Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I Am Spartacus!: Kirk Douglas Remembers

I’m not a fan of audio books. They strike me as appealing to talkative types that shun, and possibly even fear, silence. If reading is essentially an activity for introverts, audio books are for extroverts who dislike solitude and need to hear another voice to remind them that they’re not alone, adrift in a hostile world. Furthermore, you can’t just flip through the pages of an audio book in search of a passage you want to re-read. You have to fast forward or hit reverse.

I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist by Kirk Douglas wasn’t available in print at my local library, but they did have the unabridged five disc audio book (5 hours, 20 minutes), so I checked it out.

Douglas begins with a brief summary of his early career, ground already covered by The Ragman’s Son, his excellent memoir from two-and-a-half decades ago. He arrived in Hollywood in 1946 believing he would make his film debut as the male lead in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Only when reporting for work did he learn that Van Heflin would be Barbara Stanwyck's leading man with Douglas in a supporting role. Although Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) was the credited director, Douglas informs us that Milestone was frequently “out to lunch,” attending meetings related to a writer’s strike in progress at the time. It was Douglas' introduction to Hollywood politics.

Politics casts as dark a shadow over the production of Spartacus as it does in the film’s story of a slave revolt against Rome. The book upon which the film was based had to be self-published because author Howard Fast had been blacklisted despite rejecting Communism and telling his fellow travelers to “go to hell.” Dalton Trumbo, whom Fast despised, was blacklisted for his Communist ties, but the screenwriter known for his ability to write fast kept turning out scripts which were “fronted” for him under other names.

Trumbo’s speed at script writing helped Douglas’ Bryna Productions, which was making Spartacus in collaboration with Universal, beat United Artists to the punch. UA had a competing Spartacus project in the works with Yul Brynner in the lead. Armed with Trumbo’s first draft, credited to producer Edward Lewis, Douglas secured commitments from Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton, and the UA film was soon shelved. All Douglas needed now was a director.

Douglas meets Stanley Kubrick after being impressed by The Killing, the director’s third film, and requesting an introduction.

“Stanley’s demeanor was always calm, impassive,” Douglas writes, but despite those big, sleepy eyes, Kubrick was “always awake, always thinking.”

With Kubrick, Douglas makes 1957’s Paths of Glory, still acclaimed as one of the most potent of all anti-war films, but Universal decides that Anthony Mann should direct Spartacus, and Douglas reluctantly accepts their choice. “Mann was a technician,” he said, “not an artist.” Two weeks into production, Mann, whom Douglas describes as “overwhelmed” and letting Ustinov “run wild,” was fired and replaced by Kubrick who had just been relieved of his duties on One Eyed Jacks, a western that producer-star Marlon Brando opted to direct himself.

Kubrick, then a mere lad of 30, was not beloved by his crew. He told Russell Metty, the director of photography, to “sit down and shut up.” Kubrick also reported to work everyday in the same khaki pants and black sweater, leading the crew to complain that he did not care what they thought of him.

“I don’t,” Kubrick defiantly told Douglas.

“I do,” Douglas shot back then ordered his director to buy new clothes.

Kubrick also refused to film the memorable scene that gives this book its title until Douglas angrily ordered him to do so.

Douglas believes that Kubrick lacked empathy, never more so than when Kubrick suggested that Trumbo’s screenplay be credited to him after co-producer Lewis refused to continue posing as the scribe to help conceal the involvement of a blacklisted writer. The American Legion, gossip queen Hedda Hopper, and other self-styled patriots, already aware that Trumbo was the script's true author, were threatening to protest the film which by then had a price tag of $12 million, a half million more than the MCA talent agency had paid to acquire the entire Universal lot while Spartacus was in production. Douglas’ anger at Kubrick had more to do with his decision to give Trumbo full screen credit than any desire to take a moral stand against the blacklist.

Spartacus was a hit with both critics and audiences upon its release in October 1960. Kubrick went on to Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, films that established him as the leading auteur among directors. Trumbo continued to write scripts but was now free to use his own name, as were other writers for whom the blacklist was now history. And Douglas continued to act and produce, as well as watch his son, Michael, successfully follow in his footsteps.

His voice weakened by a stroke, Kirk Douglas lets Michael read his story. The younger Douglas sounds enough like his father that it wasn’t necessary to attempt an imitation, but he seems to speak at times through his father’s clenched teeth, overemphasizing certain words at the end of sentences. Otherwise, he reads in a clear, strong voice that maintains the listener’s interest, even one like me who would prefer to read rather than listen to a book.

Today, a lot of younger moviegoers think of Kirk Douglas as Michael’s father. Shame on them. The younger Douglas has won two Academy Awards, one for acting (1987's Wall Street) and one for producing (1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), while his father, one of the first actor-producers, had to content himself with an honorary Oscar in his sunset years. It could also be argued that Michael was a bigger box-office draw than his father was in his prime, thanks to such blockbusters as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. But Michael Douglas never played Vincent Van Gogh, or Ulysses, or Doc Holliday to Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). He did not appear in three of the best film noirs (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Out of the Past, and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole). He did not work twice with Kubrick. Nor can he say, as his father can, that “I Am Spartacus.”

Fans of Kirk Douglas and of the film that gave him his most iconic role should enjoy this memoir, available on compact disc from Brilliance Audio.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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