Monday, March 9, 2009

Lifelong Creativity

I’ve always admired Kirk Douglas. Not only did he make some splendid films, but he—along with Humphrey Bogart—was one of the few Hollywood stars to stand up to the McCarthy-era blacklists and witch-hunts.


Yesterday we had a chance to see Kirk Douglas in his one-man show, Before I Forget (at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, a theatre he endowed as part of LA’s Center Theatre Group. At one point, he remarked: “I never wanted to be a movie star; I wanted to be a star onstage. Finally I figured out the trick: build your own theatre.”)

The show had a short run—four sold-out performances. The theatre is in Culver City, right across the street from Sony Pictures (the company that used to be Columbia Pictures, and recently gobbled up MGM as well). As you might imagine, in a company town like Culver City most of the attendees were people “in the industry,” but it was a pleasant gathering anyway.

Kirk Douglas is 92 years old. Not too many nonagenarians decide to attack a 90-minute, no-intermission, one-man show—though when you’re a legend all you have to do is show up, right?

Well, not in this case. This is a man who has been through the wringer physically. In the early 1990s he survived a helicopter crash that broke his back and required knee replacements, and later in that decade he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak. As he was recovering from the stroke, he said he realized he would never make another movie, never do another stage show, and after a good long cry he decided to kill himself. His physical condition was low enough that when he put the barrel of his pistol in his mouth he hit one of his teeth, painfully hard. “And that’s why I’m still alive,” he said, “all because of an aching tooth.”

He has learned to speak again, but the evidence of his stroke is still clear; enunciation is still a chore, and he has to speak slowly to be understood. Yet he has turned this debility to his advantage. “When I speak ve-ry slow-ly, it turns out…that people listen.” He also uses his deliberate enunciation as a running aside to the audience: “…but we still lived in this di-lap-i-dated—pretty good word, huh?— di-lap-i-dated house…”

The show was funny, self-deprecating, touching, and sometimes even profound, and I don’t think there were many people who sat through the whole performance without at least a few tears welling up.

The performance itself was wonderful, but what I found myself mulling over was the fact that he had found a way to carry on with his chosen art and craft, despite his age, despite huge physical barriers. Frankly, when I think about some of the things I let get in the way of my work, he makes me feel a bit ashamed.

And he made me feel extraordinarily young, too, which isn’t a feeling I often have of late.

16 comments:

Jake Jesson said...

"Frankly, when I think about some of the things I let get in the way of my work, he makes me feel a bit ashamed."

I share your reaction. And additionally: This is the kind of person I'd like to be when I'm a nonagenarian. (If I'm so lucky.)

Tim Stretton said...

Glad to hear he's still going. He's a class act, and Spartacus is still great today. He was pretty good in Lust for Life too.

Matt Curran said...

The guy is a complete legend, and I'm deeply envious that you've seen him.

At work they encourage the staff to pin public icons of inspiration on some sort of synerg-aic pin-board looking over the team. Looks like Spartacus is going to make it on there...

Tim Stretton said...

I am Spartacus!

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jake--

Yeah, that's the kind of 92-year-old I'd like to be. (Though preferably without the stroke.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

No, I'm Spartacus!

Yeah, those were great films. He didn't some really fine noir stuff too. He can really play a cold bastard.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Can you just put anybody up on that board--Hannibal Lecter, Britney Spears--or is it a sort of committee decision?

David Isaak said...

PS to Matt--

I ask because icons of the Great Slave Revolt might make the employers nervous...

Matt Curran said...

Well that depends... If someone put Mussolini on the board, I think there would be a problem. Having said that, there doesn't seem to be any problems with blasphemy, as a very good picture of "Christ on a bike" has found its way on there. That and a photo of Queen Elizabeth in a Rangers F.C. football shirt.
It's all quite odd, really...

mags said...

A long time ago, I had a small moment in the spotlight with Kirk Douglas at the premier of Spartacus in London. There's a photo of us on my website's bio page:

http://www.maggiedana.com/html/about_maggie.html

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Thanks for that David. Really very interesting. I had no idea of his refusal to co-operate with the HUAC. I confess I thought he had passed away a few years ago. I always remember him as the tough-assed radio reporter in the movie, the title of which I can never recall, about a collapsed mine-shaft (When the Circus Comes to Town?). And, of course, as the noble cowboy in 'Lonely Are The Brave' - and Frankenheimer's 'Seven Days in May' as well as 'The Vikings' (with Tony Curtis?). Great stuff.

Haarlson Phillipps said...

It's bugging me now - was it 'Ace in the Hole'?

David Isaak said...

Hey, Haarlson--

Can't tell you for sure about "Ace in the Hole," but it sounds right. And let us not forget his Hollywood-producer role in "The Bad and the Beautiful"

"The Vikings" was a favorite of my childhood. I saw it again recently, and it's still pretty good, but--as in the case of "Spartacus"--I found myself constantly annoyed by the fact that, whatever role he plays, Tony Curtis sounds like he's from New Jersey...

David Isaak said...

PS--Among other things, Douglas was the first to openly hire one of the blacklisted writers (Dalton Trumbo) and put his name on the credits. ("Spartacus" was, of course, exactly the sort of thing Trumbo loved to write. Class warfare!)

Douglas received all manner of pressure from the studio not to go ahead with this, but since he had his own production company they actually couldn't control what he did.

Oh, and speaking of Douglas movies, what about Kubrick's "Paths of Glory"? I understand it was many years before they'd allow that one to be shown in France!

Nikwdhmos said...

Awesome post. :)

People like that achieve stuff the rest of us can only be amazed at.

Perhaps it is the kick in the pants that I needed to get the ball rolling again on the novel.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Nik/Sam--

Roll that ball, dude!