By Mal Karman
No actor in history has made nearly 100 motion pictures over six decades and lived to reflect on it at the age of 100. But on December 9, Kirk Douglas will become a centenarian and the Rafael theater will roll out a compelling eight-day festival and tribute to the icon of American cinema.
Those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s revered Douglas as a big-screen hero whose name on the marquee guaranteed entertainment well worth the price of admission and a performance worthy of discussion.
He was an intense and striking Hollywood heartthrob, as well as a highly respected actor. At the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, one of his classmates, Lauren Bacall, who was instrumental in launching his career, developed a wild crush on him that was unrequited.
“Kirk did not really pursue me,” she wrote in her tome, By Myself and Then Some. “He was friendly and sweet—enjoyed my company—but I was clearly too young for him.” (Oh my, our male readers are saying.)
Douglas came from an impoverished family and became an actor, in part, because he longed to escape his environment and his six sisters. “Acting is the most direct way of escaping reality,” he said in one of his 10 books, Films of Kirk Douglas, “and in my case it was a means of escaping a drab and dismal background.”
Douglas received three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor—for his role as a bastard of a boxing hero in Champion, which made him a superstar, as a heartless Hollywood producer in The Bad and the Beautiful and as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, among his most gut-wrenching performances. He clearly deserved the Oscar for the latter. Instead, Yul Brynner won for flopping around barefoot on a marble floor in The King and I.
Douglas’ and Vincente Minnelli’s collaboration, The Bad and the Beautiful, won five Academy Awards and earned Douglas his second Best Actor nomination for portraying a hard-nosed mogul manipulating his writers, directors and actors while clashing with the big Hollywood studios. Lana Turner and Gloria Grahame have principal roles.
The Rafael lineup includes some of the best films ever made, many of which are rarely screened.
Lonely Are the Brave, the actor’s personal favorite of all of his films, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, is the story of a cowboy in conflict with changing times. “(It’s) a point of view I love … the difficulty of being an individual today,” Douglas said in a Turner Classic Movies article.
In Ace in the Hole—director Billy Wilder’s first effort as both writer and producer—Douglas stars as a sleazy newspaper reporter willing to go to any length for a big story. The film bombed at the box office but subsequently won Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival. Critic Roger Ebert wrote that in the role “Douglas’ focus and energy … (is) almost scary.” Biographer Gene Philips said the picture was “galvanized” by his “astounding performance.”
Paths of Glory, one of the best antiwar films ever made, stars Douglas as a World War I French officer challenging his superiors who are bent on court-martialing three innocent soldiers. The movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick, released in 1957 and banned in France until 1976.
Disney’s first live-action film produced at the animation studio, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, will be screened along with a behind-the-scenes demonstration of its special effects and sound design. Douglas plays an insouciant sailor on a mission to investigate a sea monster, only to find the Nautilus and James Mason, as brooding Captain Nemo, who is supposed to be a bit off his nut. Listening to the dialogue today, however, his character seems to be the only sane one aboard the submarine.
Teaming up with Kubrick again, Douglas as actor-producer created the best gladiator epic ever made in Spartacus with a script by Trumbo and a cast featuring Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Woody Strode and Peter Ustinov. Trumbo received screen credit under his own name after enduring years on the Hollywood blacklist. Based on the novel written by Howard Fast while in prison for refusing to name names during the Hollywood witch hunt, Spartacus tells the story of the slave revolt against Rome in the first century B.C. with Douglas in the title role. Don’t miss this one.
Closing out the mini-fest is The Vikings, an action-packed, sometimes-brutal tale of a Viking prince (Douglas) who hungers for the charms of an English princess (Janet Leigh). Filmed in Norway, it boasts spectacular scenery, battles galore and some wild stunts by the actor. This one would surely satisfy John Wayne’s macho.
In 1991, George Stevens, Jr. presented Kirk Douglas with the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. Five years later, he received an honorary Academy Award.
“No other leading actor was more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul and thus reveal the complexity of human nature,” Stevens said.
Kirk Douglas Happy Hundred; Dec. 9-15; Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-1222; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.