Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Celebrating 5 decades of the steel-eyed bastards and heroes that defined Kirk Douglas' career

Illustration for article titled Celebrating 5 decades of the steel-eyed bastards and heroes that defined Kirk Douglas' career
Screenshot: YouTube

Kirk Douglas died today, at the age of 103. And although he didn’t start acting in motion pictures until he was 31, he more than made up for lost time once he began, filling Hollywood of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and beyond with a steel-eyed intensity that was as comfortable playing rock-jawed idealists as it was embodying the cynical monsters so willing to take advantage of those same saps for daring to believe in the general goodness of man. It would be impossible to paint a complete portrait of a career that stretched from 1947 all the way into the early 2000s—when a stroke largely ended Douglas’ acting career—but it seemed worthwhile to dig through some of his most beloved films in order to give a few examples of why he dominated screens for the better part of multiple generations of film.

Take, for instance, the above scene from the film that earned Douglas his first Oscar nomination: 1949's Champion, in which he played a legendarily nasty piece of work in the form of boxer Midge Kelly. Casually cruel and effortlessly sardonic, it’s a role that pulls punches neither metaphorically or literally, and set the precedent for decades’ worth of hard-eyed Douglas performances to come.

Not that every Douglas villain was a humorless bastard; he showed his talent for banter as easily as brutality with Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole, in 1951. Newspaper man Chuck Tatum might be just as much a monster as Kelly, but he’s also a quick wit and a deft eye for opportunity; it’s not every sociopathic journalist who can make a case for his ongoing employment while simultaneously seething with contempt for everyone, and everything, around him—including himself.

As Douglas’ star rose, he gained more power over the movies he got involved in, which might explain why he turned his intensity toward heroism in 1957's Paths Of Glory, which he also produced. As a military man hunting for truth in an apparatus designed only for the advancement of men never doomed to see the horrors of the front lines, Douglas spends the entire movie waiting to boil over—and finally does, to climactic and stirring effect.

Douglas collaborated with director Stanley Kubrick again in 1960, creating the role that might be most synonymous with his legacy: Spartacus. Somewhat ironic, then, that the Roman gladiator was neither much of a speech maker or a smart-ass; instead, the film relies on Douglas’ downcast-but-defiant eyes to sell its most powerful moments.

The ’50s are pretty inarguably the era of the truly great Kirk Douglas role; the 1960s saw him transition into something more like a beloved all-purpose celebrity, smiling through appearances on The Lucy Show and Laugh-In. Still, that didn’t stop him from pushing himself artistically, including in one of his personal favorite films, neo-Western Lonely Are The Brave. As Jack Burns—a Korean War veteran who purposely positions himself as a cowboy hero despite living in a world filled with traffic and societal encroachment—Douglas creates a sort of Western counter-culture hero out of an ostensible throwback, fighting on behalf of immigrant rights and against the controls of the state.

Skipping up past the next several years—given the strength of the man’s credits, there’s no especial need to condemn him to being remembered for stuff like Saturn 3 or Oscar—we come to the 1990s, the last productive decade of Douglas’ acting career. It was here that he achieved something like career immortality: Voicing a role on The Simpsons. (And not just any role: The crotchety old creator of Itchy And Scratchy, Chester Lampwick himself.) Despite pushing 80 the year “The Day The Violence Died” was recorded, Douglas still injects lines like “Those blintzes were terrible!” with the same vim that marked so much of his career. It’s clear when watching the episode that Douglas is having fun, and Kirk Douglas having fun with a role was always a sight (or sound) to behold.

Douglas retired from acting in 2000, finishing out his long career with an Emmy-nominated stop by the set of Touched By An Angel. But he did manage to score one more major career milestone, one that competes with any number of lifetime achievement Oscars or other awards: Like Orson Welles, Jack Benny, and so many of the great voices of yesteryear, he entered the pantheon of actors so beloved, and so recognizable, that he became a go-to reference point for the cartoonists of a later era. Oscars are great and all, but having Maurice LeMarche imprint your voice on the children of generations to come has got to pretty sweet prize, too.

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