Welcome to the Posts section of the official Kirk Douglas website. Its purpose is to let Kirk share his thoughts and activities with you, and to enable you to share your thoughts with him.
Below you’ll find links to the most recent "Reflections" and "Activities" posts.
Clicking the “Reflections” button to the left, you’ll be taken to a page where Kirk, a best-selling writer as well as a movie star, has posted his most recent thoughts and musings.
Clicking the “Activities” button, you’ll be taken to a page where you can learn about current and past goings-on in which Kirk is involved.
Clicking the "Kirk Douglas Theatre" button, you'll get the latest news about productions at the theatre, named to honor Kirk Douglas and established as the newest and most intimate of the Center Theatre Group's spaces, which include the Ahmanson and Mark Taper Theatres at the Los Angeles Music Center.
By clicking “Fan Mail,” you’ll have the opportunity to share your thoughts with Kirk.
Kirk Doulgas's new book, written with his wife Anne, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood is now available. This link will enable you to order a copy, and have part of the proceeds go to the work of The Douglas Foundation.
Film legend Kirk Douglas and Anne Buydens, his wife of nearly sixty-three years, look back on a lifetime filled with drama both on and off the screen. Sharing priceless correspondence with each other as well as the celebrities and world leaders they called friends, Kirk and Anne is a candid portrayal of the pleasures and pitfalls of a Hollywood life lived in the public eye.
Compiled from Anne's private archive of letters and photographs, this is an intimate glimpse into the Douglases' courtship and marriage set against the backdrop of Kirk's screen triumphs, including The Vikings, Lust For Life, Paths of Glory, and Spartacus. The letters themselves, as well as Kirk and Anne's vivid descriptions of their experiences, reveal remarkable insight and anecdotes about the legendary figures they knew so well, including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, the Kennedys, and the Reagans. Filled with photos from film sets, private moments, and public events, Kirk and Anne details the adventurous, oftentimes comic, and poignant reality behind the glamour of a Hollywood life-as only a couple of sixty-two years (and counting) could tell it.
Inside Kirk Douglas's intimate 100th birthday celebration
- Created on Sunday, 11 December 2016
- Written by Associated Press
--Associated Press December 10, 2016
Kirk Douglas knows how to make an entrance. With boxing gloves in every centerpiece and the theme from "Rocky" blaring over the speakers, Douglas, one of the golden age of Hollywood's last living legends, walked confidently into the Sunset Room at the Beverly Hills Hotel Friday afternoon to celebrate his 100th birthday at an intimate gathering of friends and family.
Flanked by Anne Douglas, his wife of over 62 years, his son Michael Douglas, his daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones and his grandchildren, Kirk Douglas looked out over the crowd of about 150 people, including Don Rickles, Jeffrey Katzenberg, his Rabbi and many of his closest friends and smiled. Not only was he surrounded by friendly faces, he knew, as promised by his doctor years ago, that if he lived to 100, he would get to have a glass of vodka.
But before the vodka was presented in a comically large martini glass, Kirk Douglas got to sit and listen to words from his loved ones as images from his many classic film credits such as "Spartacus," "Lust for Life," "Paths of Glory" and others played on a screen behind him.
Michael Douglas kicked off the proceedings, saying that it's not just about age, but about the life he's lived and what he's accomplished.
"One of the things that I find most incredible about dad is the third act of his life," said Michael Douglas. "After all he accomplished in his professional career and what he's given for his country, at the point in his life where he's faced adversity, losing a son, having a helicopter crash, having a stroke, and what he's accomplished in this third act in his life, I find quite extraordinary."
Kirk Douglas kept his remarks brief.
"I wonder who he was talking about? He said some nice things about someone I don't know," Kirk Douglas said, joking that Michael Douglas was chosen to organize the proceedings because "he has the most money."
Kirk Douglas also thanked everyone for coming and marveled at seeing most of his family in the crowd.
Zeta-Jones then lit the 12 candles on the cake.
"I'm so glad there's not 100!" she exclaimed, before leading the room to sing "Happy Birthday" with a string quartet accompaniment.
It was only the start of the afternoon, which included remarks from a few of his seven grandchildren, his Rabbi and his doctor. Charley King's Bluebell Events oversaw the afternoon tea where each table was designated not by numbers but by Kirk Douglas's films. The birthday boy was seated at the "Lonely Are the Brave" table, which is his favorite film.
Don Rickles lightened the reverent and respectful mood, quipping to the crowd from his seat that he wanted to go home.
He poked fun at Kirk Douglas's good looks and physique saying that he had to hear the "I'm Spartacus crap" every day, and how Burt Lancaster used to advise him that Kirk Douglas "doesn't know what he's talking about."
Rickles did get a bit choked up by the end
"You are an outstanding man because you've been blessed with warmth and love and class, and ... ah, forget it, you're all of that and more," He said. "May god give you strength and may you be with us for 100 more. If that's his wish, so be it, if not, I know in heaven you'll be in charge."
Off to the side, actress and dancer Neile Adams, who was Steve McQueen's first wife, recalled Douglas's mischievous side.
"Kirk was terrible when he was a young man! You could not sit beside him without his hand crawling up your leg. When Steve would leave the room suddenly he'd be on me," she said with a hearty laugh. "But he was cute."
She recalled his resilience, when a few years ago he had both of his knees replaced. Michael Douglas, she said, tried to encourage him to just do one and get a chair. Kirk Douglas, however, had a different idea and it didn't involve a wheelchair.
"You'll never see Spartacus in a (expletive) chair!" Adams remembered him saying.
Later in the afternoon, Katzenberg reflected on the generosity of the Douglas's, who are famous for their charitable giving.
"You have remained and will always remain my hero," Katzenberg said. "I will remind you of your words that you gave to me and I try to give to other people all the time which is 'you haven't learned how to live until you learn how to give.'"
Steven Spielberg, who arrived late, and on crutches having recently broken his foot on set came with a very specific message.
"I wanted to come here and say I've been shooting movies and television shows for now 47 years and I've worked with the best of them and you're the only movie star I ever met," Spielberg said. "There is something that you have that no one else ever had ... When you watch Kirk's performance in anything, in anything he's ever done, you cannot take your eyes off of him. It's not possible to look away from him."
He called it an optimistic ferocity and it's something he challenges all his actors to achieve in his films.
"You're a miracle man," he said.
And, even after 100 years to show for it, he's still fighting.
KIRK DOUGLAS, A HUNDRED YEARS OLD
- Created on Friday, 09 December 2016
- Written by Anthony Lane
--The New Yorker December 9, 2016
Many happy returns to Kirk Douglas, who is a hundred years old today. How should the occasion be celebrated? The most obvious method would be to leap joyfully, from oar to oar, along the flank of a longship; that is how Douglas announced his homecoming in “The Vikings” (1958), making the happiest of returns to his people. If you miss your footing and tumble into the water, so much the better. The trouble is that not all of us have a fjord at hand. Maybe we should just line up to greet the great man, as his colleagues did in “The Arrangement” (1969), welcoming him back to the office with an eager handshake and a tray of drinks, but be warned: that scene ends with Douglas slumping into a chair, throwing up his hands, and saying, “Bullshit.”
Centenarians of the cinema are a rare breed. The last big name to hit three figures was Bob Hope (1903-2003), and you don’t need to be an admirer of either man to note the connection. A couple of stills will do the job, confirming that the key to longevity, in Hollywood, has nothing to do with morals, marriages, exercise regimes, or green vegetables. It’s a maxillary matter, as simple as that. You take a breath, say a prayer, stick your neck out, and chin your way to a hundred.
The cleft in the Douglas chin is, with the exception of the Grand Canyon, the most popular natural rift in America. The geology of the guy is open to public view, demanding recognition; one glance at that dimple is enough, like a single syllable of Jimmy Stewart’s voice. Fans of the Asterix comic-strip books, set during the Roman occupation of Gaul, will point you to “Asterix and Obelix All at Sea” (1996), which is dedicated partly to Douglas, and in which the heroic figure of Spartakis is drawn directly from him; what’s wonderful is that this cartoon version, with its stiff hedge of blond hair and its promontory of jaw, is almost no exaggeration at all.
If that sounds improbable, check out the first forty seconds of “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), and the list of things that the camera finds on its travels: desert scrub, a dying fire, then boots, denims, shirt, cigarette, and the lower half of a sunburned face. We know who this is. What follows, on the other hand, throws us off track. Douglas sits up, tips back the brim of his hat to reveal all, then stares into the sky, where three jets leave vapor trails across the heavens—long white scars against deep gray, since the film is a fine example of late monochrome. What the hell is a cowboy doing with jets overhead? Shouldn’t they be arrows, or circling vultures? But that is the nub of the story: this fellow is the last of a breed, defiantly homeless, snipping wire fences on the principle that nobody should be hemmed in, and riding on through. He saddles his beautiful palomino, and we expect an open prairie, but he winds up in a bright new kitchen, agleam with mod cons, where Gena Rowlands makes him ham and eggs. He fits in like a clown in a monastery. Even more unnerving is the movie’s end, as the hero and his mount are knocked down, on a rainy road, by a truck ferrying toilets.
“Lonely Are the Brave” was one of Douglas’s favorite projects, and you can see why; not just because he was center stage—where else is a star supposed to hang out, for God’s sake?—but because the stage stretched from the old world to the new, and he was not someone who liked to be assigned, let alone confined, to a regular period or place. He was quite at ease in the O.K. Corral, or the Roman arena, clad in cast-iron underpants and on-the-shoulder chain mail, but drop him into the here and now and he would show you how to wear a good suit as if it were armor-plated. Look at the broad double-breasted number that he sports in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), descending the stairs to meet Lana Turner, who has dropped round in full battle-dress, including a floor-length jewelled gown and a cloud of white fur. His snarl is like the jab of a trident. “Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while. Maybe everybody does,” he tells her, and adds, “Who gave you the right to dig into me and turn me inside out and decide what I’m like?” Whatever you say, Mr. Douglas.
He was born Issur Danielovitch, in Amsterdam, New York. It was quite a family: three sisters, then the boy, then three more sisters. No wonder his life thronged with women. His father, Herschel, born in Russia in 1884, had come to American around 1908; he took the lowliest of jobs, gathering stuff that even the poor had thrown away. Hence the title of Douglas’s autobiography, published in 1988: “The Ragman’s Son.” It’s an exhausting read. All the fights and the fallouts, the wrestling bouts, the litany of carnal conquests and contractual flareups: the carnival of immodesty starts early and never subsides. He remembers hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac, and asks, “Is that any way for a God to act? Don’t you think he’s taking advantage of his position? Don’t you think he’s cruel?” There is even a glint of menace in his complaint: “I also didn’t like the way God treated Moses.” So that’s why Kirk Douglas is still going strong, at a hundred. God’s afraid to meet him.
The author’s memories of childhood, unlike a few of his West Coast anecdotes, have the brunt of the believable. “I stole food. I reached under a neighbor’s chicken for the warm egg, cracked it open, swallowed it whole in secret.” And don’t forget the twelve-block walk to Hebrew school: “I had to run the gauntlet, because every street had a gang and they would always be waiting to catch the Jew boy.” If that’s the kind of bruising you grow up with, then struggling to get the name of Dalton Trumbo—banned by the blacklist—into the credits of “Spartacus,” as Douglas did, is hardly a battle at all.
Then there was Mrs. Livingston. She was Issur’s teacher, who introduced the lad to romantic poetry, took a shine to him, and invited him home “to help her with some English papers one evening.” Byron would have approved, although even he might have suggested, now and then, that Douglas the Don Juan pause his pen. The recitation of amours is unflagging, and it certainly gives you a historical shock to realize there is a man—if not quite a gentleman—alive today who can inform you of what it was like to make out with Joan Crawford. (“We never got past the foyer,” he writes. “There we were on the rug.”) I prefer the elegant euphemisms: “Ann Sothern played my wife. We rehearsed the relationship offstage.” And I would trade all such revelations for that poised encounter, in “Man Without a Star” (1955), when Jeanne Crain, seated politely at a desk, with a ledger open in front of her, inquires of Douglas, “What do you want?” In response, he takes a pen, and scratches the word “You” in rough letters across the page. They kiss. “I’m going to have a lot of trouble with you,” he says, and spins her chair around in glee. “You’re so right,” she says. The honors are even.
What rises from the pages of “The Ragman’s Son” is the unmistakable whiff of certainty. The transformation from Issur Danielovitch to Izzy Demsky to Kirk Douglas seems ordained, unavoidable, and brazenly luckless. He had to happen. If your first movie is “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946)—seeing off Richard Widmark and Montgomery Clift to snag the role, which pairs you with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin—then you are unlikely to be plagued by the demons of self-doubt. You brush them off like flies. Even stronger was Douglas’s third outing, in “Out of the Past” (1947), where he plays a gangster who would very much like his moll back, plus the forty thousand bucks she took with her. Love is not the issue. “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them,” he admits. One of the virtues of Kirkery is the brio, oddly unjealous, with which he squares off against other actors; stealing a scene, perhaps, but always content to share the loot. In this case, he had Robert Mitchum. “Cigarette?,” one man asks. “Smoking,” the other replies, showing him what already smolders in his hand. A word, a gesture, and they’re done. Actors like this can make a gunfight out of Lucky Strikes.
So much mythologizing energy is expended on those who flamed and crashed in their youth, from Rudolph Valentino to Heath Ledger, that we sometimes neglect the power of the long burn. The bewildering thing about Douglas is that, when you gaze back at his career, it seems to have been fireworks all the way. He entered movies not watching his step, still less with the shy trepidation of a novice, but like somebody spoiling for a fight. Is it any surprise that audiences, freshly released from the toils of the Second World War, should have sensed that momentum, stuck with it, and revelled in the hopefulness of its forward thrust? By the time that Douglas played a boxer, in “Champion,” in 1949 (he trained with an ex-welterweight named Mushy Callahan), his name preceded the title onscreen, and we were forced to wait awhile, viewing him only from behind as he padded through the tunnel’s gloom and entered the glare of the ring. Finally he turned and unleashed the grin. We looked up at him from below, as if we were already down on the canvas and taking the count. He didn’t even have to throw a punch.
Ah, the smile of Kirk: one of the steeliest blades in cinema, unrusted by the years. It was still there when he reunited with his friend Burt Lancaster, in the slight but elegiac “Tough Guys” (1986). They had acted together many times, beginning with “I Walk Alone” (1948); they had even sung and danced together, at the 1958 Academy Awards, performing “It’s Great Not to Be Nominated.” What binds the two of them—and you could make it three, by adding Charlton Heston—is that, in each case, the smile was somehow more frightening than the roars of rage. The most remorseless smiler of our age is Tom Cruise, yet he is careful never to forgo a winning geniality, whereas Douglas and Lancaster, in their pomp, bared their teeth as they did the undulation of their muscles. If Douglas had played Quint, in “Jaws,” the shark would have rolled its black eyes, backed off, and swum away.
Not that Douglas, in his movies, was a mere bully; that is no guarantee of fame. As far as punishment goes, his characters may dish it out, but fate tends to dish it right back, and, indeed, the registration of pain can grow startling to the point of masochism, as anyone who flinched from his Vincent Van Gogh, in “Lust for Life” (1956), can testify. Best of all is his Colonel Dax, in “Paths of Glory,” released the following year, and directed by Stanley Kubrick—“a talented shit,” in Douglas’s opinion. He plays a French colonel in the First World War, tasked first with leading a fruitless attack on an impregnable German position and then with defending his men against charges of cowardice; what shakes him is not an artillery barrage but the indifference of the top brass, and what lends the performance its grip is that you can never be sure when, and how, he will lose his soldierly cool. Thus, he disarms us, one evening, lounging on his bunk, jacket unbuttoned, and tugging off his boots. The mood is mild. In comes a sergeant, whom Dax suspects of treating the lower ranks unfairly, and whom he then orders, by way of a bitter lesson, to take charge of a firing squad:
“You draw your revolver out, you walk forward and put a bullet through each man’s head.”
“Sir, I request that I be excused from this duty.”
“Request denied. You got the job. It’s all yours.”
Look at Douglas, just before he delivers that last line. His whole being tautens; the chin is implacable; justice is served. Was that emotional rawness too much for Kubrick, who liked everything to be cooked just right? He was summoned by Douglas again, to take the helm of “Spartacus,” in 1960, but not until Jack Nicholson was called upon for “The Shining,” two decades on, would Kubrick entrust a film to an actor of such bridling intensity. And you have to wonder, in turn, how Douglas and his dramatic demeanor—at once masterful and eruptive, commanding the space of a movie yet prey to the dictates of his own heart and guts—would fare in times like ours. Could anyone now get away with the sublime insolence of Chuck Tatum, the reporter played by Douglas in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951)? Newly landed at a quiet provincial newspaper, he strikes a match by holding it against the cylinder of a typewriter and pressing the carriage return. Later, the same trick is repeated, but this time someone else presses the key on Chuck’s behalf. He has the place in his thrall.
The miracle, by my reckoning, is how much of Douglas’s achievement does not seem dated; how thoroughly it answers, in fact, to a resilient notion of what a leading man is for. Likable is fine, credible always helps, but watchable is everything: he must be a lure to the eyes. And with that magnetic pull comes an attitude—the particular angle, so to speak, at which an actor confronts the world. In Douglas’s case, he leans forward, as if forever grasping the prow of a Viking ship, breasting the waves and building up an appetite for experience. “Now that you’ve got a big hit, you’ve become a real son of a bitch,” the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper said to him, in the wake of “Champion.” To which Douglas replied, “You’re wrong, Hedda. I was always a son of a bitch. You just never noticed before.” Life is hard, as Issur Danielovitch discovered, but if you go at it, fists at the ready, with whetted words to match, you may just come out on top. And even if you don’t, you can still be left standing at the end, a hundred years on; that is a kind of triumph in itself. The old poem says, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Not yet.
Anthony Lane has been a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993.
Sharing biblical stories and 100 years of life lessons with Kirk Douglas
- Created on Friday, 09 December 2016
- Written by Rabbi David Wolpe
--Los Angeles Times December 9, 2016
We were in the middle of the Book of Esther, where the new queen is being prepared by the eunuchs of the court for a fateful meeting with the king. “I’ve got the movie,” Kirk Douglas said, eyes sparkling as he imagined a scene playing out.
“What’s the movie?” I asked.
“Well, I play one the of the court eunuchs,” he said. “I dress her and undress her. Only I’m not really a eunuch!”
For the last 20 years I have studied Bible once a week with Douglas. In those years he lost his youngest son to a drug overdose, endured the heartbreak of seeing his grandson imprisoned for dealing drugs, watched his son Michael win a lifetime achievement award (“What does that make me? Winner of some posthumous prize?”), marked 50 years with his wife, Anne, and struggled with his legacy and mortality. On Friday he turned 100.
It is difficult to imagine what it means to live a century, world-famous for most of it. His relatively modest Beverly Hills house is filled with gifts from other world-famous people. I admired an ornate hand mirror on my first visit. “Oh, Anwar Sadat gave that to me,” he said, offhandedly. Once you’ve partied with Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy, you aren’t easily excited.
I asked him once if he remembered Jackie Robinson. “Do I remember him? Do I remember him?” he scoffed. “Rabbi, I was 4 years old when women got the vote.” When on a hot day I said how much I appreciated air conditioning and guessed that as a kid he’d probably relied on a block of ice and a fan, he fixed me with a half-comic glare and said, “Who had a fan?”
Douglas was a notoriously pugnacious star who projected a burning, internal anger on the screen. I still see glimpses of that smoldering ire as he reads certain sections of the Bible or discusses political events when we meet; it was not entirely acting. A doctor who treated many Hollywood stars confided to me that Douglas was among his toughest patients. “He once punched a hole in my wall because he had a cold,” he told me. “As if germs had some nerve inconveniencing Kirk Douglas.” He could also be openhanded and brave on behalf of the underdog. His orneriness was part of what enabled him to insist that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo get sole screen credit for “Spartacus” in 1960.
Those sharp edges have softened over time. “I don’t know if studying made him nicer or he was nicer so he studied,” his son Michael told me several years ago. “But you are seeing him at his kindest.”
Several years ago he and Anne sold much of their precious art collection to fund a foundation that has built more than 400 school playgrounds all over California. They have attended, together, the opening of every single one. They have given away tens of millions, notably to schools and the Motion Picture Home for the Aged.
Douglas has survived a heart attack, a stroke and a helicopter crash. He reads the Bible for its stories of struggle, and feels an affinity for the more troubled characters. When my book on King David was optioned by Warner Bros., he lamented being too old to play him in the movie. David, he told me, was his kind of complicated character, noble, strong and sinful. Douglas often recounts something a rabbi told him when he first began to study Judaism: that he loved being Jewish because it was so dramatic.
Facing his mortality, Douglas told me about sitting with his mother at the end of her life some 75 years ago. She held his hand and told him not to be afraid, that everyone dies. He had an extremely contentious relationship with his father, but he adored his mother and she adored him. “When my boy walks,” he remembers her telling her friends, “the earth trembles.”
Now when he walks, he trembles. He complains, but mostly with amazement that he is 100.
Several years ago I asked why he was studying the Bible at this stage of his life. It is the best book of stories in the world, he replied, then added, “At this point it is all about God, people and charity, and I have my doubts about God, but none about charity and people.”
Studying Judaism for years has softened him, but not dampened his drive to know more, and do more. It has turned him outward to the world. That same day as I was leaving he walked me to the door and said, “Come back soon. The sun is setting and there is still a lot to learn.”
Rabbi David Wolpe is the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple and the author of eight books, including “David: The Divided Heart,” which is being developed into a movie.
Kirk Douglas Celebrates 100th Birthday With New Book Written With Wife Anne
- Created on Thursday, 08 December 2016
- Written by Pete Hammond
--Deadline Hollywood December 7, 2016
Kirk Douglas turns 100 on Friday, and he has found the perfect gift to celebrate. Running Press later today officially will be announcing the May 2 publication of a new book, Douglas’ 12th, written with his wife of 62 years, Anne Buydens Douglas, called Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood.
The book isn’t quite ready yet to hand out at Friday’s afternoon tea party for 150 or so close friends and associates that son Michael and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones are throwing for Kirk, but it is yet another indication that this legendary star is not letting another digit to his age slow him down a bit. It was just a year ago, on the occasion of his mere 99th, that I wrote about Kirk’s birthday present that year, a $15 million donation to the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s new $35 million Alzheimer’s facility on its Woodland Hills campus that will be named the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion. It brings to $40 million his lifetime donations to the organization. This summer he and Anne were out in force at the MPTF’s 95th birthday celebration — where it was noted he’s been around since before it was even founded — and an early birthday cake was rolled out for Kirk, who got a standing ovation after a tribute from Michael Douglas.
The new book for the seemingly indefatigable Douglas comes from the Running Press/Turner Classic Movies publishing program and features letters and commentary on the couple’s secrets to longevity in a marriage still going strong. The book is said to chronicle the couple’s courtship and marriage; stories of their famous contemporaries like Sinatra, Peck, Wayne, Lancaster, Bacall and others; anecdotes from numerous film sets and dinner parties; the couple’s travel to more than 40 countries as goodwill ambassadors; personal stories of their relationships with several U.S. presidents and first ladies starting with JFK and Jackie; plus surviving the down times including his near-fatal helicopter crash, a debilitating stroke and the death of their youngest son, Eric. It also included several previously unseen photos.
It is interesting to note that Douglas will be joining a very exclusive club of famed Hollywood actors who became centenarians including George Burns, Bob Hope, Charles Lane, Gloria Stuart, Estelle Winwood, Luise Rainer and some like Norman Lloyd and Olivia de Havilland (who turned 100 in July) who, like Douglas, are still active and going strong. I had the honor of doing a couple of onstage interviews with Douglas at both the Motion Picture Academy and Television Academy theaters in 2012 for his book I Am Spartacus, and he got up at one of them to do a sword fight with the actor then starring in the TV version of Spartacus.
Douglas certainly has been busy in the days leading up to his 100th milestone; just last week he sent a taped message to honoree Warren Beatty, who received the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s annual dinner. There have been numerous tributes for the star in anticipation of the big day, as well as several film retrospectives featuring many of his 87 movies including Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave (which he cites often as a particular favorite), and his Oscar-nominated turns in Lust for Life and Champion. Another of those movies was 1953’s Act of Love, which is where during production he met his future wife, Anne, then a publicist.
Among those expected to attend the Douglas centennial in Beverly Hills on Friday are Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Don Rickles, three sons including Michael and seven grandchildren. It will mark a great new moment in the “Kirk and Anne” continuing love story, perhaps the first chapter of a sequel to the new book.
How We Should Remember Kirk Douglas on His 100th Birthday
- Created on Thursday, 08 December 2016
- Written by Neal Gabler
--Forward December 6, 2016
As he approaches his 100th birthday on December 9, Kirk Douglas is both a movie legend and a Hollywood anomaly: a star divided. Most stars lodge in our collective consciousness. Douglas, while a first-magnitude star, was never quite an indelible one, save maybe for the dimple in his chin, never one who seemed to capture the zeitgeist the way some of his contemporaries did. Arriving in Hollywood when it was transitioning from classical acting to the Method, he was part traditional actor, part Method. Handsome but occasionally petulant, he was both pretty boy and thug. He could be cool, but also explosive, both iceberg and volcano. And perhaps above all he was always both outsider and insider — the man who never quite fit comfortably into any peg-hole.
By now most Jews know that Douglas was born Issur Danielovich to two illiterate Russian Jewish immigrant parents, in Amsterdam, New York, not far from Albany. He grew up destitute, a “nobody,” as he later put it, and he grew up resentful. First out of survival and then out of professional necessity, he tried to hide his roots, as he edged from Issur Danielovich to Izzy Demsky and finally to Kirk Douglas, a name he chose for himself after graduating from St. Lawrence University and embarking on his acting career. He moved to New York, got a scholarship to the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts, found himself on Broadway, and then was lured to Hollywood when a friend and fellow Jew, Lauren Bacall, who had preceded him there, passed his name to producer Hal Wallis.
From poor first-generation Eastern European Jew to Hollywood star — Douglas’s was an assimilationist fairy tale. But the assimilation was never complete, which may have been a Jewish actor’s occupational hazard. There wasn’t much room for Jewish actors in Hollywood unless they foresook their Jewishness. Paul Muni, born Muni Weisenfreund, buried himself in make-up and other ethnic identities; it was said he answered the door in costume. Edward G. Robinson, born Emanuel Goldenberg, made his career playing Italians. Swarthy Jeff Chandler, born Ira Grossel, played Cochise in “Broken Arrow.” And John Garfield, born Julius Garfinkel, affected an average American Joe.
Douglas’ accommodation was one of the most unusual. His Jewishness was too stubborn to shake, even if he wanted to shake it, and in any case, he was extremely ambivalent about doing so. Virtually alone among Jewish stars, he played Jews, including a Holocaust victim in “The Juggler” and Israeli colonel Mickey Marcus in “Cast a Giant Shadow.” Issur was like a second self — or, maybe, a first self. And of all the divisions that roiled in him, this seemed the most significant: the division between Issur and Kirk. It gnawed at him, haunted him, rebuked him. In his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” he frequently recalls episodes of anti-Semitism as Issur/Izzy and others, later, as Kirk, when gentiles thought he was one of them and could talk openly about their Jew hatred. And what emerged then, in the man and in the performances, was rage — rage at his childhood poverty, rage at his shiftless father, and rage at the anti-Semitism that surrounded him and taunted him. “There was an awful lot of rage churning around inside of me,” he confessed in “The Ragman’s Son.” Kirk Douglas was the virtuoso of rage. A lot of that was Jewish rage.
Other stars of that era, the late 1940s and 50s, brooded and seethed. It was almost de rigeur for a character to be writhing in psychological turmoil. Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and, of course, Marlon Brando were all tortured souls — misunderstood rebels, chafing against the culture and challenging the mores and aesthetics of button-down 50s America. While they did erupt under pressure — Brando’s eruptions were historic — these were always veiled cri de coeurs of men in anguish lashing out at their hurts and pleading for help.
And then there was Douglas. Douglas didn’t convey that sense of woundedness — of a man wronged by an implacable world. Douglas was just plain angry, and his characters were closer to derangement than those of any other major star. His face was often clenched, which is how impressionist Frank Gorshin would imitate him, and his famously affable grin could, and often did, instantly turn into a snarl. There is a scene in William Wyler’s “Detective Story” where Douglas, playing a cop on the trail of an abortionist, discovers that his beloved wife has had an abortion. The volcano erupts. “I would rather go to jail for twenty years,” he yells viciously, “than to find out my wife is a tramp.” It erupts again in “Lust for Life” where Douglas plays Vincent Van Gogh crossing the line into madness. It erupts in Champion where Douglas plays a hell-bent boxer who uses and discards everyone on his way to the top, and again in “Young Man With a Horn” where he turns on his mentor then descends into an alcoholic hell. Indeed, Douglas is scarcely in control of himself in many of his most famous roles.
And that is the other thing about Kirk Douglas. Though he played his share of straight arrows and men of conviction — see “Paths of Glory” or “Seven Days in May” or “Spartacus” — he specialized in unlikable characters, users and heels and no-accounts, to the point where, if no actor was ever as angry as Douglas, no actor flirted with unlikability as much as Douglas did either. He began his film career in the noir “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” as the titular heroine’s drunken, emasculated husband and continued down that road. Think of his ambitious down-at-the-heels reporter in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” who manages to stage a media extravaganza out of a man trapped in a mountain cave, and prolongs the rescue to prolong the show, until the man dies. Or think of him in one of his three Academy Award nominated roles, Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” in which he plays a ruthless film producer who uses people as rungs on his ladder to success, and practically defines the role of snake. This was Douglas’s preference. “Virtue is not photogenic,” he once said. Villainy clearly was.
Even on those occasions when he played a relatively conventional hero, he was usually challenging authority. Again, “Paths of Glory” and “Spartacus” come to mind. The role he had always coveted — to the point of buying the rights to the book — was Randle McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which speaks to how well Douglas understood his persona. McMurphy was strong, iconoclastic, a bit addled, and angry — a pretty good description of Douglas’ screen image, though McMurphy had less malice than Douglas. Unfortunately, Douglas could never get the financing, so he turned the rights over to his actor/producer son Michael, who did, and who then cast Jack Nicholson because, he said, his dad was too old. Nicholson made a great McMurphy. It may be his signature role. You have a feeling, though, that Douglas would have brought more menace and heat to the character and more of that derangement.
The film in which he said it did come together for him was a modern Western, “Lonely Are the Brave,” in which he plays an itinerant ranch hand who tries to spring a friend from jail (where he is being held for having helped illegal immigrants) by getting himself incarcerated and then, when the friend won’t budge, beats up a deputy and escapes into the hills. A long pursuit ensues, pitting Douglas and his horse against the incursions of modernity. The film is an elegy for a way of life as well as a celebration of it. Douglas obviously identified with the doomed cowboy — with his rage, his loneliness, his anguish, his anti-authoritarianism and his anachronistic sense of selfhood in a conformist world. Douglas seemed to feel that way too, his stardom notwithstanding.
Douglas was always something of a lone wolf. While other stars had the security and support of the studio, even as the studio system was crumbling, Douglas preferred to be a free lancer. When the system finally fell, he was one of the first to form his own production company, Bryna, named for his mother, and along with commercial fare like The Vikings and Seven Days in May, he produced unusual projects, like Paths of Glory and Lonely Are the Brave, that were not obvious box office attractions. One of the accomplishments of which he was proudest was not something he did as an actor but as a producer when he claimed to have broken the Hollywood blacklist against suspected communists by hiring writer blacklistee Dalton Trumbo to pen “Spartacus” and then giving him screen credit. (Trumbo would also write “Lonely Are the Brave.”)
There are disputations over whether Douglas really deserves that credit. Trumbo’s family later said that Trumbo himself deserved it, and the film’s hands-on producer, Eddie Lewis, has said he was the one who got Trumbo. But the point is that Douglas did buck the authorities and did put himself on the line, even if the communist stigma had already begun to fade. It was certainly in character for him to do so, not least because so many of those blacklistees, though not Trumbo, were fellow Jews. It may be odd to say of an actor whose stage name was Scottish and who didn’t emit any apparent ethnicity, that as well as being one of the angriest stars and often one of the most unlikable, he may also have been the most Jewish of stars in the 50s and 60s before ethnicity became voguish. I think that is because just as Barbra Streisand would transform Jewish otherness into a generalized otherness for her audience, Douglas transformed Jewish resentment into a generalized resentment for his audience.
That is how we may remember him on his 100th birthday: as the man who never forgot who he was or how hard it was to maintain his identity in a society that was not receptive to it, and yet who never stopped fighting to be himself.
Neal Gabler’s most recent book is “Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power.”