Kirk Douglas: goodbye to the last of classic Hollywood

It is done. Nothing is eternal, least of all the stars of the classic Hollywood era. Kirk Douglas passed away yesterday at the age of 103. He is not the last of his generation. Olivia de Havilland, also born in 1916, is still alive. But its incidence in the cinema of the last decades of the last century was less. He retired in 1988, after several television jobs. Douglas was active until 2008 although his last important film is from 2003. It was something like a family farewell in style: in ‘Family Things’ he played the patriarch of a New York family; his wife in fiction was his first wife in reality, Diana Douglas, who died in 2015; his son Michael played the eldest son in the family, and the grandson was played by Cameron Douglas, Michael’s son and Kirk’s grandson.

Maybe it was with that movie that closed a whole cycle in Hollywood cinema. There was no going back. But Kirk Douglas was still among us, and sometimes we saw him portrayed with his relatives – and with his inalienable ponytail – at a celebration. During the peak of his career he had a progressive behavior. Without belonging to the left wing of Hollywood, he did stand up to certain behaviors of the great tycoons, he did not hesitate to work with people retaliated in the witch hunt – he credited Dalton Trumbo as a screenwriter of ‘Spartacus’ – and, as an independent producer and actor aware, he actively participated in ideologically unquestionable films such as ‘The Great Carnival’, ‘Captives of Evil’, ‘Paths of Glory’, ‘Spartacus’ or ‘Seven Days of May’.

Lately some of those progressive attitudes have been questioned, but it should not be forgotten that the Hollywood machine was always very powerful and even the biggest names who spoke out against it. Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 -among them Humphrey Bogart and John Huston-, it did not take long to disengage from the democratic crusade, more provided with good intentions than anything else.

For history, from cinema, Douglas was Spartacus. Only he, although in a celebrated sequence of the film started by Anthony Mann and finally shot by Stanley Kubrick, after the disagreements of Douglas, producer, with Mann, the rest of the slaves rose in solidarity to say that they were all Spartacus. That was one of the milestones in the actor’s career. It was his second collaboration with Kubrick, one of those new and imaginative directors that Douglas liked to have. Three years earlier, in 1957, they had made together ‘Paths of Glory’, another personal project for the actor and producer focused on the class difference in the French Army during the First World War.


Douglas embodied in that film, whose intense camera movements within the trenches has taken up Sam Mendes in his recent ‘1917’, to an officer as humanistic as Douglas was at that time, something naive too, capable of standing up to egotistical and corrupt generals and trying to defend, in vain, some soldiers accused of cowardice. The actor felt just as comfortable in characters of these characteristics, with a more tragic background, as in more vivacious, adventurous and dreamy types.

His career has many moments of true splendor. For example, his composition of the sailor in the delicious adaptation of ‘20,000 leagues of submarine travel ‘produced in 1954 by Disney studios and made by Richard Fleischer, a director with whom Douglas would repeat four years later in another classic of the adventure genre,’ Los Vikings’, incorporating here a warrior barbarian, one-eyed and atavistic.

Twilight western

All genres of violence suited him like a glove given his physical characteristics and nuanced virility, not provocative, like Burt Lancaster’s. Douglas shone in the western cinema with the tense ‘The lawless prairie’ (1955), by King Vidor, and the disenchanted ‘The brave walk alone’ (1962), by David Miller, the beginning of the twilight western stream: he played a cowboy from another era who He does not understand the change of the times and is hit by a car. It was the tubercular DocHoliday – Lancaster played Sheriff Wyat Earp – in ‘Duel of the Titans’ (1957), John Sturges’ excellent version of the famous duel in the OK Corral in Tombstone. Raoul Walsh’s ‘Way of the Gallows’ (1951) was another of his dark contributions to the western. On the contrary, in ‘River of blood’ (1952), by Howard Hawks, he wore his best comic and relaxed version. Douglas went on to direct the curious western ‘Justices of the West’ (1975).

The same happened with film noir. In one of his first films, ‘Return to the Past’ (1947), one of the ten undisputed masterpieces of the genre, in charge of Jacques Tourneur, embroidered the role of gangster obsessed with a woman who deceives both him and the skeptical detective played by Robert Mitchum. On the contrary, in William Wyler’s film ‘Brigade 21’ (1951) he incorporated a sullen and temperamental policeman in a story set for a few hours in a police station. He also tried the peplum with ‘Ulysses’ (1954), one of the characteristic Italian-American co-productions of Dino de Laurentiis.

The rag’s son

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky in Amsterdam, New York State, into a family of Russian emigrants, Douglas poured all his childhood and youth experiences into his book ‘The Trapper’s Son’. There he explains the forging of his character, his taste for independence that would lead him to create his own company in 1955 (called Bryna Productions in tribute to his mother, Bryna Demsky), his progressive attitudes, family roots, triumphs and troubles . He was nominated for an Oscar three times, few for such a long career and full of very good performances. He was nominated for ‘The clay idol’ (1949), ‘Captives of evil’ (1952) and ‘The red-haired madman’ (1956). He did not win in any of the three cases. In 1996 he received the usual honorary Oscar that those who for different reasons – in Douglas’ case it was obvious that he was an annoying, more or less rebellious and independent type – have never been awarded.

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Precisely in ‘Captives of Evil’ he achieved one of his best, if not the best, performances in the role of a stubborn and megalomaniac film producer inspired in equal parts by David O. Selznick and Val Lewton, the producer of ‘The Panther Woman’ . With the director of this powerful and accurate melodrama on the ins and outs of Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli, repeated radiography of the cinematographic medium in ‘Two weeks in another city’ (1962). Here, Douglas played a fading actor who travels to Rome to take on a supporting role in a friend’s film.

In the drama to the limit he felt perfectly, whether it was playing the tortured Van Gogh in ‘The madman with red hair’, also by Minnelli; the executive in crisis on the verge of suicide in Elia Kazan’s ‘The Commitment’ (1969); depicting a jazz musician inspired by Bix Beiderbecke in Michael Curtiz’s ‘The Trumpeter’ (1950), or as an unscrupulous journalist in Billy Wilder’s ‘The Great Carnival’ (1951). Ductility was one of his greatest and undeniable triumphs.

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Kirk Douglas: goodbye to the last of classic Hollywood