Hollywood’s Hero – The Top Ten Performances of Kirk Douglas

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‘I didn’t start out to be a movie star. I started out to be an actor’. Kirk Douglas

Since Kirk Douglas turned 100 last month (Dec 2016), I felt compelled to go back and watch some of his best-known performances. After watching a number of Douglas’ films, it is no surprise that he was such a powerhouse performer for well on three decades and remained busy well into the 1990s, only slowed down by a stroke in 1996. What makes his work interesting is the range of roles and stories that fascinate and captivate an audience and the reaching out to people with the pathos of his performances. I aim to compile what I feel are the performances, which best exemplify just how good Kirk Douglas is.

Creating a top ten list is always fraught with fault and subjectivity. Yet the attempt to do so allows for contemplation, exploration and analysis. And of course, disagreement can bring forth discussion!

So let’s have a look!

  1. ‘Doc’ Holliday in ‘Gunfight At The O.K Corral’ (1957)

The film is filled with inaccuracies and it follows the typical Western template long established in Hollywood that usually allows for a narrow approach. It was also a huge hit, in great part to the depth of Douglas as the legendary dentist, gambler and gunslinger. Douglas, offering more than the usual superficiality of the cardboard cut-out stock Western character, brings Holliday to life. Cantankerous and short-tempered yet quick-witted and charismatic, Douglas brings forth the complexity of character as well as the demons that dwell deep within, through his incredible talent.

There is always a difficulty in knowing who the real Doc Holliday was, as pointed out by Shirley Ann Linder in ‘Real To Reel: John H. ‘Doc’ Holliday In Film’ in True West magazine. As Linder states: others vilified him for an “irascible disposition,” and being “the coldest-blooded killer in Tombstone.” These would become the sources generally employed for his many film appearances. Additionally, few would-be biographers failed to note Wyatt’s further words about Doc: “Perhaps Doc’s strong, outstanding peculiarity was the enormous amount of whiskey he could punish: two to three quarts of liquor a day.” Yet it is acknowledged that most recorded comments were made by men who disliked him, including Bat Masterson who vied for Wyatt Earp’s friendship, in contest with Holliday.

Yet, Earp called him a gentleman and a great wit and Douglas’ Holliday is also dapper and charismatic, as well as a loner who seems to be forever lost in a tragic isolation. This wonderful portrayal of complexity beyond mere impersonation set the standard and is perhaps equaled by Val Kilmer’s 1994 turn in Kevin Jarre’s Tombstone.

  1. ‘Midge’ Kelly in ‘Champion’ (1949)

Champion was a very important film for Kirk Douglas. It was the film that made him a star and it would attract for Douglas his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Champion is the story of Midge Kelly and his rise out of poverty and obscurity to reach the top in the world of boxing. But this is no ‘Rocky’ type tale. Kelly is a bitter, hard and ruthless individual, shaped and scarred by a hard and brutal life. Underneath his armoured exterior is no heart of gold, as his heart has been long ripped out. Abandoned by his father and given up to an orphanage by his mother, Kelly seems to want revenge on life and his brother points this out to him, when watching him in the ring.

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Douglas again exhibits his physical prowess and dominance on the screen. His dedication to the role also entailed great preparation, though not strictly in the Method sense. The training sequence, as well as the beautifully shot fight scenes, illustrate the point. Douglas looks brutal in the ring, tempering his hunger to tear his opponent apart with the discipline of the sweet science. His proclivity to violence is not limited to the ring, however. In one sinister scene, he calmly threatens to send his girlfriend Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell) to the hospital.

Taking on the role of an unsympathetic character is always fraught with danger for an actor or actress seeking to create a certain image. Yet Douglas saw the value and opportunity in such a role, particularly at a time when the anti-hero became the ‘new thing’ in cinema. By the end of the film, there is no exact redemption for Kelly – as in noir, he too must pay the price. But Douglas captivates us, as his badly beaten body shuts down while he rants – ending things on his own terms, even if it means death.

Champion sees Kirk Douglas throwing everyone off the screen, as he channels the brutal boxer.

  1. Jack Burns in ‘Lonely Are The Brave’ (1962)

 Scripted by Dalton Trumbo, it is no surprise that the thematic concerns of Lonely Are The Brave are questions that challenge authority, the concept of freedom and how the most vulnerable in society are treated. Most interestingly, the beautifully shot Lonely Are The Brave is a Western, set in a contemporary context.

Douglas plays Jack Burns, a cowboy and former Korean War hero, who works and lives wherever he can find it. His rejection of modern society suggests that he is a loner yet he has his friends and decides to stand by one in particular, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) who is in prison for helping illegal immigrants. Burns decides to break him out – by first getting himself into prison.

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Burns is a heroic figure, yet Douglas’ superb performance questions how we judge the concept of heroism. He pays the price for his heroism, a pattern that seems to define his life. The ultimate tragic price for heroism also rears its’ head. There is an interesting parallel with Douglas himself – Burns rejects society and doesn’t buckle under to authority, Douglas constantly sought out interesting and intelligent films and refused to follow the ‘rules’ of cinema. As Jack Burns, perhaps Douglas channels some of his own principles. It certainly is a superb performance and one that Douglas himself was very proud of.

  1. Detective James McLeod in ‘Detective Story’ (1951)

Produced and directed by the legendary William Wyler, Detective Story, was praised at the time for its’ realism and grittiness, depicting a typical New York Precinct and the difficult work that the police have in their everyday dealings with crime. Despite the façade of toughness, there is a tragic pathos that underlies the stories of the petty criminals that enter the precinct and the detectives seem to fight against a tide that they cannot stem.

James McLeod is tough, unrelenting and determined, which Douglas directs with intensity and aggression. Surrounded by degenerates and criminals, his wife (Eleanor Parker) is the one thing in his life that seems clean, wholesome and good. His world will turn inside out, ironically as he pursues Dr. Karl Schneider (George McCready), an abortionist. Douglas conveys the turmoil and horror that turns inside McLeod, when the truth arrives at his doorstep, with a fury that burns on the screen. Forgiveness does not hold and it is easier to resort to hate which he understands better than the pain he has to work through.

Douglas is superb, as we watch McLeod try to fill the hole created by bitterness towards an ugly world, with a zealous pursuing of arrests. The ending allows for some redemption, when McLeod is the one begging for his wife’s forgiveness, and the audience cannot help but feel some sympathy for a man whose tragedy has got the better of him. A first-rate performance from the great man!

  1. Chuck Tatum in ‘Ace In The Hole’ (1951)

Ace In The Hole is oft considered a film noir classic and rightfully so. A dark and piercing insight into the world of journalism, Billy Wilder, who co-wrote, produced and directed this masterpiece, would face criticism and even legal troubles after its’ release. It was deemed too critical, too cynical and even grotesque. Perhaps the film not only cut too close to the bone but tore into the marrow. Thus, as film noir, it achieves its’ purpose superbly. Jack Shafer wrote in 2007, “If film noir illustrates the crackup of the American dream . . . Ace in the Hole is an exemplar of the form.” 

Chuck Tatum represents the worst ways in which humans manipulate the worst situations for their own benefit – thus the story acts as an allegory for such behavior. Douglas brings the ambitious and narcissistic journalist to life with cynical aplomb, delivering a performance that Roger Ebert described as ‘almost scary’. That special gift of energy that Douglas possessed is probably seen at its’ very best in Ace In The Hole – watch his face transform with a nastiness that exemplifies the ferocity in which he pursues the news story.

There is nothing pleasant about Douglas’ performance and there is no moment of redemption a la Champion or The Bad And The Beautiful, which might fit the typical character arc of a typical Hollywood film. Nor is it a clichéd and typified ‘bad guy’ cardboard cutout. Douglas is sincere and honest as Tatum and offers truth to how denigrating humans can be. For my money, this is the performance, which should have delivered Kirk Douglas the Oscar for Best Actor. It is as devastatingly relevant and sharp today as it was then.

  1. Jonathon Shields in ‘The Bad And The Beautiful’ (1952)

I admit that I have an incredible bias towards The Bad And The Beautiful – being an absolute favourite of mine. Director Vincent Minnelli shapes the film with incredible finesse and sensitivity and a very talented and experienced cast translates the story into a tour de force.

Douglas plays Jonathon Shields, the son of a famous film pioneer, who wants to make a name for himself and starts at the bottom. The story is told in retrospect from the point of view of three people; former film making partner, Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), his former leading actress, Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and his former screenwriter, James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). All three have gone onto their own successes but harbour pain, resentment and even hate towards Shields. Jonathon’s ruthlessness is evident in the first story we hear – that of Fred. Douglas transposes across powerful emotion, as the strong friendship between Jonathan and Fred collapses, in order to further Jonathan’s career.

The Bad And The Beautiful is often described an inside look at the film industry, though many critics at the time, particularly the celebrated New York Times critic Bosley Crowther in 1953, did not agree, calling it ‘choppy’ and ‘episodic’. In fairness, I feel Minnelli was not looking at the industry per se but the people within it. Crowther would also call Douglas’ performance a ‘cliché’ though acknowledged that he ‘plays the fellow with all that arrogance in the eyes and jaw that suggest a ruthless disposition covering up for a hurt and bitter soul’.

Douglas for his troubles would receive his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor and deservedly so. Whatever terrible flaws Shields has, the audience cannot help but admire his passion for film and constant quest to make the perfect film. Again, there is a physical energy that burns on the screen and it is impossible not to be drawn to Douglas, almost frenzied in his love for film. We are just as seduced as the three characters by him – even after he has hurt them. In the final scene, after all three refuse to work with him one last time, they still clamour around the phone, vying to hear his ideas – still seduced by the man. We cannot hear him but we can imagine the passion in which he is delivering his vision. Studio chief Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tells him to hang up, as the call must be costing him a fortune. But Shields ignores him and keeps talking – again revealing that film not money is what is important to Shields. Douglas shines in this role and makes The Bad And The Beautiful, a special film. It would also be the second Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Douglas.

  1. Colonel Jiggs Casey in ‘Seven Days In May’ (1964)

A gripping, political thriller, Seven Days In May was very much the brainchild of Douglas and director John Frankenheimer. The film would receive high critical praise and did well at the box office. However, its’ impact would grow over the years, considering the context of the period in which it was made and the nature of the political spectrum over the next two decades. Douglas’ desire to make the film is indicative of his constant search for challenging themes and intelligent stories. Seven Days In May is a story set ten years into the future outlining a coup d’état against the U.S President (Fredric March) by the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, led by General James Scott (Burt Lancaster).

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Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) is a man at odds with the President, yet is also a man of principle and opposes the coup. Douglas offers a masterful performance, providing a strong complimenting the equally powerful work of Burt Lancaster. Douglas stands tall in the role and his loyalty to what is right places him at odds with the man he once admired. A trait common to Douglas’ approach to acting is a vitality and physical presence that dominates the screen. This is certainly true for his turn as Colonel Casey.

The final confrontation between Douglas and Lancaster is a riveting master-class, of two opposing forces.

  1. Colonel Dax in ‘Paths Of Glory’ (1957)

Certainly one of the most controversial films regarding the military ever made, Paths Of Glory faced censorship and heavy criticism, particularly in Europe – because of its’ anti-military tone. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the WW1 story tells of three French soldiers condemned for cowardice, when their company refuses to undertake a suicidal mission against a German position in the trenches.

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Douglas plays Colonel Dax of the 701 Regiment who leads his men into the futility, also defends the three during the court martial. It is a role that typified Douglas’ belief in the importance of intelligent films and his understanding of the role is more than evident in his delivery. There is a power of emotion in the character that simmers and rarely boils over. Douglas channels the frustrations of the officer in the trenches, seeing the senselessness of the killing and idiocy and injustice of the decisions made by generals. The final scene, which sees his face turn to stone, revealing the realism of his resignation and illustrates what countless soldiers face during war, is a fitting coda.

In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, Douglas stated about Paths Of Glory: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.” The same could be said for the performance of Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax.

  1. Vincent Van Gogh in ‘Lust For life’ (1956)

Douglas reportedly found the experience of playing the tortured painter as a painful one and even his wife described his immersion in the role as ‘frightening’. Douglas takes Van Gogh beyond the popular notion of tormented artist, wracked not only by terrible mental anguish but possessed with the feverish need to express himself. That feverishness is illustrated through the physicality of Douglas and the passion in which his Van Gogh approaches his art.

The touching portrayal depicts a man desperate to reach and understand his fellow humans, as well as his own mind and soul. In Lust For Life, Van Gogh seems to be racing against madness, trying to understand his own dimensions. The audience sees the artist at work, absorbed in the emotion of Douglas as he works. What makes the performance so compelling is the incredible range and complexity of that emotion – at times, the explosive volatility of Douglas is startling and fearful, reflecting the horrifying nature of Van Gogh’s inner torment.

Douglas would receive the Golden Globe and New York Critic’s Award for Best Actor but missed out on the Academy Award. The film’s director, Vincent Minnelli, believed that Douglas should have won the Best Actor and felt deeply moved by Douglas’ work.

It is one of Douglas’ finest moments on the screen.

  1. Title role in ‘Spartacus’ (1960)

Undoubtedly Douglas’ best known and most celebrated role, the role sees Douglas at his most engaging in a tour de force that stands the test of time. The film’s production is legendary – directed then disowned by Kubrick, scripted by the black-listed Dalton Trumbo who was supported to the hilt by Douglas (who was also producer). The cast is an array of some of cinema’s greatest actors particularly Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov (who received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Thematically and contextually, Spartacus allows for some powerful revelations. Yet none of this would have been possible, without the incredible work of Kirk Douglas.

Douglas, as the leader of the slave army in revolt, again lifts the historical figure out of the pages of the past and into a passionate human, desperate for freedom not only for himself but for all who are slaves. Obstinate, proud and rebellious from the start, the fire in Douglas’ eyes reveals the very spirit that led the historical Spartacus to be the leader of a great revolt. The warm moments with his wife Varinia (Jean Simmons), the humour and ability to laugh at himself when Antoninus (Tony Curtis) plays a magic trick on him and the principle and wisdom shown when he stops two Roman masters from fighting to the death, again show the depth of character and intelligence that Douglas wanted to bring to the role.

Douglas’s Spartacus is filled with hope and dreams for the future, yet he is also a hard realist, indicated by his acknowledgement of the tragic end and what they are to face. Again, the pathos of this tragedy is left close to our hearts and as the audience we embrace it with devastating resignation. Douglas’ powerful speech on the slave army’s last night of freedom is delivered with honesty in the face of what is to come.

What is intriguing still is how an illiterate slave was able to lead and inspire thousands to follow him into battle – successfully! – against the legions of Rome. In many ways, Douglas provides the answer, as we too want to stand with him at perhaps one of the most memorable and beautiful moments in the film. (see below)

Ultimately, Kirk Douglas was an actor, rather than a star. Yet stardom came his way, despite not fitting the matinee idol mould. He provided for audiences something that audiences became intimate with – truth and honesty, physical and emotional power and an intelligence, sensitivity and belief in the roles he played as well as the audience he was working for. Watch his films and try not to be seduced by an incredible actor.

Special mentions:

Whit Sterling in ‘Out Of The Past’ (1948)

Rick Martin in ‘Young Man With A Horn’ (1950)

Einar in ‘The Vikings’ (1958)

Jack Andrus in ‘Two Weeks In Another Town’ (1962)

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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