The Reel Dad pays tribute to Kirk Douglas

With the recent passing of Kirk Douglas - at age 103 - an era of Hollywood movie making sadly comes to end.

Douglas is the last of a generation of actors who brought skill to their performances and instinct to their images, knowing that playing the role of movie star is, perhaps, the most important portrayal to create and sustain.

The actor, in more than 90 films over more than 60 years, delivered a range of characters of depth at the same time he carefully cultivated his movie star magic.

Here are some of my Kirk Douglas favorites.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

As Douglas the movie star surged, after his film debut in 1946 in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” the actor continued to push his boundaries with this forceful portrayal of an aggressive newspaper reporter. While Billy Wilder’s view of journalism may have been too cynical for the moment, the actor’s confidence in playing against type delivered a strong message that there was more to Douglas than first met the eye.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

In an iconic role, in a smash hit film, Douglas plays the ultimate Hollywood bad boy who loves to be hated in this delicious drama from director Vincente Minnelli. The actor makes the most of the tough guy stature he had developed with his first films from the 1940s as well as the softer side that he continued to nurture through the 1950s. For his work, he won the second of his three Oscar nominations for Best Actor. But he never won a competitive Academy Award.

Lust for Life (1956)

As Vincent van Gogh, again under the direction of Vincente Minnelli, Douglas reveals the character actor he would become, piercing beneath the surface of the screenplay to detail a tortured soul with a divine gift to create. Seen today, the performance is a revelation of instinct over technique, nuance over exaggeration. He was favored by many to win the Oscar that year - an honor that would elude him until he received a special Oscar in 1996 for lifetime achievement.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Throughout his career, Douglas steered away from the safety of only making films considered commercially viable. Instead, he followed his beliefs and opinions, to make sure that movies he believed needed to be made received the attention they deserved. This insightful anti-war film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was a flop when first released before being discovered and revered in later years as a milestone in the evolution of the medium.

Spartacus (1960)

In a performance that should have brought Douglas another Oscar nomination, if not the award itself, the actor’s portrayal of a slave soars beyond what such epics usually displayed (and superior to Charlton Heston’s Oscar-winning role, a year before, in “Ben Hur”). In addition to his acting, Douglas’ role as producer brought blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo back to the screen. Of the many “costume epics” that Hollywood produced in the 1950s and 1960s, this is the most insightful.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

Douglas, on screen, was as much at home on a horse as in a tuxedo. And, of the many Westerns he made over the years, this survives the years because of its insightful screenplay (again by Dalton Trumbo) and one of the actor’s most sensitive performances as an independent thinker. As he transitioned into late middle age, Douglas let the wisdom in his face and the experience in his soul enable him to create fascinating characters on screen.

Seven Days in May (1964)

This political thriller - well ahead of its time - begs to ask questions still relevant today about how powerful nations can dare to trust each other. Again playing the roles of producer and actor, Douglas secured John Frankenheimer to direct, Rod Serling to write the screenplay, and Burt Lancaster to costar. And he willingly steps into the background to make sure the views expressed by the film are clearly articulated on screen. The result is a sizzling drama that still thrills.

It Runs in the Family (2003)

Years after the prime of his career had passed - and showing a willingness to reveal the impact of the severe stroke he suffered in 1996 - Douglas again demonstrates his movie star charisma in this family drama produced by and starring his son, Michael. While the film fails to find its point of view, the elder Douglas makes the most of moments of reckoning he beautifully creates with his offspring. And he reminds us, no matter the age, a star is still a star.