Monday, February 17, 2020

Kirk Douglas, A Champion Indeed

In the classic western, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp worries about the health of a cantankerous dentist-turned-gambler, Doc Holliday. Holliday has a nasty cough that’s not getting better, and his serious boozing is not likely to cure it. It’s probable he doesn’t have long to live. Still, says Earp to Halliday, “You’re just ornery enough to live to a ripe old age.”

This line hit home for me, because it is delivered by Burt Lancaster (playing Earp) to someone who did indeed—despite several dramatic setbacks—live to a ripe old age. Doc Holliday, of course, is played by the late Kirk Douglas, who left us last week at the impressive age of 103.

Douglas’s up-from-the-gutter career began on the stage. Helped by his drama school classmate Lauren Bacall to land Hollywood roles, he won a featured part in his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, in 1946. Other early films included the noir classic Out of the Past. I was surprised to find Douglas part of the ensemble of a rather creative (if sappy) 1949 romantic drama, A Letter to Three Wives, in which three female friends find their marriages endangered by a sexy rival. It’s not easy to buy Douglas, known for his on-screen macho intensity, as a meekly dissatisfied schoolteacher who feels threatened by his wife’s high-paying career. But his very next film, Champion, sealed his reputation: playing Midge Kelly, a ruthless young boxer who’ll do anything to succeed, he’s unforgettable. This film marked his first of three Best Actor nominations. The second honored his performance as a tough-as-nails Hollywood producer in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful; the third recognized his ambitious but (to my mind) unconvincing turn as painter Vincent Van Gogh in 1956’s Vincente Minnelli extravaganza, Lust for Life.  

Douglas’s years of friendship with fellow star Burt Lancaster are reflected in the John Sturges western I mentioned earlier, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. This 1957 flick is a classic of its era. From the moment that Frankie Laine’s voice begins to warble the film’s mournful theme song while the camera sweeps across the Technicolor plains, we know we’re in good hands. The cast is filled with Golden Age standouts like Jo Van Fleet (as a bad girl with a heart of gold), Earl Holliman, and a very young Dennis Hopper (whom Lancaster tries to persuade to give up his gunslinging ways). But the film’s focus is on the gradual bonding of its two male stars: Lancaster as the noble, peace-loving, slightly sentimental Earp and Douglas as the erratic, self-destructive, but always gutsy Halliday. More than thirty years later, Lancaster and Douglas again shared the screen, this time in a slapstick comedy, Tough Guys, about ageing buddies who’ve spent three decades in the clink for trying to rob a train and now—upon their release—must figure out how to make their way in the modern world. It’s all pretty silly, but it’s striking how their roles haven’t changed much, with Lancaster still the romantic and Douglas the devil-may-care goofball.

Not everyone liked Kirk Douglas in his prime. I know a woman with longtime industry connections: in speaking of  why she mistrusted Douglas she was wont to say, “He really is Midge Kelly.” Maybe so, but late in life (following some serious physical and emotional challenges) he devoted himself to religious exploration, meeting regularly with a noted L.A. rabbi to study the faith of his fathers. After two major strokes, he wrote and worked on behalf of stroke victims, and was known for building playgrounds for needy L.A. kids. All hail!  

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