Kirk Douglas–The Things We Watched

Farewell to one of the last great movie stars

Almost no one on Earth had the privilege of knowing Kirk Douglas personally. But we got a sense of the depth of his personality and charm through his vast, rich filmography. Like most actors, he appeared in plenty of garbage–second-rate Westerns, war pictures, and forgettable 1970s Movies Of The Week. One of his final appearances was a one-episode guest shot on Touched By An Angel in 2000. But we’ll mainly remember Kirk Douglas through his extraordinary run, mostly in the 1950s, when he delivered some of the most memorable performances in film history.

Kirk Douglas, RIP. And thank you.

Out Of The Past (1947)

In one of his first screen roles, Douglas played a heavy in this nifty little film noir. It’s a relatively muted role for him, and he took second-banana status to Robert Mitchum. But here are those two screen legends sparring with Brylcreem and cigarettes.

A Letter To Three Wives (1949)

In this soapy Joseph Mankiewicz drama, Douglas basically steals the picture as a schoolteacher and classical-music lover who rails against his wife’s career writing crummy radio serials.

Ace In The Hole (1951)

Still one of the best movies about journalism ever made, Douglas carries Billy Wilder’s cynical satire on the “boy falls down the well” cliché. He plays a sleazy journalist, exiled to rural New Mexico, who turns a small local tragedy into a national media sensation.

The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)

This film is a classic for many reasons, including some delicious scene-chewing from Lana Turner, but Kirk Douglas’ role as Jonathan Shields, a movie producer with great commercial instincts and a heart of stone, is the most memorable performances of a Hollywood mogul that Hollywood has ever made. He got his second Oscar nomination for this one. There have been many imitators of this type of role, but none better.

Lust For Life (1956)

Douglas’ third and final Best Actor nomination went to his extraordinarily passionate portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s biopic. The depth and intensity of his emotions have rarely been matched on screen.

Paths Of Glory (1957)

With 1917 about to sweep away the Oscars, let’s remember an even better World War I movie, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, which captures the Great War in all its horror and idiocy. Douglas plays an officer who witnesses a terrible injustice. Here, he rages with righteous indignation against his pompous superiors.

Spartacus (1960)

This legendary film, without which Gladiator wouldn’t have been remotely possible, showed that Douglas could do action, too. The “I Am Spartacus” scene is the film’s most famous, but I’m partial to this gritty gladiator battle, which resembles actual combat as much as anything in 1960 could. It’s gritty and realistic and you can see the fear and determination on Douglas’ face.

The Final Countdown (1980)

After Spartacus, Douglas’ career began a long decline out of quality, hitting its nadir in a 1973 musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for British TV. Yet there are some late-career highlights. I’m partial to his role as the commander of a modern American aircraft carrier, transported back to 1941, in the days just before Pearl Harbor. Also starring a young Martin Sheen, this is the kind of alternate-history sci-fi we still don’t see a lot of today.

The Man From Snowy River (1982)

Douglas delivers a wonderful late-career performance as twin brothers in this family-friendly Australian Western from director George Miller. The twinkle in his eye and his boundless empathy makes you regret some lost decades when Hollywood handed over the screen to younger, hipper actors.

 

Finally, here’s Kirk Douglas playing the banjo and singing a Frankie Laine tune in the 1955 Western comedy Man Without A Star. See yourself out, Mr. Douglas.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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