Remembering Kirk Douglas: A Film Icon

Kirk Douglas in the early 1960's.

There are a handful of actors who have such a distinct subversive style and vivacity that you could single one of them out as the sole face of the craft.

Kirk Douglas is one of them.

Douglas passed away yesterday evening, February 5, 2020 at an astounding 103 years of age. From when I was a child I was aware of him and his work when I first watched him as the cheery, blonde-haired Ned Land in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I slowly grew to appreciate him even more as I learned about the man and his incredibly long and storied life.

It should be known that Kirk, an American Icon, was born into a family of Jewish-Russian immigrants on December 9, 1916. His given birth name was Issur Danielovitch. Issur was brought into plight as he was raised in a shack in the slums of Amsterdam, New York with his six sisters, a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father, and a mother who strained herself daily to provide for her family and those in the community around her (Douglas later said his desire to help other came from watching his mother’s actions as a child). He sought out acting as a profession after reciting a poem in school to rapturous applause, and joined acting classes in the late 1930’s. Then, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas before being sent off to fight in World War II from 1941 to 1944.

After the war ended, Douglas found work in theater, radio, and early commercials. He made his first movie, the now renowned film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, in 1946. His first role was a meaty major supporting character; an alcoholic district attorney who suffers in the hands of his domineering, power hungry wife played by Barbara Stanwyck. The success of this film catapulted Kirk into stardom very quickly. What followed was more noirs and in 1949 he broke into other terrains with the romantic drama A Letter to Three Wives and the sports drama Champion. Both films helped Kirk explore his depth as an actor and gave him even more widespread recognition, garnering multiple Academy Award wins for the former film and his first nomination for Best Actor for the latter.

From this point on, Kirk Douglas was a household name. An abundance of starring roles in some of the most respected movies of all time came flowing in for him: Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), the story of a disgruntled reporter willing to risk lives for the sake of a good story; The Bad and The Beautiful (1952) where Douglas played a sleazy Hollywood mogul (earning him a second Oscar nomination), but his most challenging role came in 1956 when he was asked to portray Vincent Van Gogh in Vincente Minelli’s Lust For Life. For playing the sensitive painter, Kirk was surprised to receive backlash from some of his acting peers, such as John Wayne who advised him not to take the role pleading, “We’ve got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Douglas used this as motivation to further immerse himself in Van Gogh, and painfully regurgitated every drop of passion and anguish onto the screen. It is perhaps one of the most highly-regarded pieces of acting in the history of cinema.

This is part of the reason why Kirk Douglas is such an important film figure. He broke the concept of what the Hollywood Leading Man of the time could do by playing anti-heroes and afflicted characters. He also channeled unwavering energy and total encapsulation of every role he sought out, the likes of which no movie star at the time seemed to possess. This energy contrasted the suave, easygoing men that came before him. Douglas could explode in meaningful ways. It was total devotion to the material at hand. Where did this come from? The actor stated in his later years he supposed his aggressive and impoverished upbringing had something to do with it; the rage from being looked upon as dirty during his early days in school and as an actor starting out.

The 1960’s saw even more acting successes and a change in focus for Kirk. He established Bryna Productions, an independent production company that helmed 19 films over the course of its existence. He was one of the first stars ever to go independent. Inspired by his friend Burt Lancaster’s company, many of his later works came out under Bryna, which he named after his mother, earning him the title of actor and producer. In the case of two films, director. This began a radical shift for the motion picture industry as more independent studios sprang up backed and led by actors, thus giving a voice to unknown filmmakers who weren’t making the kinds of movies big studios wanted. I have always said that Hollywood (as an antiquated concept) has spent the last sixty years slowly dying and Kirk Douglas drove the first spike.

Then of course came his role in ending the infamous Hollywood Blacklist. During the McCarthy era, suspected communists were trialed and jailed, and those not willing to comply lost jobs. This heavily impacted the motion picture industry. Kirk spent a great deal of time with blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and President-elect John F. Kennedy, and fought for the right to use Trumbo’s credited name on the 1960 classic, Spartacus. Trumbo received the credit he deserved and the studio system became forgiving towards those on the blacklist as it began to fizzle out.

And who will forget Spartacus? Douglas’s best known role as the rebellious slave who led the revolt against the Roman Republic during the era of Antiquity. The powerful epic cemented him as a film icon, and millions flocked to witness the masterpiece.

After its success and many others, Douglas went back to the Broadway stage, starring in a new adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He later bought the rights to the novel and was instrumental in the conception of the 1975 Milos Forman-directed film version starring Jack Nicholson and produced by his son, Michael.

The actor’s senior years brought several tragedies that turn out to re-shape his life. In 1991, he was onboard a helicopter that collided with a plane in Santa Paula. Two passengers were killed, but Douglas survived. He contemplated suicide, but was triggered to search for a new meaning for his life. This was when he turned to Judaism, the custom by which he was raised but had fled from in his youth. Five years later, he suffered a severe stroke that heavily impaired his ability to speak. In 2004, his son Eric died of an drug overdose at the age of 46. These events once again brought his morale down to a low, but he was able to power through the affliction and loss by clinging to his faith.

This has always been a remarkable story of redemption to me. Kirk Douglas was a man that truly lived the epitome of the rags to riches tale, but was beaten down and then saved through spiritual guidance. It is a reminder that an awakening of this kind can occur at any given age to any person under any circumstance, even if that person seems like a god himself.

After finding personal salvation, tributes and honors piled up for the legendary actor as the nation realized how lucky it was to still have him. Such recognitions include the Kennedy Center Honor in 1994, an Honorary Oscar in 1996, the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2002, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In the twenty-first century, Douglas chose to focus on his family and humanitarian efforts. He and his wife of sixty-five years, Anne, donated millions of dollars worth to charitable funds ranging from Children’s Research to Alzheimer’s Treatment. They were responsible for constructing hundreds of playgrounds in lower-class schools throughout California. Kirk and Anne were the best kind of celebrity; they recognized their position and made efforts to give back. They were also motivated to protect American Democracy and acted as Goodwill Ambassadors for the US Information Agency, traveling around to promote democratic ideals. Coming from immigrant backgrounds, they loved what America had given them and worked to recoup.

Today, Douglas leaves a widow of Anne. Her trailblazing husband, the love of her life for over half a century, is gone. Their story is a love story worthy of the movies itself. When tragedy struck Kirk, it was Anne who was the first to lead her husband down a path of healing. Especially after his stroke. Two months after his hospitalization, he received an Honorary Academy Award at the 1996 Oscars ceremony. Because of his battered motor functions, his wife urged him to take the stage and simply say “thank you” and leave. When the night came and the movie legend walked out, he proceeded to deliver a two minute long speech especially dedicated to his wife and sons. Footage from this can be seen on The Academy’s YouTube account. Anne sobbed as her husband spoke with great apt despite his condition.

The man’s legacy and passion for the craft of acting and filmmaking is alive through his equally-famous creative dynasty: his sons, the multi-talented Michael Douglas and producers Peter and Joel Douglas, daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones, and grandson Cameron. The world will remember Kirk Douglas as a powerhouse actor, one of the most recognized and honored, who lived to see seven decades of change in the movie industry and is responsible for some of that change. His loss yesterday was massive to the film world. He was one of the most revered and respected figures in his field because of what he achieved, lived through, and how he remained active until his 100’s.

I have written many an essay on Mr. Douglas for school and pleasure; I’ve seen many of his films from each stage of his career and am not alone in saying that he is a legend. Once he reached 100 back in 2016, it honestly seemed like he would never die…which was fine by me.

He represented several generations of filmmaking that came and passed. In the reports of his death, many people are writing that Douglas was “the last of the great leading men of his era”, I think he was a first. He radicalized his profession and many actors that are working today have his methodology and charisma to look up to.

I want to encourage everyone to find one of Kirk Douglas’s movies to watch this weekend in celebration of his life and achievements. Many of his early films can be found on the Criterion Collection Channel. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the film that introduced me to him, can be seen on Disney+’s streaming service.

Goodbye to a great one.

Screenwriter, Author, Actor, but most importantly, Viewer. Lover of visual arts and drama, commentator on what’s happening in film, theater, and literature.

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