Kirk Douglas: Before I Forget
After almost 75 years as an actor, Douglas's stroke would seem to have ended his career, but with the same determination that drove some of his most famous film characters -- Midge in Champion (1949), Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) among them -- he wrote and performed in a four-night run of his one man show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The inspiration for the piece came from his dog, Dani. While they were walking one morning, the dog stopped at a statue in Douglas's garden of Don Quixote. That made Douglas think of the old man who rode off on a horse to pursue his dream. Since he didn't have a horse, he determined that the vehicle on which he needed pursue his dreams was a one-man show.
Director Jeff Kanew, who had previously directed Douglas and good friend Burt Lancaster in Tough Guys (1986), filmed the production for a 2009 release, capturing the performance for posterity. Combining Hollywood gossip with searing introspection, Douglas shares highlights of his career and life in very personal terms. He speaks with pride and affection of his mother, with disappointment of his relationship to a father who rarely showed him any affection, with awe at the fairy tale romance he shares with current wife Anne Douglas and with heartache when he shares his feelings of having failed his youngest son, Eric, who died of a drug overdose. Particularly poignant are the moments he describes his reaction to the stroke, particularly the depression that almost drove him to suicide.
The piece opens with a video of his 1996 appearance to accept a special Oscar®, presented by Steven Spielberg, who acknowledges Douglas's role in helping end the blacklist by hiring formerly banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to create the script for Spartacus (1960). Other clips show him singing and dancing with Burt Lancaster at an Oscar® ceremony in the '50s and interviewing son Michael Douglas about their relationship. At one point, he even confronts his younger self about the importance of his movies versus real life. Clips also feature comments about Douglas by friends and family, including his first wife, Diana Douglas, current wife Anne, co-star Lauren Bacall and director John Frankenheimer.
When Kirk Douglas: Before I Forget opened it was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, though some critics pointed out that the film clips gave the 92-year-old actor a chance to rest. He hardly spares himself however, leading the audience through a mid-show exercise, joining in with his vocal performance of "A Whale of a Tale" in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and re-creating his rendition of the song "Red Hot Harry Brown" when he auditioned for the musical On the Town (he got the part, but lost it after giving himself laryngitis before rehearsals even started trying to hit the high notes).
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Douglas was born in Amsterdam, NY, in 1916. He fell in love with acting playing a shoemaker in a grade school play, one of the few times he earned his father's approval. After the performance, the elder Douglas bought him an ice cream cone. After studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (with classmate Bacall) and working in stock, he made his Broadway debut in Katharine Cornell's revival of Chekhov's The Three Sisters in 1942. By the end of World War II, he had a wife and two sons to support, so he moved to Hollywood, making his big-screen debut as Barbara Stanwyck's husband in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He was playing mostly supporting roles until he signed with independent producer Stanley Kramer to star in Champion as an amoral, ambitious boxer. The performance made him a star and brought him his first of three Oscar® nominations.
Douglas's career thrived in the '50s and '60s. He won two more Oscar® nominations for The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life, collecting a Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Award for the latter. He was one of the first actors to create his own production company, Bryan Productions, named for his mother. With Bryna, he produced some of his most ambitious films, including Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus, the television movie Amos (1985) and Tough Guys.
Despite the massive stroke that almost ended his career, Douglas returned to the screen three times, most notably acting with son Michael, grandson Cameron Douglas and ex-wife Diana Douglas in It Runs in the Family (2003). At one point in that film, he tells Cameron, "A stroke is God's way of trying to make me shut up, but it didn't work." Kirk Douglas: Before I Forget is proof positive that no stroke is powerful enough to shut Douglas up, which proves to be a very good thing.
Producer: Anne Douglas, Jeff Kanew
Director: Jeff Kanew
Screenplay: Kirk Douglas
Cinematography: Jeff Kanew
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Anne Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Diana Douglas, John Frankenheimer (Themselves)
By Frank Miller