“You haven’t learned how to live until you’ve learned how to give.” – Kirk Douglas
A star of the movie industry both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes, the late Kirk Douglas was one of the most prominent film stars throughout the mid-20th century, working with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder in his ascension to the very top of the industry. Father to the equally famous screen actor Michael Douglas, the impact of Kirk Douglas on the modern movie industry is truly indelible.
Known for his dominant leading mannerisms, Kirk Douglas was also a hardened individualist keen to plough his own route through the industry without the influence of others. As Douglas told Roger Ebert in 1969: “I make my own way. Nobody’s my boss. Nobody’s ever been my boss. Your only security is in your talent I didn’t get into this business as a pretty boy…l’ve made my own way!”.
Enjoying an incredible 62 years of success in the industry before his death in 2020 at the age of 103, Kirk Douglas remains known as a true icon of Hollywood cinema who helped the likes of Stanley Kubrick establish himself in the mainstream limelight. With over 90 credits to his name, let’s take a look back at just ten of his very best film performances, as we look back at a titanic force of the industry.
Kirk Douglas’ 10 best films of all time:
10. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
From the master of horror Jacques Tourneur, responsible for such films as I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People and Night of the Demon, comes Out of the Past, a classic film noir starring Kirk Douglas in the lead role.
Playing a villain in a rare turn of events, Out of the Past follows a private eye who tries to escape his past by posing as a gas station employee in a distant town, though when his former client, played by Douglas, returns, the situation becomes more complicated. Starring alongside Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming, Douglas gives an incredible performance in only his third feature film role.
9. Lonely and the Brave (David Miller, 1962)
A late, low-budget western, Lonely and the Brave from David Miller, the same mind behind Midnight Lace and Billy the Kid, is a rousing, dramatic western, starring Kirk Douglas in the lead role of John W. Burns.
Written by the iconic screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Lonely and the Brave follows a strong-willed, independent cowboy who finds himself locked up in a prison in order to escape with a childhood friend. A predecessor to Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’, Douglas’ John W. Burns has no ID, nor a fixed address or love for contemporary life, he is a drifter wonderfully brought to life by both Trumbo and the starring actor.
8. The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)
Known for Gigi and An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli was a romantic filmmaker and theatre director who helmed The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952 with Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner and Gloria Grahame.
As a ruthless movie producer, Douglas gives a wonderfully melodramatic performance in a story that follows the filmmaker as a dedicated creative who uses actors, directors, writers and more to manipulate his own success. Earning six Oscar nominations and winning five of them, including Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame, Douglas could only secure a nomination for Best Leading Actor.
7. Champion (Mark Robson, 1949)
Narrowly missing out on Oscar glory, Kirk Douglas was nominated in 1950 for his extraordinary performance as Midge in Mark Robson’s classic noir boxing movie that also starred Arthur Kennedy and Marilyn Maxwell.
The same director behind sports classic, The Harder they Fall with Humphrey Bogart, Champion sees Kirk Douglas star as a selfish boxing amateur who is willing to brush aside both friend and foe to achieve supremacy at the very top of the sport. Proceeding the likes of similar psychological boxing movies such as Raging Bull and Rocky, Champion would catapult Douglas to international acclaim.
6. Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
From the late, great John Frankenheimer, the same filmmaker behind The Manchurian Candidate, George Wallace and Year of the Gun, Seven Days in May was a political thriller with pertinent roots.
Starring alongside the likes of Fredric March, Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in an impressive ensemble cast, Kirk Douglas co-starred as a colonel plotting to overthrow the president due to his support of nuclear disarmament. A compelling story and a gripping thriller, Seven Days in May may well give The Manchurian Candidate a run for its money as John Frankenheimer’s very best film.
5. Gunfight at the O.K Corral (John Sturges, 1957)
Known as one of the most iconic western tales of all time that has since become synonymous with the genre, Gunfight at the O.K Corral stars Kirk Douglas alongside Burt Lancaster, Rhonda Fleming and Jo Van Fleet.
The tale follows the lawman Wyatt Earp (Lancaster) and the outlaw Doc Holliday (Douglas) who form an unlikely team, eventually participating in the legendary titular gunfight. Having been rebranded and retold multiple different times throughout cinema, Douglas’ performance as Doc Holliday may just be the greatest ever put to screen, with the showdown between the two lead stars at the film’s climax going down as an iconic moment in genre cinema history.
4. Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli, 1956)
Collaborating one more with the director of The Bad and the Beautiful, Vincente Minnelli, Kirk Douglas would earn his third Oscar nomination for the engaging biopic of the life of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life.
Tracking the tortured mental illness of the Dutch painter who tried to sell his works to multiple uninterested buyers, Douglas delivers a subtle, sympathetic performance in the lead role. Despite his efforts, his co-star Anthony Quinn would take home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, whilst Douglas was left, once more, without recognition for his fabulous performance in a tricky role to pull off.
3. Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)
During the mid-20th century, there were few directors that an actor would prefer to work with than Billy Wilder, the same mind behind Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Sabrina.
Overshadowed by Wilder’s incredibly impressive wider filmography, Ace in the Hole is undoubtedly a classic noir, starring Kirk Douglas in a satire of contemporary media that sees him play a journalist who manipulates a potential story for his own financial gain. A hard-hitting picture, Wilder’s film is decades ahead of its time, showing shades of Dan Gilroy’s scathing study, Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
2. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
The one film that Stanley Kubrick was “disappointed with” remains a classic despite the director’s own dismay, starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier.
Personally producing the film, Douglas sits front and centre of this ancient epic, telling the story of Spartacus, a man who leads a revolt against the oppressive Roman Republic. Stanley Kubrick’s fifth film, Spartacus would help the director to achieve an impressive amount of industry recognition, allowing him to go on to make Lolita two years later, as well as the great Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
1. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
Not just Kirk Douglas’ finest ever performance, but quite possibly Stanley Kubrick’s most fully realised feature film too, Paths of Glory features the actor in a truly unforgettable film role with one of cinema’s finest ever endings.
A vocal anti-war movie, the film follows a French Colonel (Douglas) in WWI who refuses to go over the top of the trenches due to heavy bombardment. Having to choose three soldiers to take the wrap and receive a court-martial, the film follows the morally corrupt nature of war and the toll it brings those who must serve under its brutal circumstances. Douglas’ long, one-shot walk down the trenches at the start of the film remains one of cinema’s greatest shots.