Kirk Douglas passed away today in Beverly Hills, California. He was 103 years old.
Kirk Douglas was one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Douglas began his career in the 40s and he made his last film appearance in 2008. Interestingly enough, that final appearance was in a film that was made for French television, called The Empire State Building Murders. The film was meant to be a mockumentary and a tribute to old detective and crime films of the 40s. It was full of archival footage of Douglas contemporaries like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Lauren Bacall. Douglas played a character named Jim Kovalski. As a result of a stroke that he suffered in 1996, Douglas did not speak in the film but his very presence was powerful just because he was Kirk Douglas and he was still with us. Even though he was noticeably frail, Kirk Douglas remained an icon.
Indeed, if there was any Golden Age star that you would have expected to reach 100, it would have been Kirk Douglas. Douglas played several different characters over the course of his career but almost all of them had one thing in common. They were all tough. On screen, Kirk Douglas always came across as someone who laughed at death. One could imagine the Grim Reaper showing up at his front door and Douglas simply saying, “Get the Hell out of here.” If anyone could bully Death into submission, it would have been Kirk Douglas.
Kirk Douglas was a survivor. In several interviews, he described himself as being a “tough son of a bitch.” Kirk Douglas was not the type to allow himself to be pushed around and the fact that he even had a career in Hollywood during the studio system is kind of amazing. It wasn’t just that Douglas had a reputation for not suffering fools. It’s also that Douglas was an actor who was willing to put his career on the line for what he believed in. By not only hiring Dalton Trumbo to write the script for Spartacus but also giving him onscreen credit, Douglas has been credited with helping to bring the blacklist to an end. At the height of his stardom, Douglas appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar film, Paths of Glory. He stood up for the state of Israel and defended it against it’s most vehement critics, even rebuking his friend Jimmy Carter at one point.
What’s my favorite Kirk Douglas performance? In Spartacus, Douglas made “I am Spartacus” a rallying cry for revolutionaries everywhere. In Ace In the Hole, he was the perfect representation of an amoral journalist. Playing a gangster, he was both charming and dangerous in the classic film noir, Out of the Past. Lust for Life was an imperfect film but he gave a strong performance as Van Gogh. Paths of Glory featured Douglas at his most compassionate and outraged. Later in his career, he starred in the campy but entertaining Holocaust 2000. That said, my favorite Kirk Douglas film remains The Bad and The Beautiful, which is one of the best films ever made about Hollywood. Douglas played a real heel in The Bad and the Beautiful and, watching the film, you get the feeling he loved every minute of it.
Kirk Douglas’s death is not really a shock. When he appeared at the Golden Globes in 2017, he was noticeably frail. With his passing, though, we’ve lost a true icon of American cinema and one of the last living links to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Kirk Douglas, R.I.P.