Clinton Olsasky: Remembering Kirk Douglas: Five Legendary Performances

Last month, the red-hot glow of one of the film industry’s brightest (and longest) burning stars was extinguished.


That star was the incomparable Kirk Douglas, who, at the age of 103, became one of the oldest living and last surviving icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood.


The fact that Douglas’ life burned so bright and so long is appropriate, as many of the screen legend’s best performances were marked with a fiery intensity that was rarely ever matched.


Douglas’ explosive acting style naturally lent itself to “heavy” character types, to scoundrels and “sons of bitches” (his words). But the dimple-chinned dynamo also breathed life into noble characters, creating hardened heroes with full hearts and fierce independence.


That independent streak seeped into Douglas’ off-screen life, as well. Not only did Douglas form his own production company (Bryna Productions, named after his mother), but he also played a major role in breaking down the Hollywood blacklist by hiring (and crediting) blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, despite industry pushback. 


Oh, and he also helped kick-start the career of a young director by the name of Stanley Kubrick. No big deal.


It goes without saying that Kirk Douglas was a one-of-a-kind figure in Hollywood, for his contributions both on and off the silver screen. His star burned brighter than nearly all others and, yet, he remained firmly devoted to his craft, identifying himself as an actor, first and foremost.


It’s appropriate, then, that we honor Douglas’ legendary life and career by taking a look at some of his greatest work as an actor. What follows is a list of five Douglas performances that we think rank among his very best, for both their volcanic power and quiet, emotional unease.



5. “Seven Days in May” (1964)



One of Kirk Douglas’ favorite scene partners was Burt Lancaster, with whom he made a total of seven films across nearly 40 years. Of these films, the most enduring is undoubtedly “Seven Days in May,” a paranoiac Cold War-era thriller from the “Twilight Zone” mind of screenwriter Rod Serling. The movie, directed by John Frankenheimer, revolves around a secret military plot to take over the United States government, led by the power-hungry General James Scott, played by Lancaster.


Douglas plays Colonel Jiggs, a dispassionate Pentagon insider who uncovers evidence of the general’s plan. It’s an unusually understated role for Douglas, but he makes the most of his screen time with a subtly powerful performance that merges detachment with desperation in a crackling race-against-the-clock plot. 



4. “Spartacus” (1960)



Kirk Douglas cemented his legacy as a Hollywood icon with his turn as the title character in “Spartacus,” a character with which he would become synonymous. In the sword-and-sandals epic, directed by a then-up-and-coming Stanley Kubrick, Douglas plays a slave who fights for his freedom, leading a revolt against the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC. 


In many ways, Douglas’ role in “Spartacus” paralleled his real-life role in the fight against the Hollywood blacklist, which he helped undo with his aforementioned hiring of Dalton Trumbo as screenwriter. As for Douglas’ performance, the actor brings a fierce physicality to the role, which he subverts in several key scenes of disarming vulnerability (for an example, watch Spartacus’ “I Want to Know” soliloquy above and pay attention to the humility with which Douglas admits his character’s unenlightenment).



3. “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952)



Two of Kirk Douglas’ greatest screen performances were delivered under the direction of Vincente Minnelli, as tormented painter Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life” and as amoral movie producer Jonathan Shields in “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Although both performances are masterful, the latter slightly edges ahead as our favorite Minnelli-Douglas collaboration, for Minnelli’s unflinching eye for Hollywood’s dark side and for Douglas’ willingness to dive straight into that darkness.


“The Bad and the Beautiful” follows Shields’ twisted trajectory to the top of the studio system, as the producer manipulates and uses those around him for his own personal gain. Douglas embraces his character’s manipulative instincts, highlighting Shields’ command of human psychology as a key reason for his success. For an example, watch the scene above and note how Douglas describes the human fear of the dark with both professorial insight and predatory intent.



2. “Ace in the Hole” (1951)



Kirk Douglas was peerless when it came to inhabiting cold-hearted schemers and crooks. It’s no wonder, then, that one of his most memorable screen creations was also his slimiest. Of course, we’re talking about Douglas’ chilling portrayal as reporter Chuck Tatum in “Ace in Hole,” writer-director Billy Wilder’s pitch-black breakdown of yellow journalism. 


In the film, Tatum happens upon a big-time scoop in a small-time town when he finds a man trapped in a cave collapse. The ruthless reporter has no regard for the man’s well-being and, instead of helping him, decides to milk the incident as a wellspring of headline-grabbing copy. Douglas plays the part to perfection, delivering Wilder’s acerbic dialogue with a coiled snarl, not unlike a cobra spitting venom. Watch the scene above for a taste of Douglas’ acid-tongued delivery, in which he waxes poetic about the noise of the city and his dream escape from what he calls a small-town “life sentence.”



1. “Paths of Glory” (1957)



“Spartacus” may be Kirk Douglas’ most iconic movie, but “Paths of Glory,” the actor’s first collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick, is undoubtedly his greatest. The anti-war film is an emotionally taut and thematically daring exploration of the human cost of war, shining a light on the barbarism carried out by bullets and bureaucrats alike. 


Set during World War I, “Paths of Glory” follows Colonel Dax, a commanding officer in the French army who refuses to direct a suicide mission issued by army superiors. Following the unavoidable failure of the mission, Dax volunteers to defend three soldiers who are put on trial for cowardice. It’s clear that the court-martial arranged by the army is a sham designed to bring about the three men’s executions, but Dax stands up for justice all the same. 


Douglas delivers the best work of his career in “Paths of Glory,” embodying the Colonel’s righteous indignation through moments of intense stillness that erupt into unhinged fury (for a sample, watch the scene above and take note of the climactic delivery of the line, “You can go to hell!”). It’s a truly riveting performance — just one of the many legendary roles that have made the late actor, in many ways, immortal.


— Clinton Olsasky