We lost an icon earlier this month with the passing of Kirk Douglas, at the age of 103. An actor for over 60 years, Douglas is most remembered for his seminal roles in “Golden Age” 1950s Hollywood, for his hand in dismembering the industry’s blacklist, and through his famous son, Michael.
But what made Kirk Douglas such a star? That indomitable chin? That triangle torso? No, there’s something deeper and cannier to how the heartthrob-turned-super-producer fashioned his own role as a prophet in the mid-century American movie religion. This week, Be Reel looks back at five movies that defined Douglas’ career: “Ace in the Hole” (1951), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), “Paths of Glory” (1957) and “Spartacus” (1960).
In “Ace in the Hole,” Douglas teams up with a whip-smart and prime Billy Wilder for an allegory about capitalism, journalism, and humanity in service to the circus of a public tragedy. Oddly prescient for the contemporary moment of “fake news” and gig-economy reporters (and a few trapped Thai soccer players), “Ace in the Hole” positions Douglas as the kind of movie star with the finesse and charm to make an unlikable con man the protagonist of a mainstream movie.
By contrast, Vincente Minnelli‘s “The Bad and the Beautiful” moralizes and aggrandizes the difficulty of making a motion picture. The movie also speaks to the glory and limitations of Kirk Douglas as a movie star, especially in retrospect: to believe in his power is to believe in the virtue of the movies.
Moving into family cinema, Kirk Douglas adds a boyish charm and willingness to play around in “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”—an adaptation of Jules Verne’s more serious 19th-century sci-fi novel. With one of the biggest movie budgets to date at his back, Douglas fought Captain Nemo (James Mason) for control of a steam-punk submarine and (quite noticeably) for screen time.
In both “Paths of Glory” and “Spartacus,” Douglas teamed with a wunderkind Stanley Kubrick to cement his legacy. A little bit of “war is hell” in the former film and a little bit of “war is glory” in the latter. In addition to fascinating clashes with Kubrick, these latter movies of Douglas’ peak years are telling: they’re both the apex of Douglas’ stardom and the end of it. Despite performing in movies for another 35 years, it’s Kubrick and the auteur who win the next era. But that’s a podcast for another time…
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