The New Yorker
Many happy returns to Kirk Douglas, who is a hundred years old today. How should the occasion be celebrated? The most obvious method would be to leap joyfully, from oar to oar, along the flank of a longship; that is how Douglas announced his homecoming in “The Vikings” (1958), making the happiest of returns to his people. If you miss your footing and tumble into the water, so much the better. The trouble is that not all of us have a fjord at hand. Maybe we should just line up to greet the great man, as his colleagues did in “The Arrangement” (1969), welcoming him back to the office with an eager handshake and a tray of drinks, but be warned: that scene ends with Douglas slumping into a chair, throwing up his hands, and saying, “Bull****.”
Centenarians of the cinema are a rare breed. The last big name to hit three figures was Bob Hope (1903-2003), and you don’t need to be an admirer of either man to note the connection. A couple of stills will do the job, confirming that the key to longevity, in Hollywood, has nothing to do with morals, marriages, exercise regimes, or green vegetables. It’s a maxillary matter, as simple as that. You take a breath, say a prayer, stick your neck out, and chin your way to a hundred.
The cleft in the Douglas chin is, with the exception of the Grand Canyon, the most popular natural rift in America. The geology of the guy is open to public view, demanding recognition; one glance at that dimple is enough, like a single syllable of Jimmy Stewart’s voice. Fans of the Asterix comic-strip books, set during the Roman occupation of Gaul, will point you to “Asterix and Obelix All at Sea” (1996), which is dedicated partly to Douglas, and in which the heroic figure of Spartakis is drawn directly from him; what’s wonderful is that this cartoon version, with its stiff hedge of blond hair and its promontory of jaw, is almost no exaggeration at all.
If that sounds improbable, check out the first forty seconds of “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), and the list of things that the camera finds on its travels: desert scrub, a dying fire, then boots, denims, shirt, cigarette, and the lower half of a sunburned face. We know who this is. What follows, on the other hand, throws us off track. Douglas sits up, tips back the brim of his hat to reveal all, then stares into the sky, where three jets leave vapor trails across the heavens—long white scars against deep gray, since the film is a fine example of late monochrome. What the hell is a cowboy doing with jets overhead? Shouldn’t they be arrows, or circling vultures? But that is the nub of the story: this fellow is the last of a breed, defiantly homeless, snipping wire fences on the principle that nobody should be hemmed in, and riding on through. He saddles his beautiful palomino, and we expect an open prairie, but he winds up in a bright new kitchen, agleam with mod cons, where Gena Rowlands makes him ham and eggs. He fits in like a clown in a monastery. Even more unnerving is the movie’s end, as the hero and his mount are knocked down, on a rainy road, by a truck ferrying toilets.
“Lonely Are the Brave” was one of Douglas’s favorite projects, and you can see why; not just because he was center stage—where else is a star supposed to hang out, for God’s sake?—but because the stage stretched from the old world to the new, and he was not someone who liked to be assigned, let alone confined, to a regular period or place. He was quite at ease in the O.K. Corral, or the Roman arena, clad in cast-iron underpants and on-the-shoulder chain mail, but drop him into the here and now and he would show you how to wear a good suit as if it were armor-plated. Look at the broad double-breasted number that he sports in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), descending the stairs to meet Lana Turner, who has dropped round in full battle-dress, including a floor-length jewelled gown and a cloud of white fur. His snarl is like the jab of a trident. “Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while. Maybe everybody does,” he tells her, and adds, “Who gave you the right to dig into me and turn me inside out and decide what I’m like?” Whatever you say, Mr. Douglas.
He was born Issur Danielovitch, in Amsterdam, New York. It was quite a family: three sisters, then the boy, then three more sisters. No wonder his life thronged with women. His father, Herschel, born in Russia in 1884, had come to American around 1908; he took the lowliest of jobs, gathering stuff that even the poor had thrown away. Hence the title of Douglas’s autobiography, published in 1988: “The Ragman’s Son.” It’s an exhausting read. All the fights and the fallouts, the wrestling bouts, the litany of carnal conquests and contractual flareups: the carnival of immodesty starts early and never subsides. He remembers hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac, and asks, “Is that any way for a God to act? Don’t you think he’s taking advantage of his position? Don’t you think he’s cruel?” There is even a glint of menace in his complaint: “I also didn’t like the way God treated Moses.” So that’s why Kirk Douglas is still going strong, at a hundred. God’s afraid to meet him.
The author’s memories of childhood, unlike a few of his West Coast anecdotes, have the brunt of the believable. “I stole food. I reached under a neighbor’s chicken for the warm egg, cracked it open, swallowed it whole in secret.” And don’t forget the twelve-block walk to Hebrew school: “I had to run the gauntlet, because every street had a gang and they would always be waiting to catch the Jew boy.” If that’s the kind of bruising you grow up with, then struggling to get the name of Dalton Trumbo—banned by the blacklist—into the credits of “Spartacus,” as Douglas did, is hardly a battle at all.
Then there was Mrs. Livingston. She was Issur’s teacher, who introduced the lad to romantic poetry, took a shine to him, and invited him home “to help her with some English papers one evening.” Byron would have approved, although even he might have suggested, now and then, that Douglas the Don Juan pause his pen. The recitation of amours is unflagging, and it certainly gives you a historical shock to realize there is a man—if not quite a gentleman—alive today who can inform you of what it was like to make out with Joan Crawford. (“We never got past the foyer,” he writes. “There we were on the rug.”) I prefer the elegant euphemisms: “Ann Sothern played my wife. We rehearsed the relationship offstage.” And I would trade all such revelations for that poised encounter, in “Man Without a Star” (1955), when Jeanne Crain, seated politely at a desk, with a ledger open in front of her, inquires of Douglas, “What do you want?” In response, he takes a pen, and scratches the word “You” in rough letters across the page. They kiss. “I’m going to have a lot of trouble with you,” he says, and spins her chair around in glee. “You’re so right,” she says. The honors are even.
What rises from the pages of “The Ragman’s Son” is the unmistakable whiff of certainty. The transformation from Issur Danielovitch to Izzy Demsky to Kirk Douglas seems ordained, unavoidable, and brazenly luckless. He had to happen. If your first movie is “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946)—seeing off Richard Widmark and Montgomery Clift to snag the role, which pairs you with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin—then you are unlikely to be plagued by the demons of self-doubt. You brush them off like flies. Even stronger was Douglas’s third outing, in “Out of the Past” (1947), where he plays a gangster who would very much like his moll back, plus the forty thousand bucks she took with her. Love is not the issue. “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them,” he admits. One of the virtues of Kirkery is the brio, oddly unjealous, with which he squares off against other actors; stealing a scene, perhaps, but always content to share the loot. In this case, he had Robert Mitchum. “Cigarette?,” one man asks. “Smoking,” the other replies, showing him what already smolders in his hand. A word, a gesture, and they’re done. Actors like this can make a gunfight out of Lucky Strikes.
So much mythologizing energy is expended on those who flamed and crashed in their youth, from Rudolph Valentino to Heath Ledger, that we sometimes neglect the power of the long burn. The bewildering thing about Douglas is that, when you gaze back at his career, it seems to have been fireworks all the way. He entered movies not watching his step, still less with the shy trepidation of a novice, but like somebody spoiling for a fight. Is it any surprise that audiences, freshly released from the toils of the Second World War, should have sensed that momentum, stuck with it, and revelled in the hopefulness of its forward thrust? By the time that Douglas played a boxer, in “Champion,” in 1949 (he trained with an ex-welterweight named Mushy Callahan), his name preceded the title onscreen, and we were forced to wait awhile, viewing him only from behind as he padded through the tunnel’s gloom and entered the glare of the ring. Finally he turned and unleashed the grin. We looked up at him from below, as if we were already down on the canvas and taking the count. He didn’t even have to throw a punch.
Ah, the smile of Kirk: one of the steeliest blades in cinema, unrusted by the years. It was still there when he reunited with his friend Burt Lancaster, in the slight but elegiac “Tough Guys” (1986). They had acted together many times, beginning with “I Walk Alone” (1948); they had even sung and danced together, at the 1958 Academy Awards, performing “It’s Great Not to Be Nominated.” What binds the two of them—and you could make it three, by adding Charlton Heston—is that, in each case, the smile was somehow more frightening than the roars of rage. The most remorseless smiler of our age is Tom Cruise, yet he is careful never to forgo a winning geniality, whereas Douglas and Lancaster, in their pomp, bared their teeth as they did the undulation of their muscles. If Douglas had played Quint, in “Jaws,” the shark would have rolled its black eyes, backed off, and swum away.
Not that Douglas, in his movies, was a mere bully; that is no guarantee of fame. As far as punishment goes, his characters may dish it out, but fate tends to dish it right back, and, indeed, the registration of pain can grow startling to the point of masochism, as anyone who flinched from his Vincent Van Gogh, in “Lust for Life” (1956), can testify. Best of all is his Colonel Dax, in “Paths of Glory,” released the following year, and directed by Stanley Kubrick—“a talented ****,” in Douglas’s opinion. He plays a French colonel in the First World War, tasked first with leading a fruitless attack on an impregnable German position and then with defending his men against charges of cowardice; what shakes him is not an artillery barrage but the indifference of the top brass, and what lends the performance its grip is that you can never be sure when, and how, he will lose his soldierly cool. Thus, he disarms us, one evening, lounging on his bunk, jacket unbuttoned, and tugging off his boots. The mood is mild. In comes a sergeant, whom Dax suspects of treating the lower ranks unfairly, and whom he then orders, by way of a bitter lesson, to take charge of a firing squad:
“You draw your revolver out, you walk forward and put a bullet through each man’s head.”
“Sir, I request that I be excused from this duty.”
“Request denied. You got the job. It’s all yours.”
Look at Douglas, just before he delivers that last line. His whole being tautens; the chin is implacable; justice is served. Was that emotional rawness too much for Kubrick, who liked everything to be cooked just right? He was summoned by Douglas again, to take the helm of “Spartacus,” in 1960, but not until Jack Nicholson was called upon for “The Shining,” two decades on, would Kubrick entrust a film to an actor of such bridling intensity. And you have to wonder, in turn, how Douglas and his dramatic demeanor—at once masterful and eruptive, commanding the space of a movie yet prey to the dictates of his own heart and guts—would fare in times like ours. Could anyone now get away with the sublime insolence of Chuck Tatum, the reporter played by Douglas in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951)? Newly landed at a quiet provincial newspaper, he strikes a match by holding it against the cylinder of a typewriter and pressing the carriage return. Later, the same trick is repeated, but this time someone else presses the key on Chuck’s behalf. He has the place in his thrall.
The miracle, by my reckoning, is how much of Douglas’s achievement does not seem dated; how thoroughly it answers, in fact, to a resilient notion of what a leading man is for. Likable is fine, credible always helps, but watchable is everything: he must be a lure to the eyes. And with that magnetic pull comes an attitude—the particular angle, so to speak, at which an actor confronts the world. In Douglas’s case, he leans forward, as if forever grasping the prow of a Viking ship, breasting the waves and building up an appetite for experience. “Now that you’ve got a big hit, you’ve become a real son of a bitch,” the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper said to him, in the wake of “Champion.” To which Douglas replied, “You’re wrong, Hedda. I was always a son of a bitch. You just never noticed before.” Life is hard, as Issur Danielovitch discovered, but if you go at it, fists at the ready, with whetted words to match, you may just come out on top. And even if you don’t, you can still be left standing at the end, a hundred years on; that is a kind of triumph in itself. The old poem says, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Not yet.