Happy 99th Birthday Kirk Douglas: Enemy of red-baiting & (briefly) New Jerseyan

It’s not really Kirk Douglas’ birthday; it was Dec. 9, 2015. This year he turns 100. But a photo of Kirk and Michael Douglas taken a few weeks ago made its way around Facebook today. And – missing my own father who also would have been 100 in 2016 – I liked the photo and sent it around with this:

12311313_962429287185221_6213662495370949026_nKirk Douglas helped break the Hollywood Blacklist. Did you know that? #RESPECT

My father was blacklisted. Not in Hollywood. That was a special and very public kind of hell,  targeting mostly rich, talented and privileged people. Lives and amazing careers were ruined. There were suicides.

Getting blacklisted for somebody like my Dad, a young NYC labor organizer and decorated Army vet, was quieter and its own kind of frightening. Your mail arrives open. Your family gets followed to school. Old army buddies “just happen to run into you” in a bar, and casually steer the conversation to whether you’ll turn in “your commie friends”. They don’t make movies about that.

But I found out this morning that a lot of my friends don’t know that Kirk Douglas helped kill the Hollywood Blacklist. Kind of a big deal. At near the top of his game, Kirk Douglas started a production company to control his own work. He found a talented young director for his first film. That was 29-year-old Stanley Kubrick and Paths of Glory. Next, Douglas wanted to make Spartacus with Kubrick, about the escaped slave who led revolt of oppressed people against the Roman Republic. He knew the movie would make his career; he wanted the best screenwriter in Hollywood.

That was Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, who had dissed HUAC and was forced to work underground producing scripts under other people’s names – including 2 that won Oscars –  earning a fraction of his worth. And, Hollywood being gloriously self-referential, they do make movies about that. And, lucky you, you can still see Trumbo in my favorite NJ art house, Montgomery Cinemas, and in Montclair and Egg Harbor. And why should you? Because Dalton Trumbo was a hell of a man, and this is an easily-digestable way to know more about him. [For full immersion, recommend the 1939, pre-blacklist anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gunin case you didn’t actually read it in middle school].And because, though the film has flaws, performances by (freakishly talented) Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and Helen Mirren as (that bitch) Hedda Hopper are amazing. And Dean O’Gorman has Kirk Douglas’ cleft chin down. 

And so, to Kirk Douglas. He’s old now, had a stroke. But he’s still here, 99-almost-100. And he’s an elder who had balls when other talented people did not. HUAC hearings in Washington. A culture of fear. And powerful studio heads, crass capitalists most of them, comfortable throwing actors and writers under the bus instead of fighting political repression. And there was gossip journalist Hedda Hopper, famous and powerful, who dedicated herself to ruining the lives of anybody as communist, gay, or somehow non-conforming. Into all that, rode Kirk Douglas on a horse Dalton Trumbo wrote for him. #RESPECT

Wikipedia says Spartacus – screenwriter Trumbo, star Douglas, from the novel by blacklisted Howard Fast  – parallels the 1950’s, HUAC and the civil rights movement. The hearings, where witnesses were demanded to “name names” so like the scene where the slaves are demanded to give up their leader by pointing fingers at him, and instead each stands up to proclaim, “I am Spartacus.”

And yeah, Kirk Douglas once lived in New Jersey; briefly, but we can claim him and I’m going to. His son, too. Michael Douglas was born here, at St. Peter’s Hospital in New Brunswick, and he’s related (via Kirk’s first wife) to Seward Johnson, the sculptor and Johnson & Johnson heir best known for work at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. So, go see Trumbo. Some of the dots I’ve just connected are a stretch, but go see Trumbo anyway.

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