Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published February 5th 2020
A great legend remembered
On February 5th, 2020, the world lost one of the final members of the Golden Age of Hollywood when Kirk Douglas died at the age of 103.
103! And he had quite the full life!
Now, I like a lot of Kirk Douglas' work, so when I heard the news, I was sort of stunned… but not greatly. I mean, the man was in his second century. But it did make me pull out one of my favourite movies (a personal top 10 movie) and watch it this morning (Australian time). He was such a great actor. There are going to be all sorts of eulogies to the man online and in the press and on television. They will talk about his life, probably about his son Michael, about his longevity, about his marriages… all that sort of stuff. And that is fine.
What I want to do is simply look at some of my favourite Kirk Douglas performances. Many are films that are well-known and many people would have seen, or at least be aware of, but I hope this at least encourages people to go out and find some of his fine work and re-live a great performer.
This is how I will remember Kirk Douglas.
The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)
So, I will start with the Kirk Douglas film that I watched this morning. This tale of Hollywood and its allure and the way people are trapped within it and the relationships it creates is riveting even today, almost 70 years later. Three stories told from the perspective of different characters, all about their relationship with Douglas' Jonathan Shields, is quite stunning. The writing is wonderful, the acting superb and the way it was shot is just magnificent. It does not matter if it's black and white – I love this movie.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)
I first saw this on television in the 1970s, not long after I read a modified for children version of the Verne novel. It was incredible. The thing I always remember – like so many others, I suppose – is the fight with the giant squid. But Kirk Douglas was the perfect foil to James Mason's Captain Nemo. Just an exciting adventure yarn, the sort that the Disney company used to (emphasis on the "used to") make quite well. Maybe more a kids' film, still fun.
Lust For Life (1956)
The story of Vincent Van Gogh (with Douglas playing Van Gogh) is told in a film that looks wonderful, even if the actual story sort of feels like a soap opera. It does downplay the mental illness that Van Gogh was probably suffering from, but for its time it did try to portray a sympathetic view of the artist best known at the time for "cutting off his ear" for a girlfriend (it was an earlobe, and the reasons for it are a lot more complex). Yes, I am a little harsh on the film for the way it presented itself, but there is no doubting the powerful performance Kirk Douglas delivered.
Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957)
A story that has been told often, again and again, but to my mind, this is the best version of the story on film (admittedly, I've only seen four or five of them). Douglas played the pivotal role of Doc Holliday, sick but important in the final show-down. The tense mood of the film was so well done and maintained, helped by the wonderful performances of all involved. Douglas is outshone by a brilliant performance by Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp, but his performance is still really strong. One of the better Westerns (and, thanks to my mother, I saw a lot of them), in my opinion.
The Vikings (1958)
This film was my first ever exposure to the Vikings, subsequently a period of history that has fascinated me… and all because of a Kirk Douglas film. With Tony Curtis at his side, and then against him, this is a saga that is so different from the Biblical epics I was used to seeing. It was apparently filmed in Europe, and that gives it a different look to the film – this is not the USA. The story is a little soap opera-ish, but the actual lives of the Viking leaders was very soap opera-ish, so it works. It's been quite a few years since I've seen this; I should really go out and see if I can't find a copy.
Probably Kirk Douglas' most famous role, one that has entered popular culture even if people have no idea what it is they are referencing ("I'm Spartacus!" "No, I am Spartacus!" "I am Spartacus!"), is actually worthy of all the accolades. Douglas, in the title role, dominates the film. From his time as a gladiator to his leading a rebellion that threatened Rome itself to his death by crucifixion, even with the hope of a new generation shown to him, I always found this film quite depressing. Not bad – it is a really good movie – but the fact is this guy just could not catch a break. Once again, Tony Curtis is there with him and Peter Ustinov won an Oscar as best supporting actor, but this is Douglas' film and he takes it in both hands and delivers a tour de force of cinema.
The Fury (1978)
I read the book first, and when this film came on TV in the 1990s (not that it hadn't been on TV beforehand), that was the main reason I decided to watch it, the other being it was a Brian De Palma film. This is a horror story about psychic ability, where Douglas' character Peter has a psychic son, there are kidnappings, grooming of psychic ability, and the story is quite convoluted, and sometimes the film loses the impact of the novel, but it is still quite a roller-coaster ride of the sort of psychic power horror that seemed to be common in the late 70s through the 80s, probably starting with Stephen King's 1974 novel Carrie (which had Brian De Palma also direct the film version).
Saturn 3 (1980)
We see a lot of Kirk Douglas in this film. A real lot. For a 60-odd year old man, he had a decent body, paraded in its nakedness for us. This strange science fiction film was so different from the sci-fi, space opera that was dominating the movie scene at the time, which is possibly why I enjoyed it when I saw it. That and its definite horror overtones. I mean, come on, the robot wears a severed human head! This is quite a tense film, a little creepy, but there is a sense of Kirk Douglas being a little hammy with his acting and the robot now feels a little odd, in light of films like The Terminator et al. Still, quite a good film.
The Man From Snowy River (1982)
Yes, Kirk Douglas appeared in a classic Australian film based on my favourite poem ever. His inclusion, it was widely reported, was done to appeal to the American market, because it seemed Australian films needed that Americanisation to actually make headway into the golden goose that was the USA, so much so that the original Mad Max was overdubbed by Americans. Douglas plays a character not even in the poem, but the film is such a fun piece of Australian fluff that you can't help but like it. It is harmless and a good hour and half of entertainment. Plus, it has some of the most incredible horse-riding scenes ever captured on film.
This TV movie depressed me when I first saw it when I was in high school in the mid to late 1980s. The problem is, looking at the news over the past thirty years or so, it appears that it is not that far from the truth in some cases. At a nursing home, the head nurse kills residents, Amos (Douglas) finds out, stages his own death, but implicates the nurse, and she is arrested. It is a rather strange plot-line, but the acting lifts this above the soap opera it could well have fallen into.
There you have 10 Kirk Douglas performances. He was a great actor, one of the very best, and he lived a long and full life. I am just glad we got to see the man at his finest.