At least two generations of moviegoers have little sense of what an impact player Kirk Douglas was in his prime.
The 2009 Britannia Award honoree for worldwide contribution to film devoted the past 21 years mostly to writing (beginning with 1988’s “The Ragman’s Son”), and a 1996 stroke reduced a dwindling performance schedule even further. The Method, changing archetypes, irony and the ever-lengthening timeline of male adolescence have altogether banished tough hombres like Douglas to the Jurassic era.
But in the tradition of visceral, explosive actors like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and the early Marlon Brando, Douglas was among the most powerful, with a voice that uncoiled out of his barrel chest in riveting waves of rage and pain. He was also a disciplined, calibrated actor who worked with some of the greatest directors of his era, including Billy Wilder, Vincente Minnelli and William Wyler.
Stanley Kubrick framed him best, in “Paths of Glory” (1956) and “Spartacus” (1960) — that is, from a low angle, so that he urged toward you like a pit bull unchained. The ’60s introduced the antihero, but by then Douglas had proudly arrived as a self-described sonofabitch.
A legend, he gave no quarter, not even to some of the most beautiful and seductive co-stars of his era.