Saturday, December 10, 2016

Appreciations: Kirk Douglas at 100: Hollywood’s Driven Ulysses

The first time I recall seeing Kirk Douglas on the big screen was in early elementary school, at a former depot station that my hometown was trying to determine how to re-use. As part of that effort, the city replayed, on a temporary basis, old family-oriented movies (e.g., Disney’s Johnny Tremain, Kidnapped) that were cheap to rent and wouldn’t compete with the cinema just down the street.

Fifty years later, I can’t recall how much the Douglas feature, Ulysses, resembled its source material, The Odyssey. But the choice of the title character said much about Douglas’ own personality and career: resourceful, indomitable, possessed of an iron will that carried all before him.

In later years, Douglas would remember his co-star on other films, John Wayne, as a “personality star” who more or less played himself from project to project. But surely, Douglas—born 100 years ago yesterday in Amsterdam, N.Y.—infused the characters he played with his own charm, complexity and intensity.

You could not take your eyes off him, and for reasons other than that famous cleft chin that female film watchers (and, by his own admission, female co-stars) could ever get enough of. As great stars do, he could hold the screen with his gaze. He could be cajoling or intimidating, with one often tumbling immediately after the other.

But these different behaviors derived from the same ineradicable hunger, as this child of Jewish immigrants—“the ragman’s son,” in the title of his first autobiography—grasped all too well. And a mass audience understood, too. Filmgoers might find his characters cruel and hateful at times, but in recognizing their source, glimpsed their flawed humanity, too.

Like his contemporary and frequent co-star, Burt Lancaster, Douglas burst onto the Hollywood scene immediately after WWII. That massive conflict exposed Americans to a darkness in the world they had only dimly perceived before Pearl Harbor. It also prepared filmgoers for a cinema that acknowledged this reality and actors who could embody it.

Film noir, the genre of tough guys trying to survive in a dangerous, treacherous world, furnished an ideal vehicle for both Lancaster (The Killers) and Douglas (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Out of the Past). Both actors could have used their muscular physiques simply to star in the kind of superhero roles often associated with Victor Mature and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they were interested far more in how that kind of strength lent their characters simultaneously a foothold and a vulnerability in a violent, corrupt environment, especially in boxing (Lancaster again, in The Killers; Douglas, in his first Oscar-nominated role, Champion).

Uninterested in playing conventional superheroes, Douglas was drawn more often to obsessives. Their desires and wounds translated into quests that could lift those around him—or, if they could not go along with his journey, upend them utterly. That carried over into many different characters in many different genres—athlete, policeman (Detective Story), reporter bent on a scoop (Ace in the Hole), movie producer (The Bad and the Beautiful), depressed painter (Lust for Life), slave who defies an empire (Spartacus), and modern-day rebellious cowboy (Lonely Are the Brave, a personal favorite of the actor). 

One of Douglas’ obsessions, after playing the role on Broadway, was bringing Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the big screen. After trying for more than a decade, only to be told that he had now become too old to play the part of psychiatric-institute rebel Randall McMurphy, Douglas passed the property along to son Michael, who produced the Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson in the role that Kirk had coveted.

Yet Douglas couldn’t turn away from this character who, like himself, defied the odds. More than 20 years after he played the role, he found a character with strong similarities to it: a feisty former baseball coach confined to an eldercare institution who finds himself in opposition to its administrator (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the TV movie Amos

In his personal life, Douglas has survived much as he has aged: a double-knee replacement, heart surgery to install a peacemaker, a helicopter crash that killed others on board, and a massive stroke that necessitated nearly endless rehabilitation. In 1996, still less than a year after the stroke, he accepted an honorary Oscar for his 50 years in the movies. He looked into the audience. "I see my four sons," he said. "They are proud of the old man!"

As well they should be. 

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