Everyone knew this day was coming. No one lives forever, and Kirk Douglas was 103, but for some reason he seemed invincible to me. Maybe it was all those movies, but for my entire life Kirk Douglas has always been there in so many memorable performances I can’t begin to count. Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Vikings, Last Train From Gun Hill, The Devil’s Disciple, Seven Days in May, The Heroes of Telemark, Tough Guys, so many more.
I was fascinated to hear Martin Scorsese saying in November when he received The Kirk Douglas Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s annual dinner named for Douglas, that he had at one time been developing remakes of the two iconic films about Hollywood that Douglas starred in: The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, both directed by Vincente Minnelli. I’m obsessed with both those films, much like Scorsese, but I don’t think they should — or could — be touched. That probably goes for the majority of the movies Douglas made in his prime. He was the real deal, and it may sound like a cliche, but in this case, as it was with his Young Man With a Horn co-star Doris Day, who left us in May, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.
How ironic that we are almost on the eve of an Oscar ceremony that appears to be headed to honoring 1917, a brilliant film set in World War I, because one of Douglas’ classics — 1957’s Paths of Glory, from a young director named Stanley Kubrick and also set in the trenches of that war — was completely ignored by the Academy. It was a landmark cinematic accomplishment about the World War that Hollywood has not paid so much attention to until again this year. Unlike 1917, which has 10 nominations this year, somehow Paths of Glory didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination, yet it has been proven to stand the test of time where others that were lauded by the Academy that year have faded into memory. This was pure and simply one of the greatest anti-war films ever made, a benchmark that Sam Mendes’ movie owes much to as well.
Douglas also never won a competitive Oscar and was only nominated three times, first at the beginning of his film career for Champion in 1949, then the aforementioned Bad and the Beautiful in 1952, and lastly in 1956 for his beautiful performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life. His co-stars in the latter two both took supporting Oscars, and a big reason was because Douglas allowed them to be great. The Academy finally gave him an Honorary Oscar 40 years later, in 1996, but I can think of at least five other films for which he should have been nominated — hell anyone can. One of them is his own favorite of all his films, 1962’s Lonely Are the Brave, a beautiful, if relatively unheralded at the time, black-and-white ode to the passing of the cowboy era about a man now out of his time. Gena Rowlands was in that one too, and if you haven’t seen it try and find it. It was written by Dalton Trumbo, who also wrote perhaps the most remembered of all Douglas films, Spartacus.
Nearly every obit you are going to read about Kirk Douglas will probably have that epic right in the headline. The 1960 masterpiece, also directed by Kubrick, is definitely one for which Douglas should have won an Academy Award, yet he wasn’t even nominated for it (even though, again, a co-star, Peter Ustinov, took Supporting Actor that year). Douglas’ good friend and frequent co-star Burt Lancaster won the Oscar instead for Elmer Gantry.
Spartacus wasn’t just an acting role for Douglas because as producer of the movie he played a heroic part off the screen in helping to end the awful blacklist that affected the careers of so many in Hollywood for much of the 1950s. He insisted Trumbo get his rightful screenplay credit on the film, and that broke the blacklist. In 2012, Douglas wrote one of his many books, I Am Spartacus, that details just how it all came about.
I was honored that year to spend a couple of evenings with him at which we discussed the movie. That May, Douglas agreed to appear at the Television Academy for a panel on the Starz TV series version of Spartacus. The less said about that show the better, but there was Kirk agreeing to give it a little gravitas by appearing onstage with the actor then playing that role — an actor who seemed completely intimidated to be next to him. So I threw almost all the questions to Douglas, who was such a good sport he even got up on stage at age 96 and conducted a mock sword fight with the actor.
Then in August, as part of a 70MM film series, I got to moderate a screening of the real thing and interview Douglas onstage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This was a night so special that anyone who was there would not soon forget it.
Former Academy president Tom Sherak and then-current president Hawk Koch came up with an idea (I don’t remember who had it first) to surprise Douglas by re-creating the most memorable and moving scene in the film, using the sold-out Academy audience to do it. So before we began the interview, Koch said directly to Douglas, “I AM SPARTACUS,” at which point Sherak stood up from his seat and repeated the line, followed by the entire crowd standing up and chanting “I AM SPARTACUS.” To see the whole thing, click the video at the top of the page and watch it. It’s the way I want to remember him because Douglas loved it. It was a screening moment for the ages and one I was so proud to be part of.
On my wall at home I have a photo from that night, framed with a very generous letter I got from Douglas thanking me for hosting.
It should be the other way around. Thank you Mr. Douglas for a lifetime of memories for all of us out there in the dark. There are a lot of stars in the movies these days, but you were the last movie star, the end of an era in Hollywood.
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