Kirk Douglas: His 10 greatest performances

The Hollywood great’s top films, from The Bad and the Beautiful to Spartacus

After three quarters of a century on the silver screen, Hollywood star Kirk Douglas has died aged 103.

 

Like many actors of his generation, Kirk Douglas didn’t weather the social changes of the 1960s so well. Whereas today’s actors get high-profile leads deep into their 50s and 60s (just look at the Pitts, De Niros and Pacinos in this year’s Oscar nominations), Douglas and did all his best work in the 1950s and late 1940s. But what work…

CHAMPION (Mark Robson, 1949)

American actor Kirk Douglas in a promotional portrait for ‘Champion’, directed by Mark Robson, 1949. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty
American actor Kirk Douglas in a promotional portrait for ‘Champion’, directed by Mark Robson, 1949. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Douglas got his first Oscar nomination as a ruthless boxer in this taut adaptation of a story by Ring Lardner. The picture gave the emerging actor the chance to show off his striking physicality. “Kirk Douglas is the boxer and he makes the character live,” Variety wrote in the muted praise of the day.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (Michael Curtiz, 1950)

Hoagy Carmichael playing piano and Kirk Douglas playing trumpet in a scene from the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, directed by Michael Curtiz
Hoagy Carmichael playing piano and Kirk Douglas playing trumpet in a scene from the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, directed by Michael Curtiz

One of the great jazz films. Inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke, Curtiz’s picture presented a notably long-lived cast (not that anyone knew it at the time): Douglas, Doris Day and Lauren Bacall all lived deep into the next century. Day found Douglas a trial to work with. She wasn’t the only one.

ACE IN THE HOLE (Billy Wilder, 1951)

Douglas was not a cuddly individual and he rarely played cuddly individuals. A key text on the American press, Wilder’s cynical classic casts Kirk as a journalist who – unusually for someone from that profession – will stop at nothing to get ahead. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times thought it “incredible” that any press man would behave so badly. Hmm?



Kirk Douglas:
A ife in pictures

VIEW NOW

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)

Actress Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas in a scene from the movie The Bad and the Beautiful. Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty
Actress Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas in a scene from the movie The Bad and the Beautiful. Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty

Is there a pattern emerging here? Douglas plays a movie producer who shafts all his colleagues – writer Dick Powell, star Lana Turner, others – as he bullies his way to the top of the Hollywood pile. Fascinating structure. Great insights on the business. A favourite of Martin Scorsese.

LUST FOR LIFE (Vincente Minnelli, 1956)

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film Lust for Life
Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film Lust for Life

Minnelli’s biopic of Vincent Van Gogh was very much An Event when it was released to the world, but, costing a then substantial $3,2 million, it struggled at the box office. Yet Douglas’s furious, eye-popping turn as the disturbed painter remains (for good or ill) the definitive interpretation.

PATHS OF GLORY (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick on the set of Paths of Glory (1957)
Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick on the set of Paths of Glory (1957)

Kubrick oscillated between rather faceless actors and stars who ripped the surface off the celluloid. Douglas was certainly among the latter. Here he plays a French officer who resists the unjust court-martialling of his men. This was the point at which Kubrick moved from director to legend. Features a famously complex tracking shot.

SPARTACUS (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)

Kirk Douglas in ‘Spartacus’. Photograph: HO/AFP via Getty
Kirk Douglas in ‘Spartacus’. Photograph: HO/AFP via Getty

Yes, yes. You’re Spartacus. And so are you. The story behind the making of the film is as significant as the artefact itself. Sometimes it takes a person as awkward as Douglas to right systemic wrongs. It was he who announced that Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted by the McCarthyite thugocracy, was the true writer of the historical epic.

LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (David Miller, 1962)

Kirk Douglas in Lonely are the Brave. Photograph: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty
Kirk Douglas in Lonely are the Brave. Photograph: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty

Terrific latter-day western featuring Kirk as an old-school cowboy on the run from laconic – and largely sympathetic – sheriff Walter Matthau. Brilliantly timed, the picture lamented the frontier values as the movie western was drifting out of fashion. Feels like an influence on the first Rambo film.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (John Frankenheimer, 1964)

American actors Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas on the set of Seven Days in May, directed by John Frankenheimer. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty
American actors Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas on the set of Seven Days in May, directed by John Frankenheimer. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty

There was, understandably enough, a real vogue for nuclear-panic movies in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Written by the great Rod Serling, Frankenheimer’s tense political drama pits Douglas’s principled officer against Burt Lancaster’s sinister Air Force General. Still chilling.

THE FURY (Brian De Palma, 1978)

Kirk Douglas and Amy Irving in The Fury. Photograph: 20th Century Fox
Kirk Douglas and Amy Irving in The Fury. Photograph: 20th Century Fox

Cineastes argue to this day about the virtues of De Palma’s characteristically energetic horror concerning telekinesis and extra-sensory perception, but it gave Douglas a hit at a time when the younger method boys were elbowing him aside. It remains a dizzying experience that profits from the largeness in which Kirk specialised. Seek out.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.