Tuesday, September 30, 2014
I am Spartacus!
If you're anywhere near my age, the 1960 film 'Spartacus', starring Kirk Douglas, made a big impression on you. It was my Baby Boomer generation's 'Gladiator'. Besides Mr. Douglas (who produced it through his film company 'Bryna' -- his mother's name), it starred Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Woody Strode and Peter Ustinov (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), as well as many other Hollywood 'names' too numerous to mention. You can see more details about the film here. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, of '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'The Shining' fame (two among many of his great films).
So, it was with great interest that I came across the Kirk Douglas book 'I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist' [link to Amazon] -- published in 2012 when he was still only 95 (he turns 98 in December and is still writing terrific books)!!! Although the book does focus on the making of the film itself (Mr. Douglas hadn't seen it since 1960, but started to research the project to commemorate it's 50th anniversary), the second part of the subtitle is just as important to him. He gives a history of the Hollywood 'Blacklist', inexorably tied up with Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witchhunts of the late 1940's and the 1950's. Here's a quick overview.
The upshot of this in Hollywood was that a number of prominent screenwriters were unable to continue to earn their livings, at least under there own names, because of either being tainted as having Communist leanings, or of protecting those who did. Among those screenwriters was the masterful Dalton Trumbull. Quite courageously, as the boss, Kirk Douglas not only hired Trumbull to write the screenplay for Spartacus, taken from Howard Fast's novel, but insisted that he be given the writing credit for the film under his real name. This caused quite an uproar at the time, but Douglas stuck to his guns (or gladius and shield in this case).
The book is beautifully written and satisfies not only in its telling of the Blacklist and its effects, but also has some never-before-revealed juicy behind-the-scenes stories about the actors involved in the film. Laurence Olivier was going through a separation/divorce from Vivien Leigh at the time and Vivien's outburst at a party that Kirk attended was quite sad. Charles Laughton quit at least once, Tony Curtis took advantage of his past friendship with Douglas to get a part in the film, and Peter Ustinov continuously wheedled and charmed his way into enlarging his role -- to great effect! I won't detail these stories, as you'll want to read them yourself (or listen to the audio version, narrated by a certain Michael Douglas).
My favorite anecdote though refers to the main title of the book itself. Kirk came up with the idea of this pivotal scene towards the end of the film, and suggested it to Kubrick (you can see a short clip of this here, as it opens the portal to the Kirk Douglas website -- and you'll want to watch the great highlight reel there as well). Apparently, Kubrick lacked a certain openness to any ideas that weren't his and not only failed to reply to 'the boss' (remember, this was Douglas's production) but subsequently refused to even film it as a test! He tells it much better than I do here, but it ends with Douglas astride his great stallion slowly forcing Kubrick to walk backwards until his back is literally against the wall. Douglas tells him in no uncertain terms that the scene will be filmed, and cut if it doesn't work. Kirk mentions in the book at this point that he can't believe some of the things he did in his youth! It became one of the best-remembered and most-loved scenes in the film.
I was very moved by reading the book, as it brought back so many memories of the movies that my father and I would go to see together when I was a boy (not a few of them starring Kirk Douglas), as well as by how well-written and insightful it was. I was also moved by the sheer will and intelligence that still motivates this man, having suffered a massive stroke so many years ago and continuing to embody the title of another of his great films, 'Lust for Life' about the artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Not one to write many fan letters in my life, I thought 'what could I share or give to this person that might give him a small bit of the joy and inspiration that he's given me?' What could be more appropriate in celebration of this wonderful book than a Stipula Gladiator pen? It was unknown to me if Mr. Douglas was still able to actually write with a pen, due to the effects of his stroke, but that wouldn't really matter in the end.
To make a long story somewhat shorter, I purchased a contact list for Hollywood stars, and was able to send the pen, ink and a personal note c/o one of his agents. It eventually reached Mr. Douglas and I received this note a couple of weeks ago from his assistant, Grace Eboigbe (whom I subsequently spoke with, to confirm that Mr. Douglas had actually seen my little 'thank you' video, which can be seen here).
Would I have liked a note penned in Mr. Douglas's own hand? Of course. But I understand his current limitations. As he says in the acknowledgments in his book: “I want to thank my assistant, Grace Eboigbe, the only person capable of transmitting my spoken or written words”.
So, other then selling a broccoli & cheese croissant to Meryl Streep (that's another long story), this will probably be my only brush with the Hollywood elite and my chance to be just a fan. Happy 98th Birthday to you on December 9th Kirk Douglas! I wish you many, many more.