Yes, he is still very much alive. In fact, on Saturday, Kirk Douglas celebrated his 101st birthday. How wonderful and precious is this? I am raising a glass from across the Atlantic to this veteran of Hollywood’s golden age.
Kirk Douglas will forever be Spartacus and (arguably) one of the principal players involved in breaking the Hollywood blacklist, in which suspected or actual Communists working in Hollywood were prevented from working, made to stand trial, and even locked up (usually for contempt of the courts set up to interrogate those suspected on their political beliefs).
The blacklist remains as a stain on Hollywood’s history in which members of their own creative community were set against each other and those with the least power to fight the persecution were punished.
The production of Spartacus took place in the final years of the blacklist and (arguably) played a role in ending restrictions placed on creatives based on their actual or perceived political leanings.
Spartacus was not an easy film to make; the shoot was beset with the kind of issues that could have only arisen from its star having so much clout in the production (part-financing and producing as well as starring). Kirk Douglas had the power to have the film’s original director, Anthony Mann, replaced by Stanley Kubrick who Kirk admired but frequently disagreed with during the shoot. At this early stage in Kubrick’s career, he did not have the status to exert the complete control over the film that he would become known for in his subsequent works – Kubrick famously told Douglas that the now iconic “I’m Spartacus,” scene was “a stupid idea.” Kirk Douglas did not listen.
Maybe it is stupid, maybe it is cheesy, but it is a wonderful moment on film – especially if you are lucky enough to see it in the original 70mm widescreen format. The scope of this film is epic in the true sense of the word. There are over 10,000 cast members – soldiers from the Spanish army were used to play the Roman army – those enormous scenes were orchestrated, not computer generated.
So how did Spartacus break the blacklist? The story has passed into legend, as so many Hollywood stories have before it, but the short answer is that blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was given a screen credit under his own name. Trumbo had been writing under various aliases for a decade, as had many blacklisted writers, but this credit on screen served as a very bold statement that the blacklist could no longer control where writers could work and, more importantly, that the cinema-going public would not be deterred by the involvement of a blacklisted writer.
The box office revenues of Spartacus were undeniable proof that the public did not care about the blacklist. It was obsolete.
I’ve used the phrase ‘arguably’ a couple of times in telling this story as there are other films made at a similar time that represented the same erosion of the blacklist. If you would like to hear more about this time and the impact that this all had on over a decade of post-war Hollywood movies, listen to the excellent series by Karina Longworth in her You Must Remember This podcast. Click here to learn how Kirk Douglas would argue that he DEFINITELY broke the blacklist first by giving Dalton Trumbo his own parking space on the Spartacus lot!
Kirk Douglas has played the fighter both on screen and off; after suffering a stroke in 1996 and losing the power of speech, he learnt to speak again and returned to the screen only 3 years later, starring opposite his lifelong friend, Lauren Bacall. Yes, Kirk Douglas went to acting school with Lauren Bacall. He truly is a rare jewel from another age and an inspiration.
Today, I would love to bake a birthday cake for Kirk Douglas. I would love to sit with him and hear his stories. I would love him to tell me, in his own words, how he broke the blacklist. I would love to get his thoughts on Hollywood today, to sit and eat cake in the presence of a living legend.