who manages to alienate everyone who ever helped him. It’s a classic son-of-a-bitch role and one that typified Douglas’s early rise to stardom in a series of tough, unsympathetic characters.
Jazz tooter Rick Martin (based rather obviously on Bix Beiderbecke) wasn’t exactly a son of a bitch, but he was a less-than-entirely sympathetic go-getter in the Champion mould, putting his music above everything and suffering breakdown as a result. Douglas acted up a storm in Young Man With a Horn, and confirmed Douglas’ promise as a major star of the 1950s.
But Douglas would play a proper son of a bitch to major effect in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, a still-prescient account of a journalist manipulating a rescue effort to ensure he profits by it, professionally and financially. Drawing on two real life cases, Wilder’s film was a flop at the time, but has since become a classic of cynicism over the media, up there with Network.
Douglas received his second Oscar nomination for yet another SOB, film producer Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s a caustic account of Hollywood from the inside, detailing how Shields stitches up one person after another. Douglas lost out, though, to Gary Cooper in High Noon, but The Bad and the Beautiful would throw down a marker for films-about-film-making all the way to The Player and Swimming With Sharks.
By 1954 Douglas was a bankable figure, and stepped into a mainstream, multi-star event movie with Disney’s live action adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Setting the template for such spectacles as Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, et al, 20,000 Leagues gave Douglas top billing as feisty harpoonist Ned Land – not entirely free of SOB tendencies – over James Mason as Captain Nemo, with Douglas carving out a signature scene by fighting a squid.
Douglas, meanwhile, had ambitions beyond simply appearing in front of the camera, and set up his own production company, Bryna, named after his mother. Bryna’s first film was the 1956 André de Toth western The Indian Fighter, in which Douglas played the lead. “A man who was all man!”, as the trailer put it, but Douglas got his nose broken when his horse’s head hit him in the face.
Another “intense, strong-willed man” was the basis of Douglas’ third Oscar nomination: Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life. Vincente Minnelli’s biopic of the ear-slicing painter was the benchmark for the portrayal of artistic turmoil; Douglas turned in what was considered then a performance of scary veracity.
Though westerns were by no means his speciality, Douglas did manage to take a leading role in one of the all-time classics: Doc Holliday in Gunfight at OK Corral, second billed to Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp. Holliday, stricken with consumption, coughed throughout the movie, and Douglas later explained that, ever the perfectionist, he planned his coughing to the last splutter to help the film’s editors.
Douglas came into his own as producer-star when he picked up Stanley Kubrick’s follow-up to The Killing, after it had been dropped by MGM. He brought the script of Paths of Glory to United Artists, and took the lead role of Colonel Dax himself. Paths of Glory became a celebrated anti-war film, and confirmed Kubrick’s status as a rising star among American directors. Particularly influential was Kubrick’s use of extended tracking shots in the first world war trenches – Douglas’ performance, if anything, was slightly more subdued than had hitherto been his habit.
Douglas wanted the lead role in Ben-Hur, but when it went to Charlton Heston he set up his own Roman epic. As is well-known, he turned to Kubrick after firing Spartacus’s original director Anthony Mann a week into the shoot: though having only three feature films under his belt, Kubrick refused to be overawed by the gigantic scale of the project, and handled the star-stuffed cast with aplomb. Perhaps most admirably, Douglas made sure blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo received full credit for his work on the script, thus helping to end the McCarthy-inspired boycott.
Douglas had once again to take second billing to Lancaster for John Frankenheimer’s tightly wound 1964 cold war thriller Seven Days in May, his follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate. By now Douglas had another company, Joel Productions, and Seven Days was produced through it, with Douglas instrumental in securing Lancaster’s participation. The latter plays a general planning a coup against the US president; Douglas is a colonel who sniffs out the plot and reports it.
Though by no means washed up, Douglas found his bull-necked, square-jaw persona in not so much favour as the 60s wore on; this was the age of anti-heroes, and his sort of movies simply weren’t in vogue any more. He didn’t exactly struggle, but found himself more often than not playing heavyweight roles in big, clunking war movies. In Heroes of Telemark, about the sabotage of Norway’s heavy water plants during the second world war, Douglas plays a physicist, but one who joins in the raids.
In the late 60s and early 70s, Douglas was still making plenty of films, almost all with big-name directors, such as Is Paris Burning (1966) with Réné Clement, The Brotherhood (1968) with Martin Ritt, The Arrangement (1969) with Elia Kazan, and There Was a Crooked Man... (1970) with Joseph Mankiewicz. But few were successful – the real action was going on elsewhere, with the new generation of Hollywood stars and directors. Douglas turned to directing instead; his debut was the 1973 pirate yarn Scalawag. He followed it up with Posse (1975) – one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites.
Douglas finally found a niche with the Movie Brat generation by taking a role in Brian De Palma’s trashy psychic-horror flick The Fury in 1978. Douglas plays a former intelligence man whose psychic son has been squirrelled away by a dodgy security agency; although well out of his comfort zone, generically speaking, Douglas acquitted himself decently.
He tried another new genre – sci-fi – with 1980’s Saturn 3, alongside Harvey Keitel and Farrah Fawcett. An exercise in deliberate high camp, Saturn 3 was based on an idea by composer John Barry (who was then removed from directorial duties after clashing with Douglas). A flop at the time, it’s now best remembered as the inspiration for the Martin Amis novel Money. Amis worked on the script, and apparently based his novel’s character Lorne Guyland on Douglas.
Douglas’ last film before his stroke in 1996 was the Michael J Fox comedy Greedy, in which he played a rich uncle whose relatives are squabbling openly over their inheritance. Directed by My Cousin Vinny’s Jonathan Lynn, it provided Douglas with a meaty final role in major pictures.