Kirk Douglas is 71 years old. His 75 films have made him a major star on an international scale; his pioneering independent production company advanced the cause of non-studio film making and earned him millions of dollars; his son Michael did him proud by winning the Best Actor Oscar the old man never quite achieved. But is Kirk Douglas happy? Is he content? Is he willing to forgive and forget, to go gently into that sweet night. No, no, a thousand times, no.
What Kirk Douglas has done instead is write this uncompromisingly cranky and confrontational, yet surprisingly endearing and invigorating autobiography. No slight is too small for Mr. D to remember, no snub too inconsequential to be avenged. He’s still hurt, for instance, that a dog he shared a scene with in “Ulysses” snubbed him for 15 takes, and “to this day,” he writes, “I resent that Mr. D’Angelo never gave me a chance to be an owl” in his first year of classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He also remains angry at eternal glad-hander Ronald Reagan for upstaging him at a high school fair’s hot dog booth when it was he, Douglas, who “was professionally qualified to dispense hot dogs.” By the time he reveals that “Lonely Are the Brave” is the favorite of his films because “I love the theme that if you try to be an individual, society will crush you,” no reader, careful or otherwise, will be surprised.
As if personal antipathies weren’t enough, Douglas can’t hold himself back from delivering any number of ad hominem blasts at the world’s flaws. In no particular order, he levels advocates of prayer in the schools, gardeners who do not clean up after dogs, ex-Presidents who join exclusive clubs, Hollywood gossip columnists (“Vultures, they pounced on any kind of garbage”), the way Moses is treated in the Bible, and much more. And when he reads the obituary of Charles B. Wrightsman, the father of one of his mistresses and a man he despised, he takes fierce aim at The Man Upstairs: “Maybe he (Wrightsman) had some good qualities I knew nothing about. But two beautiful young girls and their mother commit suicide, directly or indirectly, and he lives to be ninety. What is God doing? How is God running the shop?”
All this unquenchable ire clearly made Douglas a difficult man to deal with in person, a reputation he more or less relished. When “Champion” came out in 1949 and made him a star and Hedda Hopper told him, “Now that you’ve got a big hit, you’ve become a real son of a bitch,” he shot back, “You’re wrong, Hedda. I was always a son of a bitch. You just never noticed before.”
Yet on paper, when it isn’t necessary to deal with Douglas face to face, it is precisely those exacerbating qualities that make “The Ragman’s Son” stand out when so many stars couldn’t be controversial on a bet. Not only is there honesty in his anger, there is a charmingly boyish ingeniousness, a wide-eyed disbelief in how the world works, that deftly complements all that fist-shaking fulmination.
Equally important, by dealing extensively, and movingly, with his truly Dickensian childhood, Douglas allows us to see clearly the reasons why he is the way he is. His father, Herschel Danielovitch, was the bulvan of Amsterdam, N.Y., the toughest Jew in a town that did not take kindly to his people, a man who once bested seven men in a brawl and stopped smoking by pulling a cigarette out of his pocket and saying, “Who stronger? You? Me?” The cigarette never had a chance.
Neither, for that matter, did his son, Issur, soon renamed Isadore or Izzy, the only male among seven Danielovitch children. With illiterate, poverty-stricken parents, young Issur not only had to contend with hunger, he had to come to terms with a father who was incapable of showing any kind of affection toward his son. “There was an awful lot of rage churning around inside me, rage that I was afraid to reveal because there was so much more of it, and so much stronger, in my father.” He retaliated by splitting his personality, hiding his sensitive side (which, in a series of interior dialogues that punctuate the book, he calls Issur) behind first the aggressive ragamuffin Izzy and then the actor Hedda Hopper loved to hate. When his father died, Douglas, by then a major star, surprised his family by keeping all the old man’s meager savings for himself: “They didn’t realize how much I needed something from Pa.”
As if Douglas needed a further goad to achievement and vindication, he found it in the anti-Semitism he encountered both as a child and later in his life, when his newly changed name and chiseled looks effectively masked his background to strangers. In one astonishing scene, he takes sexual revenge on the anti-Semitic owner of a hotel that employed him as a bellboy by seducing her and loudly whispering his origins in her ear as he reached orgasm. And when he found out while shooting on Paris’ Pont Alexandre Trois that it was named after “a world-class anti-Semite, right up there with Hitler,” he spit on the bridge. No more Mr. Nice Guy, indeed.
With drive like this, it is no wonder Douglas, though he dreamed of being a great stage actor, ended up in Hollywood. His movie stories, which take up the second half of the book, are inevitably not as gripping as his early life, but the sections on his more controversial films, like “Paths of Glory,” which was not shown in France until nearly 20 years after it was made, and “Spartacus,” where he effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist by putting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name on the screen, are all the more gripping for being partially forgotten.
Success never calmed Douglas. It only made him, like some figure out of mythology, angrier, more insistent on the importance of non-monetary criteria for excellence. “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” which his company produced, made more loot than any film he ever acted in, but “I would gladly give back every cent, if I could have played that role.” He had Richard Crenna’s part in the first “Rambo” but walked off the set because he felt Rambo should die at the end: “If they had listened to me, there would have been no sequel. They would have lost a billion dollars, but it would have been right. " The fires in Kirk Douglas’ belly may be growing older, but there are no signs of their cooling down just quite yet.