Kirk Douglas: icon, character and enthusiasm

Kirk Douglas characterized as Spartacus

Being considerably rich and turning one hundred and doing it on the verge of the arrival of 2017 is a triumph not over history but over nature. Surrounded by his loved ones, Kirk Douglas can still raise a sparkling glass of champagne with his hand and toast the new year, and do so in front of the gaze of his wife, actress Anne Buydens, who is not short on longevity either, as she has fulfilled ninety-six. On celluloid, Kirk was impetuous, passionate, crazy, he looked like a Dmitri Karamazov from Hollywood cinema. And that was sixty years ago. Their interpretations reflected a body that moved under the rule of grimaces, of looks that said it all, of burning cheekbones, of rabid, complicated facial expressions, of a spiritual inspiration that was more Russian than American. After all, his parents came from Moscow. Facial muscle accompanied by moral muscle.

Kirk Douglas soon became an icon of conflicting masculinity, perhaps he was doomed to reflect a type of man who was a race end. He was not a heartthrob, he was not rigorously handsome. It wasn’t Gary Cooper, nor was it Montgmery Clift, let alone John Wayne. There was a feature in him that came from his Jewish origin: he was five feet seven inches tall. Some biographers give him a centimeter and give him a meter seventy-five. In any case, he did not measure the meter ninety of Cooper or Wayne or Clint Eastwood or James Stewart or Gregory Peck, who would also have turned a century in 2016 if pneumonia had not ripped him out of this world thirteen years ago.

Hollywood was exploring the masculinity and morality of film leaders. And those who were not tall and thin, but stout and of ordinary stature, must have developed other attitudes. They must develop, as did Humphrey Bogart or James Dean, character. AND in Douglas’s case the character was passion, or better yet: enthusiasm. That was seen very well by many directors, perhaps the one who saw it best was Kubrick in the famous Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). In both films, actually, Kirk Douglas played the same role. Kubrick saw in him the Marlon Brando of political passion. I don’t think anyone has dressed the French army uniform with more personality and grace than Douglas in Paths of Glory. The difference with Charlton Heston, another epic hero, was in the imperfection. Heston exhibited such perfect heroic goodness that it was stiff. Instead, Douglas’s epic was flawed. The strange imperfection that inhabited that dimple in his chin ended up being his style. The style stuck in a hole in the flesh, and that hole symbolizing a vanishing point. That dimple was an irony.


Kirk Douglas doesn’t want to die. He does not want to leave this world. What can a hundred-year-old human being feel about whom the best directors in the world filmed his youth? The youth of most old men, of human beings on the brink of death, has no consistency beyond vague images installed in personal memory. Kirk Douglas’s youth is real, it’s etched on the screen. Will you still watch your old movies? A centennial man who has the privilege of attending the spectacle of who was like no other man has ever had that difficult gift. His youth is exposed and exhibited in his films. It is an event worthy of Marcel Proust’s imagination: the man who possesses not the memory of the past, but the very matter of the past.

There was a movie that marked my childhood, that caused me pain and sadness. It is the film in which Douglas’s face became a mask with a white eye, in a visual juggling that ranged from the vigor of the character of the character who played the monstrosity of his face. That tape was The Vikings, shot in 1958 by Richard Fleischer. The scars, the nauseating, blinded eye, the evil, the brutality, the death and the enthusiasm fused in the invocation of Odin, made Kirk the flawless Viking.

Maybe if Douglas hadn’t played Vincent Van Gogh in The madman with the red hair (1956), directed by Vincente Minneli, the price of the Dutch painter in the second half of the 20th century would not have been so high. Kirk gave Van Gogh’s character a fury and an outburst that contained the same yellow light as his painting. When I think of Van Gogh, I see Kirk. When I think of Kirk, I see Van Gogh.
Fidel Castro has just died, but Kirk resists.