The scrawny son of Jewish immigrants transformed himself into an icon of US manhood – a narrative the nation is forgetting in the Trump era. Yet a darker side lurked too
Andrew Pulver – The Guardian
Kirk Douglas in 1946. The actor was notorious for his aggressive personality as his career took off. Photograph: AL ’Whitey’ Schafer/Paramount/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock
Handsome, muscular, noble – not words that would automatically have been associated with a Yiddish-speaking schmutter-seller’s son whose family were not long off the boat from what is now Belarus. But we know better: in these nativist times, it is worth remembering that Izzy Demsky was the beneficiary of the ultimate Hollywood makeover: the scrawny, hustling scion of immigrants who evolved into Kirk Douglas, the acme of all-American manhood, and evolved once again into a sensitive, politically conscious standard-bearer for liberalism.
Douglas, who has died aged 103, became an unrecognisable figure from that of his childhood. His story follows a near-mythic immigrant arc that the US has chosen to ignore in the Trump era. In this he was aided by physiognomy: like Bernie Schwartz (AKA Tony Curtis), his smooth good looks opened doors closed to the likes of Manny Goldenberg (AKA Edward G Robinson). Douglas became an authentic star in 1949 with the brawling boxing picture Champion, only two years after Hollywood nervously tackled the subject of antisemitism in Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire, and fully two decades before ethnic minority-looking actors such as Dustin Hoffman were able to play romantic leads.
But Douglas was always an actor of intelligence as well as charm: he quickly latched on to roles that demanded ambiguity and venality alongside raffishness, with the likes of Ace in the Hole and The Bad and the Beautiful. In the former, he allied himself with Billy Wilder, Hollywood’s master of comic bad taste, to carve a portrait of a vicious, unprincipled reporter trying to get back in the big time; in the latter he played a by-any-means-necessary backstabber of a film producer in a film that exposed the industry’s complex morality to an unprecedented degree. Both films widened Douglas’s acting palette, and opened up the range of what a commercially powerful male lead could do on screen.
Douglas also had the sense to know which way the wind was blowing and was one of the first big-name actors to follow Burt Lancaster’s lead to start producing his own films: some of his best-known titles, including Paths of Glory, Lust for Life and Spartacus were made under his own banner. His production company, which he named Bryna after his mother, was about more than escaping the industry grind, or Hollywood’s intellectual paralysis as the studio system began to break down: he could use his status to get politically charged material through the Hollywood system in a way that seems conventional now, but in the McCarthy era was a career-risking struggle.
The gladiator picture Spartacus, most obviously, contributed to the breaking of the Hollywood blacklist in 1960 by naming Dalton Trumbo in its credits – until then persona non grata after falling victim to the anti-communist witch-hunts over a decade earlier. But what tends to be overlooked is that the film is as much about the civil rights movement as intolerance: it is an unambiguous statement that any society founded on slavery is rotten at heart and creates its own downfall. In what was then still the Jim Crow era, it was a powerful document.
Douglas’s nose for a great story never deserted him: in a prescient move he acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s 1962 counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and produced a stage version of it in which he starred opposite Gene Wilder. Kesey’s study of individual rebellion in the face of institutional authoritarianism would appear to be in perfect sync with Douglas’s liberal instincts; but, as history records, he was unable to get a film version off the ground and it was left to his son Michael to manage it in the mid-70s, by which time the elder Douglas was – to put it politely – no longer the best fit for Randle McMurphy.
In any case, by the time the Hollywood New Wave had got going in the late-60s, Douglas was somewhat surplus to requirements as a movie star: his overt machismo was no longer a fashionable accessory. In truth, the ensuing decades were not a parade of glory: the Brian De Palma ESP-thriller The Fury, from 1978, is arguably the most memorable of his later films. He did do one lingering oddity: the Martin Amis-scripted 1980 sci-fi film Saturn 3, with Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel, thereby presumably becoming the model for the past-it star Lorne Guyland in Amis’s novel Money four years later.
This was Douglas’s public face; behind the scenes, it had been apparent for some time he could never be regarded as some sort of film-industry saint. He was notorious for his aggressive personality as his career took off, and he has been dogged by Harvey Weinstein-style allegations of sexual harassment – with persistent but unverified suggestions of a serious sexual assault on a teenage Natalie Wood in the mid-1950s. Wood’s heartbreaking history has been well attested to, including by her immediate family, but Douglas’s connection to it – unlike, say, the allegations against Roman Polanski, or indeed Weinstein – has never been tested in court. Now Douglas is beyond the scope of defamation lawsuits, and amplified by social media, it has swiftly become part of his immediate legacy.
Can we reconcile this with Douglas’s heroic status? Well, it certainly takes off some of the shine with which the actor glowed in his glory days. Like many a powerful Hollywood figure in the spotlight of the #MeToo movement, Douglas is caught in a pincer movement: on the one hand, the loyalty and admiration earned from years of the highest creative achievement, and on the other the desire to give voice to generations of victims, female and male, that were once considered so much meat for the grinder. It is perhaps significant that, of all his roles, Douglas himself most identified with Vincent van Gogh: the 1956 biopic Lust for Life may look a little overblown for modern tastes, but it is a study of a man tormented by his own failings and crippled by self-doubt.
So where does this leave him? Douglas was an undeniably vital figure in the history of American cinema, and a seemingly irrepressible force for good in film-making terms; but any established connection to Wood is likely to derail a considerable amount of this stored-up goodwill. Is it possible to, at the same time, admire Douglas’s creative achievements while retaining outrage over Wood’s sufferings? However cautiously we treat the claim that Douglas was the man involved, it’s a stain that won’t wash away any time soon.