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.