Kirk Douglas, the movie star’s movie star, died this past week at the age of 103. He left behind an oeuvre of unique and powerfully emotional films that have stood the test of time and inspired audiences for decades. Most often, upon considering Douglas’ career, movies like Spartacus, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Fury, The Vikings, and Tough Guys come to mind. But Kirk had a varied roster of films that aren’t necessarily as well known to modern audiences.

Here are four films by the iconic star, two of which are highly revered—Lust for Life which earned Douglas an Oscar nomination and the war film Paths of Glory which was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. The other two films are entertaining but lesser-known gems of the great Kirk Douglas’s canon!

Lust for Life

Kirk Douglas was all but made to play the ultimate tortured genius who lived in squalor and poverty and inspired generations of dreamers with his luminous paintings and mighty compositions, the inimitable Vincent Van Gogh. Not only did Kirk bare an uncanny physical resemblance to the iconic post-impressionist, he all but embodied the spirit of an artist at once in love with the human experience and at the same time persecuted by life’s insistent travails and relentless sorrows. This is one of Douglas’s best performances and it’s a damn shame he didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1956.

But be forewarned, Kirk does not play Vincent as a raving madman prone to bouts of hysteria and violent outbursts, rather he portrays a complex, hard-working man doing his level best to deal with melancholia, sickliness, and undiagnosed mental health issues. It is a subtle and nuanced performance replete with passion, reverence, and conviction. 

Anthony Quinn won Best Supporting Actor that year for his role as the arrogant and mercurial Gauguin, but Kirk’s Vincent is the main attraction in this cinematic gem. 

Paths of Glory

Many critics consider Paths of Glory to be the greatest war film of all time, while others consider it to be the greatest anti-war film. Directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory tells the story of Colonel Dax, a fierce and committed leader whose soldiers are accused of cowardice on the battlefield after failing to take an impenetrable hill. Kirk Douglas is mesmerizing as Dax, like when he walks through the trenches before battle with stone-cold determination. The moment, like many in the film, is absolutely riveting. 

There are very few films that portray the moral turpitude of wartime justice like Paths of Glory, and Kirk Douglas is the heart and soul of this time-honored classic. It is rumored he leveraged his prodigious star power and even some of his own money to make sure the picture got made. That is what makes legends!

Once Is Not Enough 

In the campy, made-for-tv movie-style Jacqueline Susann feature melodrama Once Is Not Enough, Kirk Douglas portrays the down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer and scribe Mike Wayne. Mike, world-weary and disaffected, marries an eccentric billionaire (Alexis Smith) in order to maintain his lifestyle and to care for his beloved adult daughter, January (Deborah Raffin). The problem is that January has some pretty serious daddy issues, and she falls hard for a Daddy stand-in, the Norman Maileresque Tom Colt (David Janssen). Having been in Hollywood for a couple of decades at the time, Kirk understood all too well the pitfalls and the Quixotic plight of a Hollywood producer, and in turn, he brings a grounding and a sense of verisimilitude to the flawed yet noble character of Mike Wayne and to the production. 

There are some great performances here, in a John Waters kind of way, particularly Brenda Vaccaro as the man-crazy career woman with eternal vocal fry, Linda. In fact, Brenda won the Golden Globe that year for her performance and she was also nominated for the Oscar. But Kirk Douglas adds a level of craft, star power, and credibility to the proceedings that is categorically needed, and absolutely undeniable. 

Make no mistake, Once is Not Enough is trashy, superficial, bizarre, and self-indulgent, but if you’re up for a vainglorious romp through the arts and entertainment industrial complex of 1970’s New York City, this is your jam!

Greedy

In the 1990 comedy Greedy, Kirk plays wealthy, egocentric, arrogant Uncle Joe McTeague, an old school industrialist with money-grubbing relatives hot after his fortune. Joe informs his family that he may very well leave his wealth to a sexy young “nurse” named Molly, and hijinks ensue! Greedy will never be mistaken for high art or even high comedy, but there are some wonderful performances, particularly Ed Begley Jr. as the conniving, mendacious family man Carl, and Phil Hartman as the savage and unhinged Frank. And Michael J. Fox brings his trademark sarcasm, humor, and soulful humanity to another bittersweet role. But Kirk Douglas stands out and shows he’s not just a dramatic actor, and not merely an icon; rather, he’s a guy who appreciates a good laugh now and again and a bit of harmless fun in his professional life.

Greedy can rightly be seen as your typical 90’s Hollywood schlocky comedy, but it’s not without its charm. And Kirk Douglas elevates the conventional farce to new heights in every scene he inhabits. 

 So, do you have a favorite Kirk Douglas performance? Please share!

 

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