12 February 2020

Man Without a Star


Kirk Douglas. He wasn't the easiest guy to work with, by all reports. He was driven, and not a little of that leaks into his performances. His acting was muscular - not in the sense of beefcake, but the physicality, his center of gravity, the weight. And the restlessness, an inner engine, a furnace. Anger, certainly. He was trapped by it. If one thing defines Douglas, as a presence, it's that he seethed. He gave off heat like molten glass.



Like anybody else, he made his share of stinkers, but in the main, he brought something to all of his pictures. Most of them are solid, some are extraordinary. Once or twice he played a real skunk, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful. More typically, a guy who was fatally flawed, In Harm's Way, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Arrangement; most famously, van Gogh in Lust for Life. Occasionally, he actually got to be the good guy, Last Train from Gun Hill, and Seven Days in May, notably Spartacus, but by and large, his characters are ambiguous.



He made Man Without a Star in 1955. In brief, it doesn't sound like much. A drifter wanders into a range war, and sides with the little guys, even though he hates barbed wire and what it represents, the end of the Old West, getting crowded in by rules and fences. You've ridden this trail before. Excuse me, no.



The big reveal, when Douglas tears his shirt open to show his scars - roped up in the hated wire, and dragged - isn't simply physical. It's bottled-up psychic fury. This is Douglas balanced on the edge of psychosis, the buried past, the unforgiven injury, the animating event. Nobody is better at this, Like his Holocaust survivor in The Juggler, a much underappreciated movie, this is a guy who isn't simply bruised, but in torment. The thing about both pictures is that they're about redemption. The characters Douglas plays haven't always gotten a second chance. And the other theme in Man Without a Star is the promise of the distant horizon, of escape and reinvention.



There's a darker alternative, of trying to find rescue in flight, and when Douglas to all intents and purposes remade Man Without a Star in 1962, Lonely Are the Brave was 'heroic' on a more intimate canvas, black-and-white, composed in shadows. It was tragedy, absolutely and utterly formal. Douglas exec produced, and this darkness was no accident. He later said it was his favorite among his pictures.




*

Douglas was instrumental in breaking the blacklist. He might have exaggerated his part, but credit where credit's due. Just as it took a collective cowardice, and turning a blind eye, to sustain the blacklist, it took a collective will to beat it. Nobody did it singlehanded. Kirk Douglas did his share.

He hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus. (The novelist Howard Fast, who'd written the book, was himself a former Communist, turned apostate.) They had issues with the script. Trumbo wanted it to reflect the contemporary Red Scare. Douglas wanted it to be more universal. It was a message picture, yes, but not a sermon. Douglas fired his original director, Anthony Mann, and got Stanley Kubrick on board, his guy from Paths of Glory. Maybe he thought Kubrick was more likely to tug his forelock.

Didn't happen. Toward the end of the shoot, they had a conversation about how to credit the screenplay. Trumbo was blacklisted, the kiss of death. Kubrick suggested he himself take script credit. Douglas said fuck it, let's give it to Dalton and take the heat.  Heat they got. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons did columns telling moviegoers to boycott such a Commie picture, but Spartacus ran the table at the box office. Otto Preminger followed suit with an on-screen credit for Trumbo, with Exodus.

It was the beginning of the end, no question. It was about money, of course. The blacklist was bad for business.

*

Kirk Douglas had an unquiet heart. A guy with a chip on his shoulder. He was a romantic, how not? And just below the surface, some deep and unknowable sorrow. He may never have made peace with himself, but now he rests.  


9 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Roku turned up Man Without a Star only on Starz, which I don't subscribe to, but it looks like Youtube might have a version. Thanks, David. See you in 90 minutes.

Paul D. Marks said...

David, Kirk Douglas did always seem to be seething or at least having something going on under the surface. And you mentioned a lot of his great movies. But I'd like to add one of the best film noirs to the list, Out of the Past. And another good noir, and his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Excellent column about a great screen presence.

janice law said...

A fine remembrance of a terrific performer.

John Floyd said...

Great column, David, as usual. I'll add another of Douglas's movies--The Last Sunset (1961). He's a bad guy who's a good guy in the end, sort of. Also featured Joseph Cotten, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Neville Brand, Carol Lynley, many others. Yes, a dumb title, but a good movie.

Steve Liskow said...

Excellent column, David. Thanks for reminding me of how many of these films I actually saw growing up. And I have to add Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with James Mason and Peter Lorre. I remember my dad and me sitting in the dark theater with our eyes and mouths wide open when the Nautilus bore down on the other ships.

Douglas had the courage to play unlikable characters as often as not, and several other actors couldn't play both sides of the street as well as he could.

Eve Fisher said...

My favorite quote about Kirk Douglas comes from his own memoir, "The Ragman's Son". John Wayne hated "Lust for Life", and said, "Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There's so few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers," Wayne said. Douglas tried to explain, "It's all make-believe, John. It isn't real. You're not really John Wayne, you know." Wayne (born Marion Morrison) looked at him oddly, as if Douglas had betrayed him. (Thanks, IMDB)

I rewatched Spartacus last year, and was shamefully surprised at how damn good it is. And I've always liked Tough Guys - Kirk and Burt together. They made a good team. Speaking of which, here's a link to a great article from the NYTimes:
https://www.nytimes.com/1986/11/02/movies/lancaster-and-douglas-a-chemistry-lesson.html

Lawrence Maddox said...

Kirk Douglas stood up to the blacklist. We should always honor him for that. A great post, David.

DoolinDalton said...

Bravo, David! And Rest In Peace, Mighty Kirk.