Kirk Douglas

Anti-hero as icon

Print edition : March 13, 2020

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life”. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

February 26, 2012: Kirk Douglas with his son Michael Douglas, left, at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood, California. Photo: AP

Kirk Douglas as a boxer in "Champion". Photo: GETTY IMAGES

In “Spartacus”. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Kirk Douglas (1916-2020), one of the unlikeliest superstars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, opened up new creative possibilities for lead actors with his choice of roles and his craft.

THE scene is a boxing arena and the crowd wildly cheers the entry of Midge Kelly, the defending middleweight champion. Confident, smiling and basking in his popularity, Midge Kelly enters the ring. But his handsome face, with its set jaws, dimpled chin and ruthless eyes, in a close-up seems to be concealing some dark secrets that are apparently tearing apart the champion from inside.

Champion (1949) is about the story of a man’s moral descent as he ascends to the top of his field, pitilessly discarding those who had helped him on his way. The role of Midge Kelly, played by Kirk Douglas, created one of the first anti-heroes in Hollywood. At a time when the success and popularity of an actor were believed to depend on his screen image, Kirk was among the first to break away from the mould. In another scene from Champion, when the girl whom Kelly used to facilitate his quick success threatens to expose him, he grips her hand, and even as the girl winces in pain, breaks into a slow cruel smile and, gently massaging her hurt hand, tells her in a low, even voice that he will put her in the hospital “for a long, long time”. The champion gently taps her on the chin with his deadly fist before casually walking out of the room.

The unstated violence in that scene, particularly when seen in contrast with the earlier portrayal of the protagonist as a happy-go-lucky, lovable hobo, is horrifying. Champion earned Kirk the first of his three Academy Award nominations and catapulted him to stardom. 

Kirk was one of the biggest and unlikeliest superstars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when glamour ruled supreme and stars dazzled as never before and never since from the silver screen. With his death on February 5, at the age of 103, the world of cinema lost the last great link to that “golden” period.

Kirk had none of the roguish charms of Clark Gable; the dapper, debonair appeal of Cary Grant; the laconic elegance of Gary Cooper; the boyish innocence of James Stewart; the uber coolness of Humphrey Bogart; the overpowering presence of John Wayne; the sleepy-eyed machismo of Robert Mitchum; the sullen beauty of Marlon Brando; or the overall gorgeousness of Eroll Flynn and Gregory Peck. But he had the ability to touch a raw nerve in viewers. Never one to be typecast or dependent on the onscreen image of the hero, he played deeply complex, flawed and all-too-human characters. 

“I am drowning. Drowning in my own juice,” says the detective James Mcleod (played by Kirk) in Detective Story (1951, directed by William Wyler), a film about a hard-nosed, honest detective whose uncompromising adherence to the rule of law, even at the expense of compassion, brings about shattering consequences that destroy his life.

In Ace in the Hole (1951, directed by Billy Wilder), Kirk plays Chuck Tatum, a ruthless, ambitious reporter who for the sake of keeping alive a hit story conspires to prolong the agony of a man trapped in a cave collapse, until the victim dies. “I like a role that is stimulating, challenging, interesting to play. That’s why I am often attracted to playing characters that are unlikeable,” Kirk wrote in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son

He was unparalleled in projecting the inner conflict within a character. In a scene in Ace in the Hole, Chuck, who is having an affair with the dying victim’s wife, tries to strangle her in rage for her cold-hearted attitude towards her husband, but the genius of Kirk conveys to the viewer that Chuck’s loathing is directed more at himself for being responsible for her husband’s misfortune. Chuck’s moment of repentance comes too late, and his ignominious death feels like a welcome relief from the agony that is eating him up from within.

In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, directed by Vincent Minelli), Kirk plays Jonathan Shields, a cunning, manipulative film producer whose passion for cinema and self-aggrandisement comes hand in hand with his complete lack of scruples and moral integrity. He has no qualms whatsoever about double-crossing his closest friends, stealing ideas from those who trust him, even using the girl who loved him to fulfil his own dreams. But unlike the protagonists of Ace in the Hole or Champion, Jonathan Shields still has scope for redemption in the form of his all-consuming love for cinema. It is a passion so powerful that the very people he has wronged come back and work for him. It was a role Clark Gable turned down. Kirk jumped at the offer and it earned him his second Oscar nomination. As he once said, he never found virtue photogenic.

In 1956, Kirk played one of his most iconic roles—the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life based on the biographical novel of the same name by Irving Stone. By his own admission, it was one of the few roles he almost completely lost himself in. In his method of acting, an actor’s task is to create an “illusion” and not allow himself to be consumed by the illusion. “The actor never gets lost in the character he is playing, the audience does,” he had said. But during the filming of Lust for Life, he admitted that he “was close to getting lost in the character of Van Gogh”. 

He had collected a lot of artwork in his lifetime but never an original Van Gogh. Years later, he jokingly wrote: “Aside from the fact that I cannot afford to buy his paintings now, it would be too weird—I’d feel as though I’d painted it myself.”

His fellow actors could not understand why an overtly masculine star like Kirk Douglas would choose to play vulnerable characters such as Van Gogh. John Wayne apparently told him after watching Lust for Life: “Christ Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Kirk got his third and final Oscar nomination for Van Gogh, but it was his co-star Anthony Quinn, who won the Best Supporting Actor award for playing Paul Gaugin. Later, Kirk said it was the “most painful” movie he had ever acted in.

Kirk’s performances in two of the greatest movies of that time, Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), both directed by Stanley Kubrick, were ignored by the Academy. Both films were produced by Bryna Productions, the production company Kirk established in 1955 in his mother Bryna Demsky’s name. Spartacus, a magnificent star-studded (Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Kirk Douglas) spectacle that took several years to make, is the film that Kirk is perhaps most immediately associated with.

Interestingly, it was Kirk who put Kubrick on the Hollywood map. Before Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s notable work was the small-budget noir masterpiece The Killing (1956). Kubrick had been knocking on doors in vain with the script of Paths of Glory until Kirk decided to produce it. Today, Paths of Glory is considered one of the landmark films of modern cinema and Kirk’s role of a soldier and a lawyer trying to defend three men from being unfairly executed was one of his most outstanding performances. The success of the film launched Kubrick as a major force in world cinema although it was not the kind of film one would associate Kubrick with. Again, Kirk brought Kubrick into Spartacus after he dismissed the initial director Anthony Mann after one week of shooting.


John Wayne’s anguish at his friend’s choice of roles was understandable. Wayne had become an American icon playing tough-guy-with-golden-heart roles. In Kirk’s powerful screen presence, he thought he had found a kindred spirit, for Kirk was equally good at playing tough guys, as is evident in some of the classic Westerns he starred in. He was the alcoholic, consumptive but ever-so-deadly Doc Holliday in Gunfight at OK Corral (1957); he was the avenging Matt Morgan, taking on an entire town in order to bring to justice the killer of his wife in Last Train from Gun Hill (1959); he was Harry Pitman Jr, the cunning and ruthless but charming career criminal in There was a Crooked Man(1970). Even in his seventies, Kirk showed that his machismo had not diminished with age, when he teamed up with his old friend and fellow-legend Burt Lancaster in the comic gangster movie Tough Guys (1986).

Kirk was one of the most versatile actors of all time. In a career spanning seven decades and more than 90 films, he had starred in practically all genres of cinema. In the 1950s, the decade known for expansive epic dramas such as Ben Hur, The Robe and The Ten Commandments, Kirk starred in three of the biggest hits of that period, Ulysses (1954), The Vikings (1958) and Spartacus

Born Issur Danielovitch on December 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, to illiterate Jewish Russian immigrants Herschel and Bryna Danielovitch (later they changed their surname to Demsky), young Issur and his six sisters spent their childhood in abject poverty. Their father, a ragman by trade, was a hard-drinking, champion barroom brawler who was hardly ever there for his family. Issur realised that a way out of poverty was education and college, and by sheer dint of merit, he got through school with high grades and entered St. Lawrence University, in Canton, New York, where he also distinguished himself in wrestling.

After graduating in 1939, Issur, determined to be an actor, went to work on stage in the Tamarack Playhouse, and changed his name to Kirk Douglas. He secured a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he was taught by the legendary acting teacher and hard taskmaster Charles Jehlinger. He graduated from there in 1941, and when the United States finally joined the War the same year, Kirk got into the Navy. After an honourable discharge in 1944, Kirk married his first wife, Diana, and the same year Michael (who went on to become a huge star and a great producer in his own right) was born. His second son, Joel, was born three years later. In 1954, Kirk married Anne Buydens, with whom he spent the rest of his life. They had two sons, Peter (born 1955) and Eric (born 1955; died 2004).

As a professional actor, Kirk began by doing bit parts in Broadway until his friend from his days in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Lauren Bacall, got him a job in the movies. It was a Hal B. Wallis production, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). But it was not until 1949 that he got his big break, Champion. Interestingly, it was Kirk’s willingness to take chances that prompted him to turn down an important role in The Great Sinner, an MGM production starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Ethel Barrymore, and choose a film by a completely unknown young producer, Stanley Kramer. That choice made all the difference in his life.

Kirk felt suffocated being tied to a production house and rejected Wallis’ offer of a long-term contract long before he became a star. However, after the success of Champion, he took the deal offered to him by Warner Bros. The first movie he did with Warner Bros was Man with a Horn (1950), based on the life of the early jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. He even learnt to play the trumpet for the role.

With the establishment of Bryna Productions, Kirk freed himself from the control of the big production. Bryna’s first film, The Indian Fighter, a Western starring Kirk and a young Walter Mathau, was a big hit. Bryna went on to produce some of his greatest films. In 1960, by giving screen credit to Dalton Trumbo, the scriptwriter for Spartacus, Kirk struck a blow against the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo, one of the greatest scriptwriters of Hollywood, refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and had to work under pseudonyms after he was blacklisted for his communist leanings. Dalton and Kirk collaborated again for the cult classic Lonely are the Brave

If there was one regret in Kirk’s long, illustrious career, it was not about being overlooked for the Oscars, it was about not being chosen for the role of Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Kirk had spent a decade trying to bring Ken Kesey’s cult novel to screen so that he could play the role of McMurphy. Finally, when Michael Douglas managed to get finances for the project, and Kirk felt he would finally get to play his dream role, the part went to Jack Nicholson. “Jack Nicholson played my part—brilliantly, damn it! But he played him differently than I would have,” wrote Kirk. Nicholson won the Oscar for his role, but Kirk’s great consolation was that Ken Kesey said that he should have played McMurphy.

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