Sunday, December 9, 2007

For many and many a long, long day

Kirk Douglas is 91 years old today. 91! Way to go Kirk.

In addition to spawning Michael (and three other boys who've at least appeared in films) he's also one of the greatest movie stars of all time.

Though occasionally prone to histrionics and bulging every vein in his neck and face, Douglas more often then not brings serious gravitas to any part he's played. Now mostly relegated to old coot roles Douglas brought some serious bad-ass chops to many parts. In a career that spans nearly five decades he's appeared in about eighty one films by the imdb's periodically sketchy count.

Here are some of my favorite Douglas performances (complimented by a clip where they could be found):

My first encounter with Douglas was in the 1954 live-action Disney classic 20000 Leagues Under the Sea as burly sailor Ned Leads. Leads acts as the blue collar voice of reason against the more mercurial Captain Nemo. In addition to wielding an awesome harpoon he also gets a rather fun sea shanty he gets to sing (I referenced a line from it in the title but it's alas, not on youtube).

In Paths of Glory, Kubrick's early anti-war masterpiece, Douglas plays "Idealist and fool" Colonel Dax who attempts to defend a group of soldiers unfairly branded as traitors and cowards. As Dax, Douglas not only gets to deliver some sterling courtroom speeches but he gets to show how haunted he is by the manipulations of the powerful and corrupt.

Douglas played some bad guys before but he's never more pitiable then as reporter Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder's under-seen masterpiece Ace in the Hole. Douglas provides some sterling work as a bitter, manipulative cynic who discovers his conscience too damn late to do anything about in this especially caustic but prescient look at journalism.
Who could be so vile, so brutal, so tough that they could take on the coolest man ever to live (Robert Mitchum, duh, clearly we'll have to post about HIM in the near future) and seem like a credible threat? Why Kirk Douglas of course! In my absolute favorite film noir of all-time, Out of the Past, Douglas' Whit Sterling is a ruthless bastard who never lets himself get angry, he's just cooly confident that he can screw you beyond belief.

Beowulf and King Leonidas both need to say their own names (or the names of their city) themselves before they do something awesome. Chumps. As Spartacus, Douglas' nobility and heroism are so great he doesn't even get a chance. Though the movie can at times get a little stodgy and its kind of been parodied to death, Spartacus still has moments that click, largely because of Douglas.
Lastly, there is the spectacular The Bad and the Beautiful. Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, an amalgam of David O. Selznick and Val Lewton. The film's multiple narrators and intriguing structure show Shields to be a man of boundless enthusiasm, innovation but equally prone to tremendous bouts of selfishness and manipulation.

There are plenty of other fine Douglas films to recommend; you can't go wrong with Seven Days in May (the 24 of its time), Lonely are the Brave (solid dramatic western), Detective Story (what do you think it's about? jeez) or Lust for Life (a beautiful Van Gogh biopic).

Any fond Douglas memories? A recommendation to add? Disagree with my picks? Put it in the comments bloglodites.

1 comment:

New Frank said...

You'll get no argument from me on Bad and the Beautiful, Paths of Glory (the best thing Kubrick every put his name to), or, of course, Ace in the Hole. But out of the past is very much overrated, in my humble opinion. Still, Douglas is way better than James Woods in the remake of that film.

Question: how would one spell out Kirk Douglas' trademark grunt for post purposes? I think it's something like "YAAAAAAGGHH!"