If you’re not familiar with the screen work of the legendary Kirk Douglas, who has died at 103, I have a few suggestions. The man had a multi-decade career that included some absolute classics — and some you should definitely avoid, so here’s a guide.
In the latter category, I’d put the 1954 Disney production of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” Douglas played a completely silly sailor who was ready to fight anyone, including a giant squid in the last reel. Not only was he seriously miscast, but the rest of the cast (e.g. James Mason as Captain Nemo) weren’t given anything special to do. Stinko!
There are two projects Douglas did when he was much older that were obvious attempts to appeal to a modern audience — and failed. One was “Tough Guys” (1986) in which he and Burt Lancaster embarrassed themselves as two ex-cons who got out of jail and had to answer to a parole officer played by Dana Carvey. Naturally, the senior citizens were magnets for women a third their ages, and were forced to dress in whatever qualified as eighties chic in the mind of a very bad costume designer. It reminded me of similar late-career stumbles by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who should have left well enough alone.
The other was “Greedy” (1994), in which Douglas was the rich patriarch of a family made up of Michael J. Fox, Nancy Travis, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Phil Hartman, Olivia d’Abo, and Jere Burns, all of whom tried to position themselves for prominent placement in the old guy’s will. It had the feel of a bad sitcom at a time when Fox was a bigger draw than Douglas.
Now, let’s talk about some of the truly good Kirk Douglas movies you might choose from, starting with Billy Wilder’s “Ace In The Hole,” which wasn’t a hit when it was released in 1951, but has since been recognized as a must-see movie. Douglas played a despicable newspaper reporter who exploited the story of a man stuck in a cave, turning the whole thing into a circus — a lesson still appplicable to so many stories over-covered by today’s media.
Then there’s “Spartacus,” in which Douglas played a slave who led a violent revolt against the Roman Empire. His co-stars included such heavyweights as Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, and Tony Curtis (as the only Roman slave with a Bronx accent). This is the movie that helped break the Hollywood blacklist, when Douglas (who produced the picture) hired redlined writer Dalton Trumbo to do the script. He also hired a heavyweight director by the name of Stanley Kubrick, with whom Douglas had worked three years earlier on “Paths of Glory.”
I don’t have time to summarize all of Douglas’ other classics, but here are a half-dozen suggestions: ”The Man From Snowy River,” “Seven Days In May,” “Lonely Are The Brave,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” “Young Man With A Horn,” and the 1988 remake of “Inherit the Wind” (he played Matthew Harrison Brady opposite Jason Robards as Henry Drummond).
Those don’t even make up one-tenth of the man’s filmography, but will give you an idea of his acting range and screen appeal.
There’s one other Kirk Douglas production I must mention: his son, Michael Douglas, who went on to an astounding (and still-going) career as a TV star, movie icon, and producer. It was the younger Douglas who turned “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” into a multi-Oscar-winning project after his father had produced and starred in the Broadway stage version, which was not a hit. By the time Michael took the reins in the mid-1970s, he had to tell Kirk he was too old to play R.P. McMurphy, who then became an indelible character in the hands of Jack Nicholson.
But I wish I’d seen that original stage production, if only to have been in the same room as Kirk Douglas.