He was called the “darling brute” (“la Brute Cherie”) by the French. It was a nod to actor Kirk Douglas’ signature combination of danger and pathos that defined him in scores of American movies. Douglas, who died recently at 103, was more to me the actor of defiance.
Beyond any American actor, Douglas was a lightning rod for the endless debates about Hollywood movies that could be art or just captive entertainment for the bored. Art usually won in his case. He made a brand of his own. No cliches need apply.
Like the most dominant male Hollywood greats, he was an image shape-shifter, bringing to his identity a set of ironies no one could have guessed at. Like Cary Grant, a Cockney comic acrobat, Humphrey Bogart, a well-off doctor’s kid, or frustrated dancer James Cagney, who wanted to be the Irish Fred Astaire before he electrified the set when they gave him gangster lines, Douglas transcended his beginnings — he was not the quintessential American male many directors and audiences first took him for — let alone some Scottish heartthrob.
Born Issur Danielovitch in poverty, his immigrant Russian Jewish parents and sisters barely survived in Amsterdam, New York — his father alcoholic and abusive, working the streets as a “rag man,” turning scraps and trash into a living while his only son was assaulted by town bigots. Douglas eventually took the name Isodore Demsky until he graduated from St. Lawrence University, having worked his way through with only a love of literature, theater and athletics sustaining him.
The grind continued as he got into New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, still doing odd jobs, under-clothed and underfed as the tough street intellectual mentality stuck.
The U.S.Navy in World War II, radio and some New York theater later sufficed until old friend Lauren Bacall got him a break in a Barbara Stanwyck film, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” He played a conflicted coward for undoubtedly the first and last time and he was good at it. There was no stopping Douglas then and roles in the classic noir film “Out of the Past” and more led to the defining brute incarnate role as the boxer Midge Kelly in the 1949 film, “Champion.”
That role hung around Douglas’ neck for much of his career even after dozens of contrasting parts from soldiers to cops and cowboys — as well as Vincent Van Gogh and Spartacus, in story lines where most stars, box office variety or true artists, feared to tread.
Spartacus or Van Gogh notwithstanding, I feel his most lasting impact remains in these films of the ‘50s —”Young Man with a Horn (1950), “Ace in the Hole” (1951), “Detective Story” (1951), “The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and “Paths of Glory” (1957).
In a a sometimes vacuous decade of American film, these fearless characterizations still reverberate — sad, demonic, charming, heroic, obsessed and exuding strong sexuality.
One could understand these men if not feel for their internal miseries — carefully.
Along with other writing, his tough memoir, “A Ragman’s Son,” gave clues to his artistic mindset and a creative energy sustained for a century.
Film lovers can argue forever on which great actors truly reflected cultures and defied easy answers.
But none will ever eclipse Kirk Douglas, Issur Danielovitch, the ragman’s son.