Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Ubiquitous (and Surprisingly Introspective) Kirk Douglas

If you live in L.A., sometimes it seems as though Kirk Douglas is everywhere. I’ve heard him speak at a local synagogue, and I’ve attended plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, a Culver City movie palace converted into a playhouse specializing in intimate, unusual fare. He and wife Anne have made sizable donations to Children’s Hospital L.A. and have helped revamp playgrounds on schoolyards throughout the city. Today, when I went to do research at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, I gained access to the collection via the Kirk Douglas Grand Staircase. Gracing the Herrick lobby was a special exhibit featuring the informal celebrity photos of Nat Dallinger. Prominently featured was a charming Dallinger image from 1950. It shows Kirk Douglas shaving his famous chin, while young son Michael (all of six) studiously tries out his own electric shaver in imitation of Dad.  

Douglas of course made the big bucks as an actor, famous for leading-man roles in films like Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lust for Life, and Lonely are the Brave. But in recent years he’s become quite the writer too. There are several volumes of well-received memoir, starting with The Ragman’s Son in 1988. There’s fiction, and also books for young readers. His late-in-life exploration of spirituality produced  Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning, as well as several volumes about growing old. (He’s now a still-vigorous 98). But I want to discuss the book he published in 2012, I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.

The Screen Writers Guild honored Douglas in 1991 for dramatically signalling that the era of the blacklist was over. In truth, he wasn’t the first to give screen credit to a writer who’d been banished from Hollywood in the HUAC era on trumped-up charges of being a Communist. Back in 1958, producer-director Stanley Kramer hired Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith to write The Defiant Ones. As Stanley Kramer’s widow Karen has often reminded me, Kramer not only put their names on the screen but also gave them roles in the film. Still, neither Young nor Smith was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten. These were  prominent Hollywood screenwriters (and one director) who were sent to jail for contempt of Congress, with the approval of many Hollywood power-figures. Douglas, producing Spartacus in 1960, first concealed his hiring of the prolific Trumbo, but then had the guts to credit him for his work. He was emotionally told by Trumbo, who had recently won two screenwriting Oscars officially credited to others, “Thank you for giving me back my name.”

Douglas’s Spartacus book isn’t only about the blacklist. He tells great yarns about the casting of Jean Simmons, the hiring of a young Stanley Kubrick to replace a less accomplished director, and the heroic dedication of Woody Strode. There’s also a disturbing glimpse of Laurence Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh, deep in the throes of bipolar disorder. As an aside, Douglas shares the story of his own son, Eric, who years later struggled with the same cruel disease.

Part of what makes this book so fascinating is its sense of an old man looking back. At one point Douglas notes, “Writing about myself almost fifty-three years ago is a strange experience. I’m learning a lot about the man I was back then; I’m not sure I like him very much.” Elsewhere he admits, “I was a very different person fifty years ago . . . . I was surprised by how headstrong I was back then, and yet that’s probably what helped me to make Spartacus.”


  1. Can't see Anthony Mann being considered "a less accomplished director". Maybe one over which Douglas had no measure of control. Had read that Kubrick was willing to take writing credit.

  2. Yes, Kirk Douglas's book contains that tidbit, that when there was the issue of who'd get screen credit for Dalton Trumbo's script, Kubrick quickly volunteered. You're right, of course, that Anthony Mann is not chopped liver! But he was the studios' guy, and Douglas's opinion -- right or wrong -- is that he didn't have a firm enough rein on the production. As for Douglas's measure of control, I don't think ANYONE was ever successful in controlling Stanley Kubrick. Thanks for your comment, Bill. I hope you continue to visit Movieland.

  3. I really enjoy Kirk Douglas onscreen - and I'm thrilled he's still with us. I've read a couple of his books - I'm less a fan of his writing - although the Spartacus book certainly sounds amazing.

  4. He's an amazing fellow, all right, though he has his detractors. Stanley Kramer's widow is certainly not a fan -- Douglas, it seems, has a penchant for taking credit where it's not always due.

    1. That comes out in his writing and is why I'm not the biggest fan of it.