Stand-up comics today don’t do impressions as much as they used to. “Saturday Night Live” is probably the most common place to see comedians impersonate other celebrities, and that’s always in the context of a skit.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, it was the stand-up comics who did impressions, and beloved big-screen actors provided the most fodder.
You could tune into Ed Sullivan’s variety hour or “The Hollywood Palace” or the late-night shows hosted by Steve Allen or Johnny Carson, and you might see Frank Gorshin or Dwight Frye or Rich Little doing Burt Lancaster and James Stewart and James Cagney, or any of the other familiar staples of a mimic’s act (look them up on YouTube).
And one that seemed to be on everybody’s playlist was Kirk Douglas.
Douglas’ intensity on the screen — along with his athleticism and rugged good looks, that dimple in his chin and the angry or outraged line delivery — was just so recognizable that he was an irresistible subject for spoofery.
He was — and is — a movie icon of the first rank.
Kirk Douglas turns 100 today. One of the few surviving movie stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, he was making films into the 21st century, until his retirement just a few years ago. He’s also published 10 books (both novels and memoirs), and in September 2016 published an article in the Huffington Post.
Although he made his reputation as a cinematic tough guy, Douglas was impressive in his first film playing a much weaker character than any that followed. In “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), he’s a foolish, alcoholic politician bound to his older wife (Barbara Stanwyck) by a criminal secret.
Despite his role being that of a cuckold to his domineering spouse, Douglas plays it with fervor, so that it becomes apparent the character’s drunkenness masks insecurities and jealousy, and in the end he summons up the courage to do what he must, however lamentable.
Douglas’ movie-star wattage, that indefinable something that sets the biggest film stars apart from everyone else, was already beginning to take shape.
His second film remains one of the great film noir thrillers, “Out of the Past” (1947), with Robert Mitchum in the lead and Douglas playing a suave villain with a transparent smile and a duplicitously soothing demeanor.
Douglas showed his stuff in five more films over the next couple of years, stretching his acting muscles in melodramas and comedies before landing his first starring role. In “Champion” (1949), Douglas plays a ruthless boxer who steps on anyone and everyone to get to the top rung of the ring.
The performance is a genuine home run. It earned Douglas his first Oscar nomination and put him squarely on the A-list map.
Douglas’ star continued to rise through the 1950s, as he became one of the industry’s most bankable names, and he remained an above-the-title hit-maker for the next two decades.
He delivered solid performances in straight dramatic roles, such as “Detective Story” (1951), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952, which gave him his second Oscar nomination), “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), “Lust for Life” (1956, his third Oscar nomination), “The Vikings” (1958), “Strangers When We Meet” (1960), “Town Without Pity” (1961), “The Arrangement” (1969), etc.
Douglas was also comfortable in the saddle for a number of memorable Westerns, including “The Indian Fighter” (1955), “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (1957), “Last Train from Gun Hill” (1959) and “The War Wagon” (1967), among others. He was also at ease in a military uniform for “In Harm’s Way” (1965), “Seven Days in May” (1964), “Is Paris Burning?” (1966), etc.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Douglas’ career is that “Spartacus” (1960), the film for which he is probably best remembered today, did not earn him any personal recognition when Academy Award nominations were announced.
Although “Spartacus” received six nominations and won in four categories — cinematography, art direction, costumes and Peter Ustinov as best supporting actor — Douglas, who many feel should have been in there for best picture (as a producer) and certainly as best actor, was shunned.
“Spartacus” was the third biggest box-office hit of 1960 and would remain Douglas’ biggest financial success.
In retrospect this is significant because Douglas developed “Spartacus,” purchasing the movie rights to the book with his own money, hiring young Stanley Kubrick to direct (his first big-budget film) and effectively breaking the Hollywood blacklist by insisting that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name be on the credits (for a decade Trumbo had been writing under pseudonyms after being accused of harboring communist sympathies).
Douglas is also considered a man who was ahead of his time because of three films that did not perform as well at the box office as hoped, but which are now considered bona fide classics — “Ace in the Hole” (1951), in which he plays a self-centered reporter who turns a tragedy into a national story for his own acclaim; “Paths of Glory” (1957, Stanley Kubrick’s first studio-financed effort), an anti-war film with Douglas attempting to defend his own troops when they are court-martialed on charges of cowardice; and “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), in which he plays a drifting ranch hand who is increasingly out of step with modern civilization.
Movie fans of the 1980s fondly recall “The Man From Snowy River,” (1982) and there are other enjoyable films that came out of later decades, but from the 1970s forward, prestigious pictures seemed to elude Douglas.
Still, the luster of his earlier successes kept his star shining, and when Kirk Douglas’ name was announced as a cast member, it always roused interest. (He never did win an Oscar but was voted an honorary Academy Award in 1996.)
And although he hasn’t made any public appearances lately, Douglas is sure to be feted in the press this weekend.
But let’s not think about putting 100 candles on a cake. No sense in burning down the house.
Instead, let’s light up our screens with some of the nearly 100 movies in which Douglas appeared. Any of the titles listed above would be a good place to start, and all are available on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming sites — as well they should be.