By Stuart Mitchner
On the same Wednesday afternoon that Republican Senator Mitt Romney explained his historic vote to convict the president of “an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor,” the news of the death of screen legend Kirk Douglas at 103 gave first responders like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens the opportunity to headline Romney’s act with the title of the star’s favorite film, Lonely Are the Brave. But what the senator from Utah accomplished in his eight minutes demands a term more measured, restrained, and nuanced than bravery. He had to simultaneously master himself and the moment when he said that as a senator-juror, he swore to “exercise impartial justice,” that he is “profoundly religious,” that his faith is at the heart of who he is, that he takes “an oath before God as enormously consequential,” and that the task of judging the leader of his own party, would be “the most difficult decision” he has ever faced.
Simply applying the lonely/brave dynamic to suggest what made Kirk Douglas so powerful an actor is equally inadequate. In fact, one way to appreciate the force of understatement employed by the senator is to contrast it to the extremes suggested by an actor “made for Dostoevsky,” as David Thomson puts it in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, where Douglas (born Issur Danielovich Demsky) is “the manic-depressive among Hollywood stars, … bearing down on plot, dialogue, and actresses with the gleeful appetite of a man just freed from Siberia.”
As the driven, at once code-bound and emotionally unbound detective Jim McLeod in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), Douglas rages at a crooked doctor — “I ought to fall on you like the sword of God” — rhetoric that would seem disproportionate to the occasion from any actor this side of Charlton Heston. Every move Douglas makes, everything he says when he’s at the top of his game, is like a demonstration of writer Flannery O’Connor’s rationale for the extremes in her art: “For the almost blind you draw large and startling figures, to the hard of hearing you shout.”
As Thomson points out, Douglas is “at other times on the verge of ridiculing his own outrageousness.” But in films like Detective Story, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), and above all, as Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), “his sometimes facile intensity is marvelously harnessed to the subject of the film and the sense of tragedy is perfectly judged.” more