Top 10 Kirk Douglas performances

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on the 9th of December 1916, the legendary Kirk Douglas turns 100 today, and in doing so gifts us all with a much-needed break in the clouds. In a year marred with the premature deaths of so many gifted artists, it is refreshing indeed to celebrate such a milestone in the life of a cinematic titan. A triple Oscar nominee of rarely-equaled charisma, Kirk Douglas epitomizes Hollywood movie stardom at a time when the very concept is rapidly dwindling into obsolescence. More importantly, his status as one of the last living movie stars of the Golden Age provides our culture with an eloquent anchor to its past, in the form of an enduring testament to the best it is capable of. Throughout his impressive 60 year-long career, Kirk Douglas has worked with some of the world’s greatest directors, co-starred with some of America’s finest actors and contributed to the creation of immortal masterworks who resonate as truly today as they ever did.

As an actor, Douglas’s fierce passion, sharp-toothed charm and unpolished edges singled him out as a uniquely ambivalent movie star, boldly positioned ahead – along with his friend and frequent collaborator Burt Lancaster – on the path from Hollywood glamour to the method. Through these qualities, he embodied a dangerous kind of virility that his best roles explored from different specific angles. So, in honour of the man’s 100th birthday, here is a Top 10 list of these roles.

  1. Einar – The Vikings.

Kirk Douglas in "The Vikings"

Unfairly dismissed by mainstream American critics upon its release, this bombastic Nordic saga of lust and violence stars Kirk Douglas at his most overtly predatory. He plays Einar, the son of a Viking king whose rape of an English queen during a raid on the coast of Northumbria ultimately brings about his downfall when he unwittingly captures the offspring of his crime and raises him as a slave.

It’s hard to imagine a more potent cocktail of toxic masculinity with which to fuel a villainous Douglas performance and his delivery does not disappoint: Heir to a barbarian tyrant, half-brother to a child whose conception and demeanour offer up a constant dark mirror to the legacy he must live up to, his Einar is a boiling cauldron of wounded pride, entitlement and ambition. Without ever cranking his acting up any further than necessary, he counters Tony Curtis’s darkly righteous restraint with a rambunctious frenzy that’s irresistible to watch. Credit must also be given to the screenplay and makeup department for embellishing the cleft-chinned star’s famously chiselled features with a prominent facial scar and milky-white left eye that make his presence all the more striking. Noxious, vindictive, cruel and commandingly charismatic, Einar is everything you expect a Viking warlord to be, elevated a step above thanks to Douglas’s particular brand of barely-concealed masculine insecurity.

  1. Walter O’Neil – The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers.

Kirk Douglas in "The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers"

A somewhat lesser-known film-noir starring Barbara Stanwyck as an industrial heiress who accidentally murdered her abusive aunt as a teenager, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers is notable for being Kirk Douglas’s very first screen role and certainly one of the best film debuts of any major star. With a mocking glare and a bottle of whisky, he introduced himself to the world as the title character’s husband Walter O’Neil, a corrupt District Attorney who drowns his unrequited love for his wife in glass after glass.

As tends to be customary with good noirs, the characters in this film are all complex, tragic figures whose pain stems from their repeated decision to run away from themselves and each other rather than face unpleasant truths. There are no real heroes or villains, just a cast of morally flawed people who bear the consequences of bad decisions made under circumstances beyond their control. All of them are very well-written but it’s Walter who stands out as the most memorable, and much of this is owed to Kirk Douglas’s performance. He imbues Walter’s desperate, over-protective need for validation with a touch of self-deprecating bitterness that considerably nuances the audience’s reaction to him; instead of simply feeling pity for the man, we feel some degree of respect for his loyalty and empathize with his desire for personal redemption, however misguided it may be. With his first performance, Kirk Douglas immediately displayed a rare knack for mining hidden depths. Talk about hitting the ground running!

  1. George Phipps – A Letter To Three Wives.

Kirk Douglas in "A Letter To Three Wives"

Whenever he wasn’t in the lead, Douglas’s supporting roles would almost invariably be of a villainous kind. One of best exceptions can be found in this 1949 gem by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in which three middle-class women find their respective marriages tested by a letter from an unseen rival claiming to have run away with one of their husbands.

In this clever socio-romantic whodunit, Kirk Douglas plays one of the suspects, a schoolteacher whose distinguished position in the community is overshadowed by his wife Rita (Ann Sothern) and her successful career as a writer of romantic radio dramas. This complex reversal of contemporary gender dynamics creates dormant friction in their marriage, exposed in a crackingly witty flashback sequence during which George is forced to help his wife entertain her boss and her husband for dinner. After hours of polite conversation, the subject of his wife’s job and the domain it occupies soon burns away his hostly façade to reveal a scholarly disdain for radio writing in superb dialogue that still rings true today for much of film and television:

The purpose of radio writing, as far as I can see, is to prove to the masses that a deodorant can bring happiness, a mouthwash guarantee success and a laxative attract romance!

The Douglas we see here is a decidedly more urbane, sophisticated creature than the one mass audiences have come to expect. Far from the dangerous world of guns, swords and crooked deals that populate most of his best-known films, he fits in the domestic setting by reining in his charming caddishness just enough for it to adapt to a more intellectual kind of battlefield – one whose battles opposes the sexes rather than private interests. Watching his ever-so-slightly snooty gentlemanliness spill seamlessly into adolescent insolence in the face of consumerism is one of the many highlights of a film that, despite its Best Picture nomination and Best Adapted Screenplay win at the 22nd Academy Awards, remains curiously underrated.

  1. Whit Sterling – Out Of The Past.

Kirk Douglas in "Out Of The Past"

Kirk Douglas’s second film role is in yet another film noir, in which he plays a shady businessman who hires private investigator Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) to find his runaway ex-girlfriend. Naturally, complications arise when Jeff does find her and the two fall in love.

As played by Douglas, Whit Sterling is a refined creature of the shadows, clearly hiding his cards from the moment we first see him. Wrapped in a velvet sheet of social power, he counters Mitchum’s familiar tough-guy laconism with reptilian seductiveness, conferring to their characters’ psychological duel a hidden animalistic quality. Watching their scenes is like observing a fight between two differently-equipped predators of equal intelligence. It’s just one of the many things that make Out Of The Past one of the all-time noir classics.

  1. Doc Holliday – Gunfight At The O. K. Corral.

Kirk Douglas in "Gunfight At The O. K. Corral"

Kirk Douglas’s performance as Doc Holliday may be overshadowed in popular culture by Val Kilmer’s feverish, devil-may-care interpretation of the man in 1993’s Tombstone – now widely considered to be the definitive one – but its inherent value is by no means diminished. His version of Doc Holliday walks with grim purpose towards his impending death, armoured in a coat of steely machismo to protect himself against any threat of emotional vulnerability his condition might bring. Always a very physical actor, Douglas plays Holliday like a wounded were-beast, never more dangerous or frightening than when he knows he’s about to die, saved only by the call of a duty to something greater than himself. It’s a multi-faceted performance that paints the old west icon in a complex, sometimes unflattering light, and the film is all the richer for it.

Of all the seven films made with Burt Lancaster, this one is their best-remembered and unsurprisingly so: Their chemistry is electrifying, bolstered by the real-life friendship that developed between the two men on and off-screen. It may not be the most historically accurate telling of the story, but the Lancaster-Douglas duo helps make Gunfight At The O. K. Corral an admirable example of American mythmaking.

  1. Spartacus – Spartacus.

Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus"

If only one role were to subside in global public memory centuries after Douglas was no more, it would undoubtedly be Spartacus. When people think of Kirk Douglas, this is usually the film they have in mind and with good reason. In many ways, this is his archetypal performance, one that combines the best of all worlds he can conjure: Fiery, imperious, filled with barely-contained rage and frustration, yet tempered by a strong moral impulse. Spartacus is a warrior at heart but his foremost struggle is one for dignity, both from within and without.

All these qualities are best reunited in a scene early in the film, where his future wife Varinia (Jean Simmons) is first introduced as a slave girl sent to “entertain” him in his cell. As she quietly disrobes and waits for him to proceed, Spartacus stares at her in a mixture of enthrallment and shock before his captors’ mocking laughter snaps him back to reality. After a few quiet pleas for their departure, his moral torment explodes in a defiant cry of humanity: “I’M NOT AN ANIMAL!”.

Such is the dual conflict, so beautifully rendered by Douglas, that makes this hero more complex than your average crusader for justice. No matter how many thousands may claim his name in solidarity or imitation, there will only ever be one Spartacus.

  1. Colonel Dax – Paths Of Glory.

Kirk Douglas in "Paths Of Glory"

Kirk Douglas’s well-known liberal politics were often reflected in the films he made with his company Bryna Productions, and no film did so better than Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-militarist masterpiece. Although well aware of the project’s lack of commercial viability and despite tumultuous disagreements over the script, the two men’s shared intellectual sensibility brought about one of the finest war films ever made.

The passion involved in making the film bleeds beautifully into Kirk Douglas’s central performance. As a compassionate French WWI officer who finds his career compromised by his moral duty, he has rarely been more at home. From the dirty trenches of the “Anthill” to the luxurious château occupied by the General Staff, his flintstone face brims with grim resolve as he bears witness to the collision between nationalist warfare and class warfare. Douglas may have excelled at villains and anti-heroes, but no other star of his time could have played the conscience of a cruel military machine with as much effortless conviction.

  1. Jonathan Shields – The Bad And The Beautiful.

Kirk Douglas in "The Bad And The Beautiful"

By a beautiful twist of fate, 1952 saw the release of two great cinematic dissections of the Hollywood studio system right in the middle of its golden age. The first was of course Singin’ In The Rain, a light-hearted gentle send-up of the industrial dream factory that also managed to exemplify everything great about it. Serving as its darker and more cynical counterpart was Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful. Using a Citizen Kane-esque multi-protagonist flashback structure, the film recounts the story of an ambitious film producer’s efforts to rise above his late father’s sour reputation and reach the top of the Hollywood pyramid through a combination of ingenious craft and ruthless energy.

At its center, looming like a darkly majestic tower stands Kirk Douglas’s magnetic portrayal of Jonathan Shields, a man whose egocentric love of filmmaking ends up consuming all that connects him to his fellow humans. Because his drive for social and artistic success stands in lieu of any overarching moral principles, he is considerably less sympathetic than Charles Foster Kane ever was. And yet still we empathize with him, still we curse and cheer for him in equal measure thanks to a performance that manages to be passionate, epic and grand without keeping the flaws at arm’s length away from the audience. Whether Shields is conning his way into a job as a line producer, brilliantly bypassing budgetary restrictions to create a horror masterpiece or bullying and manipulating an alcoholic actress into giving her best, Douglas never loses sight of the sincere vision that motivates him.

If Paths Of Glory and Spartacus showed idealism as an attitude ennobled by its failure in the face of power, The Bad And The Beautiful reminds us that its adherents can be just as cruel, destructive and merciless as the most hard-bitten cynics. Magnificent and terrible to behold, Kirk Douglas makes his protagonist live up to his film’s title as few have before or since.

  1. Chuck Tatum – Ace In The Hole.

Kirk Douglas in "Ace In The Hole"

In the illustrious gallery of amoral vultures Kirk Douglas has brought to life, none are more fascinatingly cutthroat than the protagonist of Billy Wilder’s highly prescient 1951 media critique. Desperate for a scoop after his libellous ways and heavy drinking have reduced him to reporting non-events in a small-town newspaper, Chuck Tatum sees his big chance when he stumbles upon an amateur archaeologist stuck in a caved-in mine and promptly turns the man’s predicament into a national media circus.

What sticks most in mind with Douglas’s performance is the sheer manic energy of it. Chuck Tatum is a shark who feeds on people’s misfortune, and like all sharks he must always be mobile and active to stay alive, for any absence of movement signifies death – which ironically ends up being the end result of his success. Douglas reflects this in his every glance, gesture and smile; he’s hungry and he needs to feed, to move and to exploit every inch he can out of people in order to exist. It’s a performance that occasionally prefigures a young Jack Nicholson at his best, nibbling away at the scenery without threatening its foundation. Why it received no nomination from the Academy at the 24th Oscars ceremony is anyone’s guess.

  1. Vincent Van Gogh – Lust For Life.

Kirk Douglas in "Lust For Life"

This is it. The best, most perceptive and transformative performance of Kirk Douglas’s career, a tour de force that set the template for dozens of “tortured artist” biopics to come. And indeed, why would it not? Vincent Van Gogh, after all, has so completely personified the archetype of the mad unappreciated genius in popular consciousness that the complexity of his work has been somewhat overshadowed by it. It is small wonder that he has inspired such depictions as varied as Robert Altman’s exploration of his relationship with his brother in the 1990 film Vincent & Theo, Alain Resnais’s study of his art in the 1948 documentary short Van Gogh, or Maurice Pialat’s sober, semi-speculative look at the artist’s final days in the 1991 drama of the same name.

In sharp contrast to the sullen emotional recluse admirably portrayed in the latter film by Jacques Dutronc, Kirk Douglas’s Van Gogh is a being of barely-controlled passions he himself does not fully understand. He can be romantic, quiet and peaceful in one scene, then turn into a grimacing wreck in the next. His face is a constant battle of misdirected emotions; in the most intense scenes, his entire body seems possessed by them, as if armies of inner demons were struggling to get out. But at no point does Douglas call any attention to his own efforts. This is a performance that is both grandiose and selfless, one that channels its subject’s ego without once substituting it with the performer’s. It’s a creation of savage sensitivity that beautifully exemplifies what Kirk Douglas did best: Colour man’s best and worst instincts with transcendentally vivid brushstrokes that enhance our understanding of them.

One comment

  1. Great feature Thomas! A cinematic titan I agree. And to not have sparticus at the top? You know your Douglas.

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