A tribute to Kirk Douglas

On the progressive, sensitive side of a macho-seeming hero who turns 100 next month


Kirk Douglas in a still from ‘Spartacus’
Kirk Douglas in a still from ‘Spartacus’

A few weeks ago I moderated a conversation with the director Dibakar Banerjee at an event about gender empowerment and equality. Self-searchingly, choosing his words with care, Banerjee talked about the small ways in which gender roles used to be reaffirmed even in his well-educated family: during mealtimes, his sister always got up and served him when his plate needed to be replenished—this wasn’t a sternly imposed routine, it was just something everyone took as a given. It was only years later, having been more sensitized over time, that he properly reflected on such things.

I was reminded of a passage in The Ragman’s Son, the American actor Kirk Douglas’s wonderful memoir, published in 1988. Recalling little childhood games where he, as the boy, was expected to win battles of daring against his older sisters, Douglas wrote, “I wanted to feel like a man […] a man is supposed to be strong, to be active, he must do things […] What a lot of shit that is. All the movements now are encouraging women to be stronger. I’d like to be in a movement for men to be weaker. Why do men always have to be strong? We’re not, and we know it. Why do we force ourselves to play those roles?”

“Play those roles”—an interesting choice of words for a professional actor. I have been thinking quite a bit about Douglas, mainly because he turns one hundred next month, having outlived nearly all his contemporaries from one of filmdom’s greatest, most vital eras. But also because of a gap between some perceptions of his screen image—the man’s man that Hollywood sometimes required him to be—and what you see when you look more closely, both at the actor and the person.

Douglas was among the first Old Hollywood stars I encountered, courtesy his lead role as the slave rebel in the 1960 Spartacus, a film I adored as a teen. At the time, I was much less interested in him than in the British heavyweights—Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov — in the cast. Having simplistic notions about American stars being brawny types and Brits being more sophisticated, I may have felt Douglas was a glorified action hero whose main purpose was to look convincing in the gladiatorial scenes. It probably took me a while to notice how inward-looking his performance was, as an uneducated slave who grows in stature and eventually becomes more cultured—in the truest sense of that word—– than the smooth-talking politicians in the Roman senate.

Taking a long-shot view of Douglas’s career, you might easily associate him with swaggering, macho roles. Square-jawed, well-built, quick in his movements and capable of looking very dangerous if required, he played a variety of such parts: from bad guys in film noir—notably in Out of the Past —to a tormented boxer in Champion, to one of the most unpleasant “heroes” of any 1950s Hollywood film, the newshound Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole. He played cowboys alongside his friend and great contemporary Burt Lancaster, he played swashbuckling pirates and two-fisted detectives, he played the sort of character who grabs the heroine by her hair or neck and draws her to him in a show of male aggression. (Iconic scenes from Ace in the Hole and The Bad and the Beautiful come to mind.)

Shift to a close-up, though, and the vulnerabilities beneath the surface reveal themselves—not just when he portrayed a clearly emasculated figure (as in one of his best-known parts, the painter Vincent van Gogh, in Lust for Life) but even in action roles: as the gunman Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or as a doomed non-conformist in one of his personal favourites, Lonely are the Brave. The grand battle scenes in Spartacus are more than offset by the look of quiet despair mingled with pride in his eyes when his men rise as one claiming “I am Spartacus!” in an attempt to protect him from his captors.

Off-screen, Douglas had a clearly liberal sensibility: he helped the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo get a screen credit again, after years of having to work pseudonymously, and he co-produced the anti-war film Paths of Glory —an essential, bitter antidote to hubristic ideas about patriotism and military heroism, just as relevant to the India of 2016 as it was to its original audiences. Many clues to the development of his personality, and his sensitization to various forms of oppression, can be found in The Ragman’s Son —in one telling passage, for instance, Douglas (who was born Issur Danielovitch, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants) describes how he first became aware of how non-Jews spoke about Jews in private, after he had changed his own name to a Gentile-sounding one.

Personal growth is a motif of that memoir, and nearly 30 years later its author is still active. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan once wrote. Googling to see what Kirk Douglas is up to these days, I was pleased to find that his mind still seems sharp, and that he now blogs sporadically. In his last post, published around a month ago, he celebrated the many ways in which the world has changed and become more progressive since his own youth, but also drew a lucid, cautionary parallel between the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and the hate-mongering engaged in by the Trump campaign in the present day.

Happy hundredth, Kirk. And even if we can’t all be Spartacus, may we have a bit of him in us.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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