By John H. Foote
Spartacus is dead. May he live long in eternity.
Over a century of life came to an end yesterday when Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas passed away, gone from this mortal life, forever immortal on the big screen. One of the last of the great legends of the classical period of Hollywood, Douglas was a leading man for more than 50 years.
Both movie star and actor, later producer and the man who broke the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten, from the forties through the eighties, we had the pleasure of watching this man evolve as an actor. It is hard to determine what his best work might have been, as he was always taking risks, trying to grow as an actor, wanting the respect given to a true actor such as Marlon Brando. Perhaps his humble beginnings left him feeling unworthy of his stardom and the wealth he amassed through the years.
This is certain, he was among the best liked men in the business. His friends included fellow legends Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and the many directors he worked with.
He was proud when his son Michael surpassed him in Hollywood first as a producer, winning an Academy Award for producing the American masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and then as an actor, as the vicious lawyer in Wall Street (1987). That said he did win the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor for his riveting performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), easily the most daring performance of his career.
Three times throughout his career he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, beginning with Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956) though he never did win an Oscar. Douglas poured his entire being into his acting, often bringing such an intensity he was nearly terrifying to watch, a force of nature fueled by sheer ferocity. Every muscle, every pore, every cell of his body was tuned into the performance, it was as though nothing else mattered.
Incredibly his greatest contribution to Hollywood might have been off screen where he broke the back of the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten. Insisting that Dalton Trumbo, a gifted blacklisted writer, pen the screenplay of Spartacus (1960) for him and use his own name in the credits, even Trumbo thought him mad. But Douglas refused to use the name Trumbo had been writing under (even though it had won him an Oscar) and on a single title card, bold and proud, stood Dalton Trumbo. When young President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed a picket line to attend a screening of the film, the blacklist was forever broken.
OK, what was his finest performance? His boxer in Champion (1949), his vile newspaperman in Ace in the Hole (1951), his work in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), his sailor in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), the aforementioned Lust for Life (1956), the tormented soldier in Paths of Glory (1957), his magnificent work in Spartacus (1960)? Which one? Personally, I think he was superb as Spartacus, and the role called for the gamut of emotions to work through his coiled muscular body. But I also have a soft spot for his hateful reporter in Billy Wilder’s superb Ace in the Hole because of the courage it took to portray a complete son of a bitch and not care what the audience thought, and Douglas cared deeply about the craft of acting. His friend John Wayne criticized him after seeing Lust for Life for his unmanly performance (in Wayne’s eyes) as “a fairy” but Douglas smiled and replied, “It’s called acting Duke, it’s what we do.”
Indeed, to legendary status.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.