Not very many people make it to 100 years of age and even fewer people make it to the century mark who also happen to be bona fide major motion picture stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
So happy birthday Mr. Kirk Douglas.
He couldn’t have a more All-American heritage, being born in Amsterdam, N.Y. as Issur Danielovitch, to poverty-stricken Russian Jewish parents fresh off the boat. Like so many Hollywood heavyweights, a name change here and a press agent’s flair there, and boom a star was born. He really is the last of his breed. He grew to stardom from the 1940s and continued to be a major star until age and a stroke that would have leveled others, weakened but did not defeat him. Kirk Douglas had it all. He had good looks and acting chops. He rose to fame within the traditional Hollywood studio system and rose even further when that world changed in the 1950s and he became an independent producer and freelance talent for hire.
Kirk Douglas was also a kind of bridge from the traditional, big studio star inventions to the independent modern star we are used to today. He not only starred in so many genres but he left quite a mark in them. He made one of the greatest film noir films, one of the greatest anti-war films and one of the greatest spectacles. Not a bad hat trick.
Out of the Past was a Robert Mitchum vehicle and Kirk Douglas appears just enough to steal every scene and present a smiling menace who puts us on the edge of our seats. He never does anything overtly violent but he certainly leaves the impression that he is always on the verge of mayhem.
Douglas collaborated with Stanley Kubrick twice. In a gritty, black and white anti-war film Paths of Glory and the big budget color spectacle Spartacus. Two very different movies with the same underlining theme of the lead character’s humanity shining through despite circumstances that conspired to destroy it.
Douglas’ collaboration with Stanley Kubrick is especially poignant given Kubrick’s general view of humanity. If you take a quick glance at the non-Douglas films of Stanley Kubrick, many of them brilliant, you will be hard pressed to find a character who isn’t suffering from some form of absurdity. His classics like Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, Barry Lyndon or even 2001, do not see the human race as anything special…In fact, Kubrick’s profound disbelief would cause him trouble later on with Stephen King of all people when they collaborated on The Shining. If there are no spirits, evil or otherwise, you really can’t have a Stephen King story. They fought on the set of The Shining because Kubrick was trying to make a ghost story when he didn’t believe in ghosts or any kind of afterlife.
But Kubrick’s work with Douglas - and I have no idea if this was cause of tension between these two creative geniuses as well — has developed Judea/Christian themes — and it all flows from the power of Kirk Douglas as an actor and probably as a person. Some praise Spartacus as the only major Hollywood sword and sandal epic that wasn’t fixated on Christ. The film has even been praised for its lack of religious point of view. Still, Kirk Douglas’ noble slave rebel certainly seems to possess a lot of the characteristics of a man of faith. He is merciful when he is shown no mercy, he loves when he is shown only hate.
In Paths of Glory, the French military establishment is in for a beating from Kubrick and the priest character in the film is weak and ineffectual. But again, Kirk Douglas’ innate humanity and his being a man who was raised around people with a love of God, shines through.
And speaking of God, Douglas reconnected with his Jewish faith thanks to the twin catastrophes of barely surviving a helicopter crash and then a debilitating stroke. As these kinds of things are wont to do, Douglas found himself in one of those “foxholes” and turned to God and to his roots of his Jewish Faith. If his philanthropy is any indication, any “deals” Douglas may have made with God the Father have certainly been kept and, even at 100 years of age, he continues to be a force of heroic good in a world so desperately short of heroes.