February 12, 2020

Force and Faith: The Star and the Senator

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.”

Hollywood On the Brain

My high school friends and I grew up both ridiculing and enjoying that “outrageousness.” Even before James Dean inspired a generation of moody high-strung idiots striking Method poses in classroom doorways or screaming lines from Rebel Without a Cause (“You’re tearing me apart!”) at hapless teachers, Kirk Douglas inhabited the broken legend of Bix in Young Man with a Horn (1950) striving for the unplayable high note, or most irresistibly, Van Gogh, notably the scene where Vincent cuts off his ear and runs through the streets of Arles, looking for Gauguin (“Paul, hey Paul!”), which we played out on the streets of Bloomington, Indiana. Even when I was working in a warehouse and old enough to know better, I’d play Tony Curtis to someone’s Spartacus (“I wants to be witcha, Spahticus!”). At some point you just give up and go with Hollywood: Kirk Douglas is Van Gogh, just as Spencer Tracy is Clarence Darrow, Yul Brynner Dimitri Karamazov and Richard Basehart his brother Ivan, and Gregory Peck Captain Ahab, and on and on.

And you never grow out of it. A week or two ago, before the news linking the senator and the star, I was walking over a swath of dried out, faded, stubbly yellow grass, thinking, “It’s like walking on Van Gogh’s beard,” visualizing not the one in the self-portraits, but the one grown by the star of Lust for Life.

Primal Acting

As John W. “Jack” Burns in Lonely Are the Brave, adapted from Edward Abbey’s novel The Brave Cowboy, Douglas summons an actor’s equivalent of the “faith at the heart of who he is” without saying a word in the extraordinary point-of-death close-up at the end. After escaping from a prison he broke into to see a friend who was serving two years for helping immigrants crossing the border, and after an epic struggle over rough terrain on his way to the Mexican border, Burns and his horse, Whiskey, are struck down on a rainy highway by fate in the form of a massive trailer truck. What we see is a close-up that evokes the imagery of silent films like Greed. We’re not just face to face with a dying man, we’re in his head, our eyes his eyes, drawn toward the sound of the animal’s agony, his eyes our eyes pleading for someone to put an end to its suffering, and as he hears the gunshot, the shock of the sound seals the image, eloquent and primal.

Now and Then

Writing in the July-August 2007 issue of Film Comment, Alex Cox labels Lonely Are the Brave a “leftist American western” about “a cowboy anarchist who carries no ID, respects no authority, and pays attention only to his friends and his horse.” Noting that the screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, “a witch-hunted screenwriter who clearly loved and understood the genre,” Cox points out that although the film was released in 1962, “it still seems totally modern—probably because it deals with so many issues that matter now: individual freedom versus authoritarian clampdowns, the criminalization of sanctuary for ‘illegal aliens,’ ID cards, military helicopters in border manhunts, and an increasingly militarized and regimented America.”

That was 13 years ago.

At the Oscars

I can’t imagine what Kirk Douglas would have made of this year’s diversity-at-all-costs Academy Awards ceremony. I recommend watching a clip of the 1996 event where the actor, having survived a stroke, holds his honorary Oscar, and bellows “I love you all” to the audience.

Ghosts and Poetry

The most striking passage I found while searching through Kirk Douglas material online comes from a long June 1, 1969 interview on the set with Roger Ebert, where Douglas recounts a walk he took “out there on the back lot of Warner’s. Back there behind Stage 19. And it was like it was haunted…There were staircases  … Dozens of staircases. You’ve never seen so many staircases. And you could imagine ghosts on them. Cagney. Flynn … Bogey …. And you couldn’t help thinking, one day these staircases were seething with activity. And as you walked among them, that line of poetry came to your mind. You know, the one about what town or peaceful hamlet or something or other. Well, I can’t remember how it goes…’Ode to a Grecian Urn,’ that’s the one. And you can’t help thinking, Jesus! The ghosts that walk here at night. Because movies are filled with the stuff of everyone’s dreams…”