RIP Kirk Douglas, the last man standing

“They’re cheering more than a man tonight. … They’re cheering the story of a boy who rose from the depths of poverty to become Champion of the World!”Champion, 1949, Kirk Douglas’ breakthrough film.

The death of Kirk Douglas isn’t a surprise, I suppose. The man who was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky 103 years ago lived a long, remarkable life, and was the last giant standing from Hollywood’s golden age. He was also always one of my favourites, a reliable jut-jawed, iron-eyed rock who stood tall in many of Hollywood’s greatest – and often quietly subversive – films. 

It’s the end of the line for a pantheon of actors most people only ever saw in black and white, of the stars of the 1940s and ‘50s who dominated Hollywood years before I was even born. There’s a couple others still kicking, but I wouldn’t argue that Olivia de Havilland (also 103!) is quite the icon Douglas became. He was truly the last of the line. He starred with Lauren Bacall and Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner and Laurence Olivier, and they’re all gone now. 

There’ll be a lot of people saying now that “they don’t make them like Kirk Douglas anymore,” but it’s a cliche because it’s true. He was an alpha male from a bygone age, and while times have thankfully changed and a lot of the more odious sexism and racism of that golden age is gone, Kirk Douglas always embraced his swaggering manhood with an edge to it. All impossibly-angled chin and fanatic’s eyes, Douglas chewed the scenery hard, a lot of time, but he never choked on it. 

We’d call it irony, now, but when you look at the martyr Spartacus, the doomed soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, the lost and confused Vincent Van Gogh of Lust For Life, the cowboy left behind by modern life in Lonely Are The Brave, a cruel film producer in The Bad And The Beautiful, you don’t quite see heroes. You see men with flaws, unafraid to break a little. (John Wayne, who thought irony was what you did to clean clothes, once supposedly told Kirk, “We got to play strong, tough characters, not these weak queers.”)

More than Bogart or Cary Grant or Brando, Douglas seemed most comfortable skirting the edge of villainy. I loved Kirk Douglas because his characters were always flawed rogues. No movie shows this better than my favourite of his films, Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace In The Hole, a pitch-black satire of media madness that still stings 70 years on. Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter who rides a tragedy as his ticket back to fame, but loses his soul in the process. There is perhaps no better movie that sums up the Douglas mystique than this bitter pill, a movie that only seems more prescient in 2020. In real life, Douglas was often a supporter of liberal causes, including breaking the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s.

Kirk Douglas lived his fair share of years, and it’s hard to feel gutted at the death of someone who made it to 103. But the fading black-and-white world he represented, the clatter of cowboys on horses and wisecracking cynics in shadowy rooms and a world that seems a million years ago rather than just 60 or 70 years … Yeah, I’ll miss that Hollywood. I can call it up on a screen anytime I want to, I know, but with the death of Kirk Douglas, I know it’s never coming back. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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