In what has to be a first for the normally sedate and reverential audiences at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, members of Monday night’s packed house for the 70MM presentation of 1960’s classic epic Spartacus stood and repeatedly chanted “I Am Spartacus” shortly after its 95-year-old star Kirk Douglas was introduced to a rousing standing ovation during the pre-screening Q&A (which I moderated). Cued by Academy President Hawk Koch after his opening remarks, Douglas was clearly taken aback by the crowd’s eruption and said he’d never seen that kind of response before. Koch’s predecessor Tom Sherak remarked to me later, “Did you see Douglas’ face when we did that? Priceless.” Sherak, an unabashed Spartacus fan (the original poster hung in his Academy office during his presidency and this was a special night for him) orchestrated it all telling me he came up with the idea during a morning yoga session, planned it with Koch and then prepped the audience before Douglas entered from backstage. It was quite a moment, almost surreal. It was also ironic since Douglas remembers that for some strange reason director Stanley Kubrick actually wanted to cut the now-iconic scene where Spartacus’ fellow slaves all uttered the famous phrase. It’s not the only time they butted heads. Kubrick also wanted to cut Douglas’ crucifixion closeup after the actor spent a full day on the cross. Suffice to say that idea didn’t play well with the producer/star and it remains in the film.
The Spartacus screening was the final entry in the Academy’s Monday night summer series, The Last 70MM Film Festival (expertly curated by the Acad’s Randy Haberkamp) which began six weeks ago with It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Universal struck a beautiful new print for the occasion which was taken from the meticulous 1991 restoration by Robert Harris and James C. Katz, with the latter in attendance last night. Katz recalled during intermission how they had to hire Anthony Hopkins to imitate the late Laurence Olivier and re-create his dialogue for the previously censored and missing “Oysters and Snails” scene which was put back in the film three decades later. Co-star Tony Curtis also came in then and perfectly re-looped his lines 30 years after the fact.
Douglas sat with me for a 20-minute Q&A before the screening. He didn’t stay for the film saying he was going to be seeing his son Michael who has just recorded the audio version of his new book on the making of the film, “I Am Spartacus: The Making Of A Movie, The Breaking Of The Blacklist”. The book is going into its second printing. By giving blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo full credit executive producer and star Douglas was instrumental in finally breaking the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s and was honored for his efforts in 1991 by the Writers Guild Of America.
Not to get into the retroactive Oscar game but — why not? Seeing the film again in all its glory Monday it seems incomprehensible that this stirring epic, one of the best of its kind Hollywood ever turned out, was not even nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor for Douglas and incredibly Trumbo’s brilliant Screenplay adaptation (of the Howard Fast novel). After all, it won the Golden Globe Best Picture Drama that year and Trumbo was nominated for a WGA award. Yes it did get six mostly technical Oscar nominations and actually won four (racking up one of the biggest totals of the night, only one behind Best Pic winner The Apartment) including Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov who was the only nominated member of the remarkable ensemble cast that included Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons and Curtis. I didn’t ask Douglas about the slight in the major categories last night, and in his book he gives it short shrift, briefly speculating that perhaps (due to the blacklisting controversy) the Academy was a bit more “conservative” that year. That might be the only logical explanation now in retrospect, especially considering one of the Best Picture nominees was John Wayne’s rather leaden epic, The Alamo, a film that does not hold up well at all and is mostly known in Academy annals for its notorious over-the-top Oscar campaign (which included co-star Chill Wills’ tasteless ads).
In any case last night’s Academy event was a nice tip-of –the-hat for the man who really is Spartacus, and a way for the Oscar org to recognize a film that holds up very well 52 years later and maintains a unique place in Hollywood history for helping to right a very big wrong done to some of the industry’s greatest writers.