Friday December 10, 1999
Kirk Douglas is still the champ. Nearly four years ago, he was knocked to the mat with a stroke but immediately picked himself up, began rehabilitation, resumed his successful second career as a writer and a busy public life. Now he's back where he belongs, on the big screen, his name above the title, in "Diamonds," a heart-tugging comedy-adventure that's in the spirit of the holiday season.
Douglas plays Harry Agensky, who half a century earlier was known as the "Polish Prince," the welterweight boxing champion of the world. Since Douglas played a boxer in the 1949 "Champion," the film that consolidated his stardom, "Diamonds" opens with a montage of clips from that film showing Douglas in the ring, dissolving to the present, which finds his Harry peering into a mirror, perhaps remembering his younger self but good-naturedly concentrating on the business at hand, which is running through his facial and vocal exercises to improve his speech, slurred from a stroke suffered five years earlier, not long after the death of his beloved wife of 45 years.
Her death hit Harry harder than the stroke, but while understandably overcome by grief at her loss from time to time, Harry is a feisty, hearty guy with a wild, independent streak and is an irrepressible, fearless showoff. Still, he is 83 and has been living with his dutiful son (Kurt Fuller) and daughter-in-law in their home by a lake in the Canadian wilderness--and driving them crazy. Harry himself would rather live elsewhere, with a live-in companion. The hitch is the expense, but Harry's got the answer for that: Head for Reno and retrieve a cache of diamonds a mobster named Duff the Muff promised him for throwing a long-ago fight.
Harry's other son, Lance (Dan Aykroyd), a divorced San Jose Mercury-News sports writer, thinks it's a pipe dream but is willing to go along for the ride in an attempt to improve relations with the father he had little in common with and who seemed to have so little time for him when he was a boy. Also coming along on the trip is Lance's own son, Michael (Corbin Allred), who promptly tells him his soon-to-be stepfather is "twice the man" his father is. You have to feel for Lance, clearly a decent guy but perceived as a hopeless square by both his father and his son--Harry and Michael have a warm rapport.
Directed affectionately by John Asher and written by Allan Aaron Katz, "Diamonds" mixes humor, shameless sentimentality, the fanciful and the contrived with no small amount of bravery, wisdom and underlying seriousness. The result is a sturdy, though occasionally rambling, vehicle for Douglas, who seems to be having a helluva good time, surrounded by a sterling cast with the perfect leading lady, Lauren Bacall. Bacall last teamed with Douglas in 1950's "Young Man With a Horn," inspired by the life of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.
Shrewdly, Katz suggests implicitly that Lance's biggest problem with both his father and his son is that he hasn't spent enough time with either to get to know them properly. By the time they arrive in Reno, they're in pretty good spirits collectively but not really interested in gambling. Therefore, they suddenly find themselves with that other item that's usually on the minds of any three men out on the town, especially in a resort city: sex.
The way in which the film handles this generation-spanning topic is amusing and, best of all, brings Bacall into the picture as the madam of the fanciest, frilliest bordello in the state of Nevada, if not all of the U.S. Bacall's Sin-Dee, thankfully, eschews the frills and furbelows of her Victorian maison de joie's decor in favor of dark, smart pantsuits that Bacall might wear in real life. Sin-Dee has seen it all, natch, and she and Harry have a real rapport: Both were born dirt poor but ambitious, both used their bodies to get ahead in life, and neither has regrets nor apologies. The unexpected pleasure of seeing Douglas on the screen again is doubled when he's playing opposite Bacall, a star as enduring as himself. Sin-Dee's key ladies are played with humor by Jenny McCarthy and Mariah O'Brien.
Harry, as Douglas has himself, treats his slurred speech with humor, but just by appearing before the cameras once more, the vigorous Douglas becomes an inspiration, striking a blow against that real crippler, ageism, and showing the remarkable degree to which it is possible to overcome the ravages of a stroke. Douglas is at all times perfectly intelligible and in some passages his slurring seems to vanish entirely.
You can't come away from "Diamonds" without being aware that Douglas, while among the first wave of post-World War II stars that included Burt Lancaster, is virtually the last remaining actor to become a major star before TV came along to rob screen stars of that magical larger-than-life quality that Douglas has never lost.
Diamonds, 1999. PG-13, for sexual content, drug use and language. A Miramax Films, Total Film Group and Cinerenta presentation. Director John Asher. Producer Patricia T. Green. Executive producer Gerald Green. Screenplay by Aaron Allan Katz. Cinematographer Paul Elliott. Editor C. Timothy O'Meara. Music Joel Goldsmith. Costumes Vicki Sanchez. Production designer Vance Lorenzini. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Kirk Douglas as Harry Agensky. Dan Aykroyd as Lance Agensky. Corbin Allred as Michael Agensky. Sin-Dee as Lauren Bacall.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times