A star of overwhelming physical presence, often a gratuitously physical one; an actor capable of quiet sardonicism, the Hollywood avatar born as Issur Danielovitch Demsky died at 103 today able to look back on his deathbed at an estimable career straddling both obligations. He wore a tuxedo well, and his cheeks were ghoulish enough to lend unintended malice opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Ann Sothern in A Letter to Three Wives (1950); between them he found his metier as the smiling dapper villain in Out of the Past. But he shed the coat and tie after 1949’s Champion, unveiling a commitment to using his body for every end rivaled only by close friend Burt Lancaster.
I’ll admit, his range was narrow, and when called upon to deliver speeches in character he hit notes that should’ve impressed Academy voters who nominated him three times for Best Actor (Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life ). Douglas’ apogee was the era of screenwriters writing homilies for leading men. Like Lancaster, though, he had an eye for talent, for example the young Stanley Kubrick, for whom he starred in Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). Set against Kubrick’s pitiless continuous take in the former, 1917 looks like Sarasota dinner theater, and the sequence depends on audience memories of Douglas’ self-righteousness minutes before. He’s more expendable in Spartacus — how could he not be opposite Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov? And he has sex with Jean Simmons in the fakest studio lot rendition of Mediterranean steppes (the trees look like the Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown Xmas episode). But posterity will record his Breaking the Blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo — then distancing himself. In Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life, his performance is as overwrought as the floral backdrops, but I accept Minnelli’s attempting an Ike-era version of Expressionism and the picture is more than fine (tonally it’s all of a piece).
The career peters out after the late sixties. He made marvelous appearances in Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). Sexual assault charges arose two years ago. In a final demonstration of venal physicality, he made a speech at the Oscars ceremony twenty-five years ago that impressed the hell out of a lot of people.