I say better a tribute now than a eulogy later. Kirk Douglas is 100 years old on Dec. 9. Happy birthday, sir! Plus I just found out he goes to a Conservative shul, so we have literally been on the same page for years. Nice to know.
You always know what you’re getting when Kirk Douglas acts. Intense is an understatement. He is so very strong and direct, and was for years was the cinematic go-to guy for anguished, angry parts. A kid from the slums, he hustled all his life and it shows. His need to be watched, to be heard, is a need for validation, and he employs charm, ruthlessness, and energy to get it. He was never afraid to play a heel, and most of his great roles are tragic ones -- a dark edge for a leading man that prefigured the alienated film antiheroes of the 1960s. In his quiet moments onscreen, he lets the vulnerability show through. The tension between the active and resting states of being Kirk Douglas give him texture and depth in performance.
Of course, he’s easy to parody. A lot of people don’t like his work, calling it over-the-top and one-note. But hey, at his worst he holds your attention -- and from the 1970s on, he is primary reason to watch most of the poor film vehicles he’s in. And he could surprise you. Hell, the first thing I saw him in was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which he SANG!? For years after, when I saw him in a movie, I always wondered, “Why don’t they let him sing?” (And he could poke fun at himself -- check out his SNL sketch “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?” sometime.)
So, anyway, here's a dozen of my favorite Kirk Douglas films.
Out of the Past/Dir: Jacques Tourneur/1947
Champion/Dir: Mark Robson/1949
Young Man with a Horn/Dir: Michael Curtiz/1950
Ace in the Hole/Dir: Billy Wilder/1951
Detective Story/ Dir: William Wyler/1951
The Bad and the Beautiful/ Dir: Vincente Minnelli/1952
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea/ Dir: Richard Fleischer/1954
Lust for Life/ Dir: Minnelli/1956
Paths of Glory/Dir: Stanley Kubrick/1957
Lonely Are the Brave/Dir: David Miller/1962
The Hook/Dir: George Seaton/1963