S.F. Jewish Film Festival honoring Kirk Douglas
--from Michael Ordona, San Francisco Chronicle, July 17, 2011
"Do I talk too much?" asks Kirk Douglas on a couch in an open, book-lined room. "When I have to do a movie, because of my impediment, 'Honey,' I say to my wife, 'I (don't know if) I'll talk tonight.' She says, 'Kirk, when they put a microphone in front of you, you will talk.' "
The once-upon-a-time Issur Danielovitch is now 94 years old, 65 years past his screen debut in "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" and 15 years removed from a stroke that has made speaking a struggle. "Can you understand my impaired speech? I'm always surprised because sometimes I can't understand myself," he cracks in the sunny Douglas home in Beverly Hills.
It's a particularly ironic difficulty for someone famous for speaking his mind - he has written 10 books, including four memoirs. But it's that deep-seated belief in freedom of expression that will soon bring the movie legend to San Francisco: It was about 50 years ago that his production of "Spartacus" drove a sword through the heart of Hollywood's blacklist by crediting banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
"You know, all stars get a lot of awards. But this award that the Jewish Film Festival is giving me, for freedom of expression, is very important to me. Because I think the most important thing that I have done in my career is break the blacklist. It's interesting to think about it now because of all the things that are happening in the world, the fights for freedom," he says, pointing out the real Spartacus was Libyan.
"When we look at Syria, Libya, Iraq, all those people are finally fighting for freedom and they are looking for a Spartacus. ... Here was a slave who led a revolt of slaves and almost overthrew the Roman Empire. A similar thing is happening in the Middle East. ... There are always people like Khadafy, Ahmadinejad, who work against it, who want to be dictators."
When it's pointed out that, despite his apologies for his impaired speech, his "Khadafy" and "Ahmadinejad" are clearly understood, Douglas flashes a bit of that familiar swagger: " 'Ahmadinejad!' I surprise you."
One way he apparently continues to surprise is the very fact of his Jewishness. He has said many continue to be unaware of it although he has discussed it extensively, particularly in his second memoir, "Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning." In it, he writes of the 1991 mid-air accident that nearly killed him and took the lives of two people in the plane that collided with his helicopter. He describes then undertaking a serious, scholarly study of the Torah that continues these many years later in weekly sessions with his rabbi. He even had a second bar mitzvah, at 83.
"Let me tell you, I am a Jew," he says. "But I think religion is overrated. Religion causes lots of problems. I think there's too much religion ... I maintain the Bible is filled with wonderful stories; that's why they make so many movies out of Bible stories. Are they all true? I don't think so. ...
"My religion is, when I am on Montecito, I see beautiful flowers and palm trees - I think there must be a God behind that. What do you do after you die? Is there a life after death? I don't know. I know there's life now. And I think religion is caring for other people. ... I'm not a good Jew."
This plainspokenness is present in his memoirs - as in 2007's "Let's Face It," when he pulls no punches with Mel Gibson and even takes his friend, President Jimmy Carter, to task for his remarks about Israel. That seems to put the lie to his standard line about why he was bold enough, at the end of the McCarthy era, to acknowledge Trumbo:
"I think I did it because I was young enough," he says of himself as a maverick actor-producer in his early 40s. "When you get older, you get more conservative. You're not so reckless. ... Maybe if I was 10 years older, I wouldn't have done it. ...
"I always hated the whole thing, the blacklist. Actors who couldn't work. I mean, actors who couldn't express themselves. That was a terrible thing. The heads of the studios, to me, were the villains."
Douglas confirms the stories of visiting Trumbo at "his house in the night like thieves; we would talk about the script, and he would usually be in the bathtub. And he had a parrot that I gave him," he says, laughing at the memory. "I don't know why he wanted a parrot."
Douglas says the eventual two-time Oscar-winning writer had no ego about revisions. He would tear up pages and write new ones at the drop of a hat. His prodigious speed was a major asset, considering one of the greatest of the production's many battles: Kirk Douglas versus Yul Brynner.
Brynner and director Martin Ritt had already begun work on "The Gladiators," on the same subject and with major studio backing. Douglas proposed they join forces, but received word from Ritt that Brynner "hated my guts" - in Michelangelo Capua's "Yul Brynner: A Biography," a letter from the Oscar winner to Ritt is quoted thus: "I have no faith and no liking for Kirk Douglas' acting and at this point for his box-office value."
So Douglas' relish is well-earned when he says, "We both presented Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton and Sir Laurence Olivier with our scripts. They all chose my script, and that knocked them out. That's why, in my book, I go, 'I am Spartacus!' "
And then there was the little problem of the film's young, unproven director - a scrambling replacement for another helmer the studio had wanted - and his prickly relationship with the blacklisted writer.
"You know, Dalton Trumbo hated Stanley Kubrick. And Stanley Kubrick hated Dalton Trumbo," says Douglas with a laugh. When Kubrick, reuniting with Douglas after the actor had given him his big break on "Paths of Glory," prepared his first cut of the gladiator picture, "Dalton Trumbo wrote an 80-page letter to Stanley Kubrick talking about 'The Big Spartacus' and 'The Little Spartacus.' He maintained that Kubrick was making a 'Little Spartacus' and he wanted to make a 'Big Spartacus.' They never made up."
Douglas and Kubrick fell out as well, over whom should be credited for writing "Spartacus." Douglas was shocked when Kubrick suggested his own name be used.
"After 'Spartacus,' I never saw him. And we were very close. We were always arguing when we made 'Paths of Glory'; we were very close during the shooting of 'Spartacus.' But Kubrick could be unreasonable. Once he said to me - we were on a soundstage - 'Can we raise the roof 3 feet?' 'No, we cannot raise the roof 3 feet,' " Douglas says in disbelief. As he turns, that Rushmore profile suddenly comes into powerful relief.
"He was a brilliant director. But in my first book, my last line on Stanley was, 'Stanley Kubrick was a talented s-.' He could be mean! ... I liked him because I like interesting people, and I don't mind a little friction."