Receiving the 19th American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, Kirk Douglas celebrates a distinguished forty-five years as one of Hollywood’s finest actors and most vibrant and intriguing personalities. This award, however, is no nostalgic look back upon work completed, but a deserved breather in a career that continues unabated. Douglas has only recently returned from a prolonged location shoot in the Pyrenees Mountains filming VERAZ, which will be released later this year. He has published two acclaimed and successful books, and is toiling away on the third. And SPARTACUS (1960), which he produced and starred in, will soon be seen again on the big screen in its original Super Technirama 70 splendor. This is not a man who is ready for the rocking chair.
Indeed, it is difficult to picture Kirk Douglas in repose; he has always seemed just a little more intense and propulsive than the average Joe. His unique qualities are apparent from his first moment on screen in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). Douglas is poised between macho leads of the forties like Bogart and John Garfield, and the fifties mumblers to follow such as Brando and Dean. Not quite a Method actor, he has infused his portrayals with genuine emotion, drawn from deep within; the searing intensity of his characters; feelings are beyond artifice.
Often cast as a villain, amoral climber or self-obsessed grabber, Kirk Douglas took care to color his hard edges with suggestions of pain, wit and sympathy. Whit Sterling, the gangster he portrays in OUT OF THE PAST (1947), is ruthless and evil, but Douglas plays him with easy humor and an open-faced charm. Whit knows he’s black-hearted, but what’s a guy gonna do? Similarly, his “nice” characters in LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962), THE BIG SKY (1952) and PATHS OF GLORY (1958) are often tinged with melancholy and loss. “Chiaroscuro,” Douglas likes to call it. “Light and shade.”
Midge Kelly in CHAMPION (1949) was Douglas’s breakthrough role, an ambitious and ruthless boxer who puts his own rise to power over everyone and everything else in his life. Antiheroes are a dime a dozen these days, but when CHAMPION came along, few American leading men would have dared to be so relentlessly unsympathetic. In Douglas’s hands, Midge Kelly is a complex, precisely defined man — despicable but thoroughly understandable. It won him an Academy Award nomination — and a career of playing fascinating, flawed men.
Douglas followed CHAMPION with many a gallery of unsavory characters: the callous but talented movie producer Jonathan Shields in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1953); the grasping reporter who keeps a man from being rescued so that the story can be prolonged in ACE IN THE HOLE (1951); the enraged, tubercular Doc Holliday in the taut GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957).
Which is not to say that Douglas has only played reprobates: he sings and swashbuckles in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954); mugs outrageously in partnership with John Wayne in THE WAR WAGON (1967); and hobbles about on one leg and chews the scenery in SCALAWAG (1973). He is tortured and desperate as van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE (1956), subtly affecting as an old man confined to a nursing home in AMOS (1985), and zealous and rigid in INHERIT THE WIND (1988). Douglas’s range is astonishing, yet he always remains credible. He is a rare combination of charisma, talent, professionalism and celebrity: a real movie star.
From the beginning, Kirk Douglas wanted to make sure he was one movie star who called the shots. He formed his own production company — the Bryna Company, named after his mother — in 1955, at a time when few actors were running their own careers. He directed a couple of amiable movies, SCALAWAG (1973) and Posse (1975), and produced some of his own best work: SPARTACUS (1960), LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) and THE BROTHERHOOD (1968). Whether in front of or behind the camera, Douglas has left his mark on every film he’s ever made.
Perhaps the true extent of his influence on the American cinema has yet to be examined, but Kirk Douglas has not been neglected nor underrated. As he completes his latest film, VERAZ, he remains one of the cinema’s most highly regarded leading men — and one of the most popular; not always compatible traits. He has received rave notices from both critics and audiences, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Tonight’s’ Life Achievement Award looks back at Kirk Douglas’s rich and rewarding life on film, even as it looks forward to the wonderful work he is still to do. We honor Kirk Douglas for his great accomplishments and pronounce him a great artist of the cinema.
Praise like that might turn a guy’s head, if he wasn’t so busy working on what comes next.