Peter Bart: Kirk Douglas, A Hero Of Past Academy Awards, Might Have Been Baffled By Oscars 2020

Kirk Douglas Oscars
Kirk Douglas and wife Anne after the 1996 Academy Awards, where Douglas received an Honorary Oscar Bei/Shutterstock

Kirk Douglas represented the embodiment of Hollywood stardom, but he likely would not have been a fan of Sunday’s Oscar show. Indeed, he might have ended up standing offstage with Quentin Tarantino, both wondering why the ceremonies seem oddly distanced from both Hollywood and its stars.

Tarantino made a downright affectionate movie about Hollywood, but had to watch a Korean filmmaker seize the Best Picture statuette. Quentin and Kirk know that the Oscar show had originally been invented by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Charlie Chaplin to prove that the talent – i.e., stars – still ran the show, not the corporations.

Ninety years later, star vehicles don’t win Oscars. Further, post-Oscar analysts focus less on the winning feature and its star than on whether Netflix’s lavish $100 million awards campaign paid off in sufficient trophies (the streamer won 24 nominations but only two Oscars).

Douglas coveted the awards derby. He was nominated three times as Best Actor in his first decade as a star and usually starred in three movies a year. “I was always attracted to characters who are part scoundrel,” was his famous explanation.

To Douglas, stardom meant not only working a lot but also putting his prestige behind important movies – hence Lonely are the Brave, Lust for Life and Spartacus. Rallying behind the then-unknown Stanley Kubrick was vital to bringing Paths of Glory to the screen. His unrelenting support of Dalton Trumbo was the key to liberating blacklisted screenwriters.

In the early 1960s when the strapped studios eliminated their overall deals with stars, Douglas was the most aggressive in creating independent companies to develop projects. Others like William Holden, Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy seemed paralyzed by the realization that no one was around any more to feed them material or match them with appropriate directors.

When I once slipped a book to John Wayne some years ago – it was True Grit – he seemed surprised that someone would actually feed him a new project (I was a studio executive at the time). Had I donated it to Douglas, he would have optioned the novel by dinner time and hired a screenwriter. Instead, Wayne asked his friend, Hal Wallis, to help him figure out how to take it from there.

Brad Pitt
Pitt John Salangsang/BEI/Shutterstock

Kirk Douglas skillfully put together a development slate, and even raised financing funding. Oscar winners like Crash or Birdman, however, would not have been in his purview, nor would he have reacted exuberantly to the Big Win for Parasite. He liked “big” pictures and “big” stars that had international audiences. On the Oscar show, he also would have liked to see more clips of big scenes, and heard from more stars presenting awards – more Brad Pitt types and perhaps even a Clooney, Cruise or Gibson. Most of all he would have liked an Oscar show that featured Hollywood.

But my guess is that this year he personally would have cast his vote for Parasite but rooted for Tarantino’s Hollywood epic.

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