Unless you are a big fan of Kirk Douglas or westerns, you’ve probably never seen “Lonely are the Brave.”
But I think it’s one of Kirk Douglas’ finest movies, and perhaps one of the finest movies ever made.
Douglas plays Jack Burns, a ranch hand who chafes against the restraints of modern life in favor of his traditional free-wheeling, nomadic life. When his friend Bondi lands in jail for helping illegal immigrants cross the border, Burns gets himself thrown in jail, too, so he can break his friend out.
The role and the film are classic Kirk Douglas. His legendary good looks — stunning physique, piercing blue eyes, and that square-jawed, famously-dimpled chin — and serious acting chops landed him a prominent spot in the pantheon of megastars that dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age. But it was his penchant for playing complex, compelling, intense characters that fixed his place in the firmament.
Burns was just such a character. He’s a modern-day maverick who unapologetically thumbs his nose at the system in service of loyalty to his friend and his own ideas about the way the world should work. It takes moxie to follow your dreams, and Douglas had it, both on-screen and off.
Moxie is passionate.
Passion was the hallmark of Douglas’ acting style. In contrast with contemporaries like Cary Grant or Tony Curtis, his characters fairly seethed with emotion. Douglas never played a “pretty boy” type of leading man.
“Virtue is not photogenic, so I liked playing bad guys,” said Douglas in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “But, whenever I played a bad guy, I tried to find something good in him, and that kept my contact with the audience.”
Early on, Douglas leveraged his star power to launch his own film production company. He was one of the first actors in Hollywood to make that kind of power move. Having his own production company meant he could develop projects that interested him and challenged him in new ways. It turned out to be a good move. He went on to produce and star in “Spartacus,” perhaps one of the most influential movies ever made.
Whatever Douglas pursued — acting or filmmaking — he pursued with gusto. It takes moxie to invest your life completely and take big chances, and Douglas had it.
Moxie takes a stand.
Douglas didn’t just leverage his power for his own gain. Although it is arguable, he used his power to help break the Hollywood Blacklist.
At the height of the Cold War, politicians were eager to “root out” Communist sympathizers. Anyone who had ever even explored ideas related to socialism and communism was suspect, and even those who had no political leanings but strong political enemies found themselves unable to find work.
“[Senator Joseph McCarthy] was an awful man who was finding Communists all over the country. He blacklisted the writers who wouldn’t obey his edict. The heads of the studios were hypocrites who went along with it,” said Douglas. “My company produced Spartacus (1960), written by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer, under the name Sam Jackson. Too many people were using false names back then. I was embarrassed. I was young enough to be impulsive, so even though I was warned against it, I used his real name on the screen.”
Thank defiant act helped break the blacklist that kept talented artists from being able to work and produce. It could have cost Douglas his reputation and his career to admit that he was working with a blacklisted writer. But his impulsive desire to do the right thing paid off, and Trumbo was redeemed.
Moxie loves faithfully.
You might imagine that a man of such intensity would be difficult to live with and difficult to love. That doesn’t appear to be at all the case with Douglas.
When he died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 103, his beloved wife of more than 65 years was by his side. Anne was his partner in everything, heavily involved in his production company and advising him on business matters.
His son Michael Douglas, a well-regarded actor in his own right, had this to say about the passing of his famous father: “To the world, he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years, a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in setting a standard for all of us to aspire to. But to me and my brothers Joel and Peter he was simply Dad, to Catherine, a wonderful father-in-law, to his grandchildren and great-grandchild their loving grandfather, and to his wife Anne, a wonderful husband.”
You learn much about a person by observing their relationships with the ones closest to them. It takes moxie to love faithfully and selflessly for decades, and Douglas had it.
What will you remember the most about Kirk Douglas?