Kirk Douglas: The Original Anti-Hero
In 2016, I wrote and directed a successful spoof of the musical Hamilton, entitled Spamilton. Although we opened and played in New York City, we soon after had a successful run in Culver City in Los Angeles. There we played our run at The Kirk Douglas Theater, an excellent refurbished showplace, financed by and named after Mr. Douglas.
I was struck by the fact that my somewhat rebellious, offbeat show was playing at a theater named after an actor known for playing rebels who brazenly thumbed their nose at the establishment. I mean, who did that better than the late, great Kirk Douglas? Since his passing, as we say farewell to this giant of Hollywood’s Golden Era, I’ve taken a deeper look at Douglas’ oeuvre and begun to realize he was an original iconoclast.
Most film lovers would identify him as one of the favorite male movie stars of the post-World War II era, well into the 1970s. Always a top-billed star and leading man, he almost always played the rebellious troublemaker or an insufferable force of nature. He never subjected himself to playing sweet or romantic (or even kind-hearted). No Cary Grant or John Wayne he, though he was equally a top draw at the box office.
At the height of Hollywood’s studio era, each star had a persona that applied to most all the characters they played. Gregory Peck was honest, noble, and slow to judge. Cary Grant was the leading lover boy women pursued (he almost never pursued them). John Wayne (for most of the ‘40s, and ‘50s) portrayed a vulnerable hero who ultimately stood up as a stalwart symbol of righteousness and so on.
But Kirk Douglas took on a persona that was much more difficult to play. He portrayed characters who were uncompromising in their vision, regardless of how self-destructive they were. Douglas had the super physique and square jaw of the ideal male star of his era, and also had a natural grit and intensity that made him fascinating to watch. He also had the intellectual insight
to choose his roles carefully. It’s this very specialized persona (which he no doubt created and developed in the 1950s) that kept him on the cutting edge of the late Hollywood Golden Age, an era when the world was changing fast and furiously.
Oddly enough, his first film, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), cast him as a weak and mousy young man. Although it showcased his acting talents, he and Hollywood must have decided right off this wasn’t quite the right formula for a man with a muscular physique, toothy grin, and intense speech pattern.
His next picture came closer to the Douglas persona. In the film noir classic, Out of the Past (1947), he portrayed a ruthless yet clean-cut multi-millionaire mega-villain. Playing opposite Robert Mitchum’s amoral good guy, Douglas showed an edgy nastiness new to noir audiences and 1940s movie goers.
By 1949, he was pegged by the powers that be in Hollywood as one of the new wave of filmdom’s leading men, along with Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster. Although one of them, he was still savvy enough to stay away from the type of upright hero that might be portrayed by the formidable Peck. In fact, Douglas turned down MGM’s big-budget costume drama The Great Sinner to star in The Champion, a raw and realistic (for its day) boxing classic. Gregory Peck went on to star in The Great Sinner and, being a noble figure, repented his sins very well indeed . . . on the ample bosom of Ava Gardner. But in The Champion (1949), Kirk Doulas played a selfish (and often unlikable) athlete, much more suited to his screen persona. It earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Even though Douglas was a self-professed shy guy, he continued to pursue intense, often unlikable, multi-dimensional characters. The great director William Wyler was so impressed with Douglas, he cast him in the title role of the film version of the hit Broadway drama, Detective Story (1951). Under Wyler’s always superb direction, Douglas plays an overly aggressive, ruthless police detective who “always gets his man,” but ends up destroying his marriage and ultimately himself. It was a riveting film and an intense performance of the type of character he would develop all through the 1950s.
It continued to be a stellar decade for Douglas. Another standout performance was in The Bad and the Beautiful as a shameless David O. Selznick-type film producer who eventually turns all his friends and collaborators against him. He starred
in wildly varied types of films, from Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) to the Greek mythological fantasy Ulysses (1955). These films were more heroic in style, but Douglas easily found his way into the darker and more outrageous elements of the characters, men who live by their own rules.
In 1956, he found perhaps his most successful portrayal as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life. A masterpiece, directed with
passion by the great visualist director Vincente Minnelli, Lust for Life unabashedly portrays Van Gogh as the ultimate outsider, relentlessly following his vision of madness and divine beauty. Douglas didn’t shy away from any of the unlikable qualities of the great painter and made his Van Gogh the ultimate artistic anti-hero.
It should be noted how much Kirk resembled Vincent in appearance. It seemed as if they were kindred not only spiritually, but physically. Since this 1956 film, no one has come close to portraying Van Gogh so well. Douglas deservedly earned his second Academy Award nomination.
About the time of Lust For Life, Kirk Douglas formed his own film production company (as did his good friend Burt Lancaster). This meant for the next 10 to 15 years, Douglas could control his career by carefully choosing his scripts. He also developed into a savvy and successful film producer of adventure hits like The Vikings (1959) and, more famously, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), in which he played the irascible and morally bankrupt Doc Holliday. Another perfect role for Kirk the anti-hero.
But Douglas also continued to pursue unusual, politically-charged stories like Paths of Glory (1957). For that anti-war venture, he hired and, in a sense trained, Stanley Kubrick as director.
His next co-production (with Edward Lewis) was the 1960 blockbuster epic Spartacus, the film and role for which Douglas is most identified. He had Kubrick take over as director when Anthony Mann was let go.
But more importantly, he hired the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay and gave Trumbo full screen credit under his actual name, thereby breaking the blacklist forever. Not only did Douglas play the historic rebel Spartacus on film, he was a true Hollywood rebel in real life.
In the decade that followed, Douglas continued his sojourn as the all-American odd-man out, as in Lonely are the Brave (1962). He was also secure enough to play outright villains, as he did in the political thriller Seven Days in May (1964). In this case, he took on the part of a thoroughly corrupt general, a role that made a solid political point to warn the public against the threat of the military-industrial complex. Also in 1964, Douglas played an egotistical military man in Otto Preminger’s In
Harm’s Way, this time opposite John Wayne and Patricia Neal. Douglas’ expertly acted, dastardly amoral naval officer is quite a contrast to Wayne and Neal (both at their most noble). By this time, he was happy to take on the more colorful and rebellious roles, and it’s what audiences expected and enjoyed.
In the early ’60s, Douglas went east to star in the Broadway stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Once again, he was taking on the
part of a neurotic rebel of the first order. He was never able to finance a film version for himself, but of course his son Michael famously produced the iconic movie that won an Oscar for Jack Nicholson.
So, for those of you who think it was Nicholson who broke ground as the first great anti-hero, think again. Douglas’ entire career was built on the emerging and changing rebel that came out of the post-World War II era. When the GIs came home, having witnessed the atrocities of war, they could no longer identify with the smooth, glib leading men of the ‘30s and early ‘40s. Kirk Douglas was the perfect leading man for the morally shifting 1950s and ‘60s.
He was the supreme iconoclast, and perhaps the most original star of his era. Whatever film he was in, he was always groundbreaking, fascinating, and way outside of the box—even in Technicolor. Farewell to Kirk Douglas—rebel, anti-hero, and superb actor.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.