On the High Wire with Kirk Douglas

“Look, Rose, find someone who isn’t sick. The ground’s covered with them.”

Kirk Douglas in The Story of Three Loves

Kirk Douglas’s casual mode is a look of anguished alertness. He has as an inbuilt ability to register tension, anxiety, and anger even in repose. It’s in the masklike sculptural planes of his face, the burning eyes, the pinpoint cleft in his chin, and the equally sculpted torso, and it makes him an improbable human being. He is routinely on edge, an inch away from hysteria, registering urgency whether infused with righteousness or venality, poised on that edge, wrathful, seething even or especially when smiling. Everything he’s feeling is on the surface or near enough to radiate a charge, a threat, a prelude to violence. My friend Jim Robison, another Douglas admirer, notes: “Almost like Kinski, he seems physiologically made for epic movies and epic emotions and unable to play Mr. Anybody, Mr. Average, a guy.” Consider Jimmy Stewart (born in 1908, eight years before Douglas) and William Holden (born less than two years after), long-term Hollywood megastars who, in their respective primes, could convincingly enact feverishness and degradation but whose predominant gifts allowed them to masquerade as ordinary men. It’s hard to imagine either sharing a film, even a frame, with Kirk Douglas in overdrive.

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