Reflections

I AM SPARTUS! Review

Note: Kirk's new book I AM SPARTACUS! will be published on June 12, 2012. Here is a pre-publication review from Kirkus Reviews:

I AM SPARTACUS!

He is Spartacus…and here’s how it happened.

Douglas (Let's Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning, 2008, etc.) famously helped break the Hollywood blacklist when he insisted Dalton Trumbo—previously jailed for contempt of Congress and made an unemployable industry pariah due to his membership in the “Hollywood Ten”—be given sole screenwriting credit under his own name for Spartacus, rather than employ a pseudonym, as was common practice at the time. That act of courage is at the heart of this memoir about the creation of the epic film. The author’s evident pride in the matter is wholly justified, but the book’s true appeal lies in the off-camera antics of the storied cast and the candidly described aggravation and terror the production’s many complications engendered in Douglas, who, as the producer, had staked his reputation and financial well-being on the results. Among Douglas’ many headaches were the childish rivalry between stars Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton, who regarded each other with a curious combination of respect and utter hatred; the scene-stealing machinations of Peter Ustinov, whose efforts would net him an Academy Award; a scheduling standoff with a similarly themed sand-and-sandals epic starring Yul Brynner; and, most fascinatingly, Douglas’ frustration with director Stanley Kubrick, a replacement for Anthony Mann who alienated Douglas and much of the cast and crew with his high-handedness and lack of social skills, while ultimately delivering a technically accomplished and viscerally emotional masterpiece. Douglas is a fine natural storyteller, unafraid to portray his quick temper and nasty outbursts when the going got rough.

An entertaining and informative look at the troubled gestation of a film of both artistic and social significance.

Kirk Douglas on the blacklist: Why Hollywood showed so little courage

by Patrick Goldstein Los Angeles Times June 5, 2012

Kirk Douglas: Click for 'Spartacus' photos

 

For all his achievements, Kirk Douglas brags about only one thing — his age. In the middle of an interview the other day, the fabled star, who’s 95, suddenly waved away one of my questions to ask one of his own. “So tell me,” he said with a mischievous grin, seated in the living room of his Beverly Hills home in front of a magnificent Toulouse-Lautrec. “Am I the oldest actor you’ve ever interviewed?”

I fumbled for an answer, caught off guard by his directness. “That’s OK,” he said. “You probably haven’t talked to a 95-year-old author either, have you?”

Hollywood’s white-maned lion king had me there. Douglas has written a lively new memoir about one of his greatest triumphs. Titled “I Am Spartacus!” it recounts how Douglas helped break the midcentury anti-communist blacklist by secretly hiring Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus,” the historical epic that was directed by Stanley Kubrick and produced by Douglas and came out in October 1960.

BigpictureIn most history books, Otto Preminger gets the credit for breaking the blacklist, since he was the first to announce, in early 1960, that he’d hired Trumbo to write “Exodus” under his own name; the film was released in December that year. But Douglas makes a persuasive case that he was actually out in front, having agreed to give Trumbo screen credit for “Spartacus” in the fall of 1959, long before “Exodus” started filming.

Staring back into history from our time, when actors and filmmakers are free to express all sorts of spectacularly preposterous political viewpoints, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when your political beliefs could destroy your career. But that’s what happened in Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s after the nation was swept up in an intense anti-communist fervor.

Looking for headlines, the House Committee on Un-American Activities called a host of showbiz talent to testify about their associations, real or otherwise, with the Communist Party. Trumbo, in fact, was a member of the Communist Party from 1943 to 1948. When a group of writers and directors who became known as the Hollywood 10 refused to cooperate, the men, who included Trumbo, were cited for contempt of Congress and eventually sent to prison. In November 1947, just days after the 10 were cited, the Motion Picture Assn. of America announced that everyone who’d refused to cooperate would lose their job — the studios feared that the public would shy away from cinemas if suspected or admitted communists were involved with the productions.

That was the beginning of the blacklist, which effectively ended the careers of a host of notable writers, actors and filmmakers. Douglas admits that even he was silenced by fear. When MGM offered him a plum leading role in the 1956 film “Lust for Life,” based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, he was forced by MGM to sign a loyalty oath to get the part. “It was terrible,” he told me. “It was vanity that made me do it. Oh boy, did I want to play that part. It was really insulting, but I did it. It’s what everyone had to do.”

By the late 1950s, the climate in the country had changed. Sen. Joe McCarthy, who had been the most visible anti-communist crusader, had been censured by the Senate in late 1954. Still, Hollywood studios continued to enforce the blacklist, even though many of the top blacklisted writers found a way to make a living by either using pseudonyms or hiring other writers as “fronts” who put their names on the original writers’ scripts.

Trumbo, for example, using the pseudonym Robert Rich, won a screenwriting Oscar in 1957 for his script for “The Brave One,” causing a stir when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn’t locate the mysterious Mr. Rich to present him with the award.

By the time Douglas had acquired the rights to the novel “Spartacus” by Howard Fast — also a blacklisted writer — the actor had no trouble finding Trumbo. He was busily cranking out scripts, even though he was being paid a fraction of what he’d made before he went to prison.

“Dalton loved to write and talk while he was in the bathtub, so I’d go to see him and he’d be in the tub, with a parrot on his shoulder,” Douglas recalled. “He was unbelievably talented and, boy, was he fast. If he wrote something that didn’t work, he’d throw it away and write something even better.”

The top executives at Universal didn’t find out about Trumbo (who’d written the script under the pseudonym of Sam Jackson) until Douglas went public with the news. By then, it was too late to stop him, especially since Douglas’ agent, Lew Wasserman — who did know — was already in negotiations to purchase the Universal lot.

Keeping Dalton’s identity under wraps was just one of the challenges Douglas was facing on “Spartacus.” He had to deal with many of the same business realities producers deal with today. “Spartacus” was sped into production, for example, because a rival studio was moving ahead with a similar historical epic called “Gladiators.”

After 11 days of shooting, Douglas fired the original director, Anthony Mann, because Universal, the studio releasing the film, was upset that the picture was behind schedule and over budget. When the studio announced Mann’s departure, it used the same language we hear from today’s studios: creative differences.

After the film was completed, Douglas even had to battle the censors at the Production Code Administration (PCA), the forerunner of today’s MPAA ratings board. The code was just as arbitrary as is today’s ratings system. Douglas says he was ordered to eliminate the use of the word “damn” and provide the film’s slave characters with less revealing loincloths. The PCA also insisted that Douglas cut any dialogue suggesting that Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier, is attracted — gasp! — to both men and women, saying “any implication that Crassus is a sex pervert is unacceptable.”

The censors were especially unhappy with a scene where Crassus provocatively asked his body slave, played by Tony Curtis, if he had a taste for oysters and snails. Douglas says that the censors actually considered allowing him to keep the scene if he substituted artichokes and truffles for oysters and snails, but he was eventually forced to cut it.

Many of us today have a tendency to romanticize the old studio moguls, especially when compared to the bland corporate chieftains of today. Not Douglas. “When it came to the blacklist, they were the guilty parties,” he says. “They loved to push around writers and actors,” but they didn’t have the guts to stand up to Washington. “They all caved in when they could’ve taken a united stand and stopped it.”

In the end, what really mattered was the bottom line. For all of Douglas’ courage, the real end of the blacklist came when, despite scattered protests, Variety reported in late December 1960 that “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” the two films that openly gave credit to a blacklisted screenwriter, were No. 1 and No. 2 at the box office that month.

After Hollywood saw that the public had no problem paying good money to see movies written by an ex-communist, it found its lost courage in a hurry. When I asked Douglas if he thought people in Hollywood were more courageous today, he fell silent. Finally, he said, “Some people are. But everyone? I’m not so sure.”

 

Kirk Comments on Megan Morey Interview

In my 95 years I've had many, many interviews.  On April 4, Megan Morey, 13 years old, the daughter of my wife's assistant, interviewed me.  Here is the result.  I think it's much better than many interviews I have received in the past.

KIRK DOUGLAS INTERVIEW BY MEGAN MOREY

Kirk Douglas is a legendary movie star.  He has starred in almost 90 movies including Spartacus and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  As well as being in movies he has also been on Broadway.  He is currently living in Beverly Hills with his wife Anne Douglas.

Rejection

Before I started asking my questions he told me that he has always discouraged his sons from getting into acting.  With his son Michael Douglas, it obviously didn’t work so well.  He said he did this because it is a business filled with rejection, and they aren’t just rejecting something you wrote or did, they are rejecting you.  He said that some people say that “actors are people who like rejection.”

First Inspiration

I asked him when he first realized he wanted to go into theater, and he said it all started in the 2nd grade when he was in a school play.  He played a shoemaker who at night would go to sleep, and then the elves would come and do the work.  He said when he finished everyone applauded and he loved the sound.  “I have been searching for that sound ever since.”

First Job

After he graduated college he studied at a Dramatic Arts academy, where many other successful actors like Katharine Hepburn have studied, for two years.  His first job on Broadway was an offstage echo.  He had originally auditioned for the part of the soldier, but they gave the part to someone else.  His only line was when the soldier, the part he was denied, is saying goodbye to the trees and he says “yo ho!” and then Mr.Douglas would echo from offstage “yo ho”.  In another play he came in at the end of the second act as a singing telegram.

Audition Story

I asked him about his auditions and he told me his favorite audition story.  He was working on Kiss and Tell when the producer asked him if he could sing.  He said he didn’t know and the producer asked if he could sing loud.  He told him there was an audition for a musical at 3:00 that day and that he should come.  He went and when it was his turn he walked up onto the stage and in the audience was Leonard Bernstein, the writers, the producers, and the leading lady in the play.  They asked him what he was going to sing and he said “I’m Red Hot Henry Brown” only the pianist didn’t know it and he offered to sing it a capella.  They liked it and they gave him the part and another song to practice.  Only the song had a high part that he couldn’t reach.  The whole situation was so stressful he got laryngitis and they gave the part to someone else.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I asked Mr. Douglas what his biggest role on Broadway was and he said he was in about twelve plays before he started doing movies.  Then when he was a big movie star he decided he wanted to go back on Broadway because his real dream had always been to be a star on the stage.  He bought the rights to a book he liked, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, and paid someone to write a script for it.  He put it on Broadway and it ran for six months, but was not a big hit.  Then he tried to make it into a movie, but couldn’t get the funding for it.  Then ten years later his son, Michael Douglas, asked if he could do something with the project.  Mr. Douglas didn’t think it would go anywhere since he had failed to make it, but within a year Michael had the funding, the cast, and a director, they made the movie and practically everyone in it won Oscars.  He had thought that he would play his role in it, but he was too old and they gave the part to Jack Nicholson.  Even Mr. Douglas admits that Jack Nicholson was better than he would have been if he had played the part.

Rehearsal Process

I asked him what the rehearsal process was like and he said that after everyone is cast everyone sits in a big room and reads through the script.  This helps everyone get to know the story and their character.  Then they get up on their feet and start blocking scenes.  After that you start memorizing your lines and if you have a scene with another person you practice with them.  “If you have a beautiful co-star you rehearse a lot.”

Atmosphere of the Theatre

I asked what the atmosphere at the theatre is like and he said it’s a big, dark, cavern and it’s actually rather spooky with a single light bulb up on the stage.  “But in the evening, filled with people, it comes to life and becomes a beautiful wonderland of make-believe.”

Responsibilities

I asked him about the main responsibilities of the actors and the director.  He said the actor’s job is to memorize their lines, show up on time, and to perform well.  The director is almost like a father.  While the actors are more concerned with their own characters, the director has to blend it all into a play.  He is a very important element.

Hardest Part

I asked him what the hardest part of putting together a production is and he said that it depends.  If you have good actors, a good director, and a good subject it is easier.  Some actors don’t do well with the nervousness and a lot of them even throw up before performances.  And lots of actors can get overemotional and that makes it difficult as well, but if you succeed you make a lot of money.

Success

I asked him what he thought made a play a success and he said if the people like it it’s a success.  If they don’t it’s a flop.  I asked if he has had any successes and he says that he was in a few successful plays, but he has done very well in the movie business so he can’t really complain.

Favorite Part

As my final question, I asked what his favorite part of putting on a play was and he said that he did it for the applause and for the laughter. He always wanted to see his name up in lights on Broadway and now he has it up in lights here in Hollywood at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

 

 

Kirk Douglas on Trumbo

--the following letter to the editor appeared in the New York Times on December 28, 2011

To the Editor:

It was with great pleasure that I read “Trumbo Gets His Due for ‘Roman Holiday’ ” (ArtsBeat, Dec. 21). Although it has been said that justice delayed is justice denied, in this case that maxim does not apply.

Dalton Trumbo was my friend and one of the finest screenwriters of the 20th century. He told me that because he was blacklisted, he couldn’t sell “Roman Holiday” under his own name.

In 1959, when I broke the blacklist and gave Dalton Trumbo screen credit for writing “Spartacus,” it was one of the proudest decisions of my life.

I congratulate the Writers Guild of America, West; Tim Hunter, son of the screenwriter who received the credit for “Roman Holiday”; and the late Christopher Trumbo, Dalton’s son, for working tirelessly to see that justice was finally done.

KIRK DOUGLAS
Beverly Hills, Calif., Dec. 22, 2011

Speaking Up: Kirk Douglas responds

--from Kirk Douglas, December 20, 2011

Here's a letter I wrote that was printed by Vanity Fair last September. I'm reminded of it because Christopher Hitchens, who inspired the letter, died of his esophageal cancer just this week:

I was very moved by Christopher Hitchens’s article on his bout with esophageal cancer, which caused him to lose his voice.

Fifteen years ago, I suffered a stroke, which caused me to lose my speech. Now, what does an actor who can’t talk do? Wait for silent pictures to come back? I work with a speech therapist twice a week. Open your mouth wide—stick out your tongue as far as you can and hold it. Massage your cheeks and lips, etc. I do my exercises daily, usually in the morning while my wife, Anne, is driving me to the office. Once, we stopped at a red light, and I had my tongue stuck out as far as I could. Over my shoulder, I could see a driver sticking his tongue out at me. We both maintained our positions until the light turned green.

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Kirk Douglas' Biggest Fans Have Fur

--from Michelle Sherrow, PETA, Sept 22, 2011

"My wife says I could live without a wife but I could never live without dogs," jokes Kirk Douglas. The Oscar-winning actor, producer, director, and author recently shared with PETA the lessons in love and friendship that he has learned from his two beloved Labrador retrievers, Danny and Banshee, who are rarely far from his side.

Through all the busy years of his impressive career, Douglas says that he has found joy and solace with his dogs. "I've had dogs all my life …. They have never failed to give me friendship."

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