Alden Graves | Graves registry: Remembering Kirk Douglas


Kirk Douglas died on Feb. 5 at the extraordinary age of 103. I was never a huge fan of Douglas the actor. He always seemed a touch too intense. But I recognized the fact that his political affiliations were very much aligned with mine. His company hired Dalton Trumbo to write the script for "Spartacus" despite the fact that Trumbo was a victim of the right wing "reds under your beds" hysteria orchestrated by Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy during a period in this nation's history that was fully as disgraceful and dangerous as the one we are living through today.

Douglas' longevity in a business that is notoriously hard on senior citizen actors is testimony to both his appeal and his tenacity both in front of and behind the camera. He told an interviewer that he never wanted to be a film actor, preferring the experience of working in front of a live audience. The birth of his first child, Michael, in 1944 prompted a reevaluation. The potential wealth that came with success in the movies brought him to Hollywood.

His first film, a wonderfully mood-drenched murder mystery with Barbara Stanwyck called "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," was released only two years later. Douglas would continue working regularly for the next 52 years, making 95 theatrical and television appearances and working with legendary directors such as William Wyler ("Detective Story"), Howard Hawks ("The Big Sky"), King Vidor ("Man Without a Star"), John Huston ("The List of Adrian Messenger"), Otto Preminger ("In Harm's Way"), Anthony Mann ("The Heroes of Telemark" and a portion of "Spartacus" before he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick), Brian De Palma ("The Fury"), and Elia Kazan ("The Arrangement").

Douglas' leading ladies included Ava Gardner, Doris Day, Lana Turner, Susan Hayward, Janet Leigh, Jean Simmons, Kim Novak, Dorothy Malone, Cyd Charisse, and Gena Rowlands. It was Burt Lancaster, however, who was his most frequent co-star. They made seven films together, including the noir classic "I Walk Alone" in 1947 and John Frankenheimer's "Seven Days in May" in 1964.

He made two indisputably great films, "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) and "Paths of Glory" (1957), and a number of memorable ones, including "Champion" (1949), "Ace in the Hole" (1951), "The Vikings" (1958), "Last Train from Gun Hill" (1959) and "Lonely Are the Brave" (1962). He was at his best when he was playing a morally ambivalent manipulator or a likable cynic. It was a quality that both Vincente Minnelli and Billy Wilder recognized and which Joseph Mankiewicz cleverly utilized in his underrated "There Was a Crooked Man" (1970).

Kirk Douglas published a list of ten wishes on the occasion of his 97th birthday. It is a shame that, in the intervening half dozen years, the fates of these noble aspirations have become more tenuous, some of them to the point where they might be more accurately described as pipe dreams.

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One of the things Mr. Douglas wished for was, "A world where the air is breathable, the water drinkable and the food is healthy and plentiful." It is difficult to believe that one of the two major political parties in this nation fights so vociferously against these goals. A recent letter to the Banner bemoaned Vermont's prioritizing efforts to address climate change because, among other issues that the writer found more urgent, it might add to the cost of home heating oil. In other words, it would make one of the major contributors to the climate crisis more expensive to dispense into the atmosphere.

We have watched helplessly as Donald Trump (and bear in mind, folks, this is a man who doesn't know what state the winners of the Super Bowl hail from) and his corporate-friendly Republican cohorts in Congress have systematically stripped away the regulations put in place to protect an already perilously fragile environment.

People paid by the Koch brothers sneer at the notion of climate change. Scott Pruitt, a man who sold his soul to the oil industry while he was attorney general in Oklahoma, was Trump's head of the Environmental Protection Agency until he became so ethically challenged he was forced to resign from the most ethically challenged administration in the country's history.

Of all the aspects of the right wing mindset that I can't fathom, the relegation of the viability of the planet we will pass on to future generations to a secondary concern is the most bewildering. What does anything else really matter if Earth is uninhabitable? Even today, while millions of people are displaced and starving, while a huge part of an entire continent goes up in flames, while monster storms wreak billions of dollars in damage, many still listen to old men with nothing to lose but their paychecks lecture about how it is all a hoax.

You have to wonder what a man — who had the courage back in the 1950s to stand up to the right wing's twisted notion of patriotism — think about a photograph of a gloating Donald Trump holding a newspaper with the words "Trump Acquitted" splayed across the front page and wreaking his vengeance upon anyone who had the moral courage to stand up to his flagrant lawlessness. Trump's free pass to continue pillaging the Constitution by a party that once hawked "moral values" like a kid peddling newspapers on a street corner, is one of the darkest days in American history.

It is certainly a departure from the ending of most of Kirk Douglas' movies when what was selfless and right triumphed over corruption and evil.

Alden Graves writes a regular column for the Banner.


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