Friday February 14, 2020
Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)
As Col. Dax in Stanley Kubrick's “Paths of Glory.” Douglas made the most of his movie stardom.
I first saw him as an impression, Frank Gorshin or David Frye on some late ‘60s or ’70s variety show, all seething talk through clenched teeth in a sometimes-cracked voice, with maybe an index finger creating a hole in the chin. He was always one of the regular imitations, along with Bogart, Cagney, Nixon. I still think of Joe Flaherty's line, “Must be some kind of FREAK,” in an SCTV episode of “What's My Shoe Size?,” and laugh.
So when did I first see him on the big screen? Much later. Probably “The Man from Snowy River” when I ushered at the Boulevard I and II in south Minneapolis. That became one of my mom's favorite movies. No, wait! “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”! Of course. As a kid. He wore a striped shirt. Like us.
Most of his movies, though, came to me as an adult, piecemeal. I never binged on him the way I did with Bogart or Cagney. I would be reading about John F. Kennedy, say, and then watch “Seven Days in May,” which Kennedy thought plausible as a potential American coup. Martin Scorsese's film history doc led to “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Two Weeks in Another Town.” An interest in film noir led to “Out of the Past.” Did I see “Paths of Glory” before I wrote that piece for The Believer? I think so but I didn't realize how good it was until then. And “Spartacus” just once? On a big screen somewhere?
When I was growing up, Douglas' great films were considered “Lust for Life” and maybe “Champion.” Now it's the ones I just mentioned. Via IMDb's user ratings:
- Paths of Glory (8.4)
- Ace in the Hole (8.2)
- Out of the Past (8.0)
- Spartacus (7.9)
- Seven Days in May (7.9)
- The Bad and the Beautiful (7.8)
He made the most of his 1950s movie stardom but stumbled after the mid-1960s. Burt Lancaster, his partner in crime, the Wyatt Earp to his Doc Holliday, kept getting memorable roles in memorable films: “Atlantic City,” “Local Hero,” “Field of Dreams.” Less so, Douglas. When did he begin to realize it was no longer going his way? He kept playing military men (“In Harm's Way,” “Cast a Giant Shadow”) as much of the U.S. turned from the military. He retreated to the western (“The War Wagon,” “The Way West”) as the western was dying, then tried to hook up with one-time A-list directors like Elia Kazan and Joseph Mankiewicz for edgier material (“The Arrangement,” “There Was a Crooked Man...”). Soon he was making made-for-TV movies and playing sloppy seconds to the latest craze. Two years after “The Omen,” he found out his son was the anti-Christ in the Italian-made “The Chosen.” A year after “Raid on Entebbe,” he starred in “Victory at Entebbe.” In 1980's “Saturn 3,” he was paired with two favorites from 1977: sci-fi and Farrah Fawcett. But at least there was “Snowy River.”
He was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, the son of a poor ragman selling wares by wagon in Amsterdam, New York. It was such a part of his identity it became the title of his 1988 autobiography: “The Ragman's Son.” His theater pal Lauren Bacall helped him get into movies, and, again, he made the most of it. Not everyone agreed. John Wayne was apparently horrified, for example, that Douglas chose to play Vincent Van Gogh. After the premiere of “Lust for Life,” he lambasted him. “Christ, Kirk, how can you play a part like that? There's so few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Douglas responded that it was all make-believe, and that he, John Wayne, wasn't really John Wayne, after all, but that just confused the Duke. Douglas might‘ve brought up WWII, since Douglas fought in it and Wayne didn’t.
Will his true legacy be helping to end the blacklist by giving Dalton Trumbo credit on “Spartacus”? Though the battle for that legacy is still being fought. And the reactionary right still disparages Hollywood every chance it gets.
Man, but look at that birth year. Imagine the world he came into and the one he left, and seeing it all.
Sunday December 22, 2019
Star Wars: The Much-Discovered Country
“The success of ‘Star Wars’ has obviated a lot of its original virtues. Much of the fun of watching the film for the first time, now forever inaccessible to us, was in the slow unveiling of its universe: Swords made of lasers! A Bigfoot who co-pilots a spaceship! A swing band of ‘50s U.F.O. aliens! Lucas refuses to explain anything, keeping the viewer as off-balance as a jet-lagged tourist in Benares or Times Square. We don’t see the film's hero until 17 minutes in; we‘re kept watching not by plot but by novelty, curiosity.
”Subsequent sequels, tie-in novels, interstitial TV shows, video games and fan fiction have lovingly ground this charm out of existence with exhaustive, literal-minded explication ...
“We literally can’t see ‘Star Wars’ anymore: Its control-freakish creator won't allow the original version of the film to be seen and has stubbornly maculated his own masterpiece, second-guessing correct editing decisions, restoring wisely deleted scenes and replacing his breakthrough special effects — historic artifacts in their own right — with ‘90s vintage C.G.I., already more dated than the film’s original effects.”
Tim Kreider, “We Can't See ‘Star Wars’ Anymore,” in The New York Times. The ninth movie in the series, and supposedly the last of the Skywalker stories, opened last week to the worst reviews the movies have received since “Phantom Menace.” In 1977, “Star Wars” was refreshing—particularly for a 14-year old who didn't know its movie-serial antecedents. Now it's just weighted, obvious and corporate.
Tuesday October 15, 2019
Where ‘Grease’ Isn't the Word
Another odd “known for” anomaly from IMDb:
I‘ll cut to the chase: It’s Randal Kleiser, who was a talking head in the documentary on John Milius I just watched, so I went to see what else he'd done after “Grease” in 1978. Turns out a lot, just nothing I'd heard of. Or stuff I'd heard of but didn't know he did—like “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid,” the sequel to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” He seemed to do a few of those types of sequels. Not the original, just the less-successful sequel. Not “Pee Wee's Big Adventure” but “Big Top Pee Wee.” Like that.
Anyway, I know him for directing “Grease,” which was the No. 1 movie of 1978, and, if you adjust for inflation, the 28th-biggest movie domestically of all time—just ahead of Marvel's “The Avengers.” It's also part of kitschy revivals, and there was a live musical on TV a few years back. It's still in the conversation. But for some reason, by IMDb's algorithms, you have three better reasons to know Kleiser.
Saturday September 28, 2019
Billy Jack, Dirty Harry and the Lafayette Escadrille
I like this screenshot from the movie “Lafayette Escadrille,” which was the last movie Wild Bill Wellman directed. A few future stars in it.
“Lafayette Escadrille” is a 1958 melodrama set in France during World War I, starring Tab Hunter (center). According to Wellman's son, Wild Bill wanted the kid on the right for the lead; Warners said no. Tab Hunter was a draw, Clint Whatshisface most definitely wasn't (he hadn't even begun “Rawhide” yet), and that was that. Warners also demanded changes to the end. Hunter's character dying in battle? Nope. He lives, and reunites with his prostitute/girlfriend, and they live happily ever after. That's Hollywood.
The other guy in the screenshot is Tom Laughlin, who made a huge splash as the half-Indian Billy Jack in a series of films in the early 1970s. He was a violent cinematic hero of the left (he didn't want to fight, but...) as Eastwood's Dirty Harry was the violent cinematic hero of the right (“I'm all broken up about that man‘s rights”).
I still haven’t seen the movie, by the way; I took the screenshot from a good documentary about Wellman's life and career. All three men are talking heads in it.
I still think you can make a good movie about the Lafayette Escadrille—the foreign legion of American pilots, including Wellman, who joined WWI before the U.S. did. You can write an essay on its emblem alone: Chief Sitting Bull with a pre-Nazi swastika in its headdress. A lot to unpack there.
Monday July 22, 2019
Cagney in “Hard to Handle” playing innocent.
“I use the words ‘Cagney’ and ‘Jim’ somewhat interchangeably, but usually the former refers to the performer in action and the latter to the man. ‘Jim’ was the name he always used in personal reference. He did not care for ‘Jimmy,’ a Warner Brothers locution.”
John McCabe, in his biography “Cagney.” McCabe was also ghost writer on Cagney's autobiography, “Cagney on Cagney.”