Well into his 80s, with speech slurred by a stroke, Kirk Douglas remains a magnetic onscreen presence as he and son Michael reminisce about their lives and careers in this simple yet highly entertaining HBO docu. It's primarily Kirk's show, and one suspects that's just the way he'd want it.

Well into his 80s, with speech slurred by a stroke, Kirk Douglas remains a magnetic onscreen presence as he and son Michael reminisce about their lives and careers in this simple yet highly entertaining HBO docu. Interviews with the elder Douglas’ sons, friends, wives and ex-wives paint a clear if not always flattering portrait of a towering Hollywood figure, the son who labored to escape his shadow and the warmth of their current bond. Still, it’s primarily Kirk’s show, and one suspects that’s just the way he’d want it.

The elder Douglas suggests the family’s story is a microcosm of America, one that reflects “the tragedy of failure, and the tragedy of success.” There is some exploration of his psychology here — of his own distant father and his rage, as well as the chronic infidelity that he admits to with an almost boyish shrug. Indeed, when allegations of Michael’s “sex addiction” were reported by the tabloid press, Kirk recalls thinking, “What’s wrong with sex addiction? I have had it all my life.”

Producer George Schlatter echoes this point, noting that given the easy availability of women during the star’s prime, being Kirk Douglas — in the context of a monogamous relationship, anyway — “would be tough to deal with,” the equivalent of Chris Rock’s line about men being as faithful as their options.

What really emerges, however, is the grandeur of Kirk’s career, from deserting the studio system to produce his own films (“Unheard of,” says Jack Valenti), to his friendship with fellow star Burt Lancaster, to breaking the Hollywood blacklist by courageously slapping screenwriter Douglas Trumbo’s name on “Spartacus.”

As for Michael, even with his personal triumphs as a producer and star — winning Oscars in those categories for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Wall Street,” respectively — he seems to accept that he isn’t the larger-than-life figure his old man is, and the second half chronicling his career trajectory inevitably lags somewhat.

It’s nevertheless fascinating to hear him compare his role in “Falling Down” to Kirk’s in “Lonely Are the Brave,” or to watch the two of them banter during joint interview sessions about the father’s lingering disappointment — 30 years later — over not being cast in “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Director Lee Grant effectively reinforces certain recollections by cross-cutting between two different storytellers — having Kirk and his sons, say, provide their respective memories of the same event.

While hardly a whitewash, it’s also clear that this is a celebration, not an expose, meant to sentimentally capture these events for posterity. As such, there is only a brief mention of Kirk’s son Eric, who died last year of an accidental drug overdose and to whom the production is dedicated.

Through it all, Kirk’s enduring lust for life, pardon the expression, proves ennobling and inspiring. In that respect, his observation about the quintessential Americana in this father-son Hollywood tale sums up the documentary itself — one where success far outweighs the failure.

A Father ... a Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

HBO, Sat. Aug. 13, 8 p.m.

Production

Produced by Joseph Feury Prods. Executive producer, Allen Burry; producers, Feury, Lee Grant; co-producer, Roberta Morris Purdee; director, Grant.

Crew

Camera, Hart Perry; editor, Milton M. Ginsberg; music, John Califra. Running Time: 93 MIN.
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