Saturday, October 4, 2014

Leading Men 2: Further Thoughts on Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957.

Kirk and Burt in Tough Guys, their final film together, 1986.

Kirk Douglas consoles Robert Mitchum about the missing end of his tie in 1947's Out Of the Past.

Three big stars, one lousy movie. Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark in The Way West, 1967.

Robert Mitchum sings to Loretta Young as William Holden sulks in the background. Rachel and the Stranger, 1948. Having Robert Mitchum play a charming stranger must have seemed like typecasting even then.

Robert Mitchum shows off his physique as Gregory Peck looks unimpressed in 1962's Cape Fear.
Earlier this year, I wrote an essay about five of my favorite actors from the 1940’s and 1950’s, Kirk Douglas, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Gregory Peck. As I said in my previous essay, I’ve always grouped these five actors together, as they were all of the same generation and were some of the most successful actors of that generation. In this sequel to that essay, I’ll discuss the movies those five actors made with each other. 

Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster are the two actors of the five who are most closely linked, as they starred in five movies together, I Walk Alone, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Devil’s Disciple, Seven Days in May, and Tough Guys. They also both appeared in Victory at Entebbe, a made for TV movie in which they don’t have any scenes together, and they also both had cameo parts in The List of Adrian Messenger, but didn’t appear together. Douglas and Lancaster had lots of chemistry together on screen, and they obviously enjoyed working together. I’ve previously reviewed The Devil’s Disciple, Seven Days in May, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on this blog. I would recommend Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Seven Days in May as their best films together. If you want to see Burt and Kirk as buddies, watch Gunfight. If you want to see them as rivals, watch Seven Days in May. I Walk Alone isn’t a very successful movie. It’s a film noir that captures both actors very early on in their careers. Lancaster plays an ex-con, who is suspicious of everyone, including his former partner in crime Douglas. Lancaster overreacts to everything that happens. If Douglas offers him a cup of coffee, Lancaster’s character is liable to jump up and say, “What’s the big idea? You think I like coffee? I don’t!” It gets annoying to watch. Douglas is excellent as a slimy gangster/nightclub owner. Tough Guys was written especially for Kirk and Burt, and the script is a knowing parody of their screen personas. It’s a little bit silly, as it was made in 1986, and it tries a little too hard to show that these old guys are still tough. But it’s nice that they got to make one final picture with each other as a capstone to their careers together. 

While Douglas and Lancaster may not have been best friends in real life, they had a respect for each other that lasted even longer than the nearly 40 years in between their first movie and their last. Douglas said of his relationship with Lancaster, “Some people think we’re the closest buddies. We’re not, though I think we have a wonderful friendship. Sometimes I don’t see Burt for a year or two, but he’s there if I need him and I’m here if he needs me. We have a respect for each other that we don’t voice.” (Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, by Gary Fishgall, p.368) At a tribute to Douglas in 1987, Lancaster teased his friend, saying, “Kirk would be the first person to tell you he’s a difficult man. And I would be the second.” (The Ragman’s Son, by Kirk Douglas, p.247) 

Both Douglas and Lancaster came from backgrounds of extreme poverty, Lancaster growing up in East Harlem, and Douglas in upstate New York. They both made their film debuts in 1946, and became some of the first actors to start their own independent film production companies. Both men had a reputation for voicing their strong opinions on film sets, and I have no doubt that there were some heated discussions on the five film sets they shared.

Tony Curtis acted in highly successful films opposite both men, as he made The Vikings and Spartacus with Kirk Douglas, and Trapeze and Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster. Curtis had this to say about the difference in their personalities: “On the floor, in the work, Kirk was a killer, much more than Burt. He would take no prisoners. If it {the camera shot} was over Kirk’s shoulder on me, by the time the shot was over, it was over my shoulder on Kirk.” (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, p.165) 

Kirk Douglas made two movies twenty years apart with Robert Mitchum. Their first movie together was the excellent film noir Out of the Past, from 1947. In his autobiography, Douglas wrote about Mitchum, “I don’t remember much about him, except that his stories about being a hobo kept changing every time he told them.” (Douglas, p.123) Both young actors were eager to upstage the other. During one scene, Douglas flipped a coin as he talked. Mitchum’s eyes focused on the coin, just as the audience would. Douglas then had to find some other way to steal attention from Mitchum. Both Mitchum and Douglas gave great performances in Out Of the Past. Their second movie together, The Way West, from 1967, was a turgid story about the Oregon Trail. It was adapted from a novel by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., which had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1950. On the screen, it’s a dull attempt at an epic, despite also starring another big male star from the post-war era, Richard Widmark. The movie also features Sally Field in one of her first roles. The Way West draws on the differences in screen personas between the sleepy and relaxed Mitchum and the tense and electric Douglas. Mitchum appears to literally sleepwalk through his part, while Douglas chews all the scenery he can. 

Robert Mitchum starred in movies with Douglas, Peck, and Holden. Mitchum’s one movie with William Holden, Rachel and the Stranger, was a Western made in 1948, as Mitchum was enjoying his first flush of fame and Holden was trying to recapture the forward momentum of his career. 1948 was also the year that Mitchum was busted for marijuana possession, and eventually he served a little more than a month in jail. The unperturbed Mitchum quipped that jail was “Like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff.” Mitchum had the better part in Rachel and the Stranger, as he plays a friend of Holden’s who stays with him and his wife, played by Loretta Young. Mitchum gets to be mysterious and flirty, two things he did very well, while Holden gets to be boring and upstanding. Loretta Young thought that Holden was nervous at competing with Mitchum, and he probably was. At the time, Mitchum’s career was doing very well, while Holden’s was in the same holding pattern he had been stuck in for years. It no doubt irked Holden to be working with a more successful young male actor. But the funniest story from the making of Rachel and the Stranger is about Loretta Young’s on-set habits. Young was a notorious prude, very religious and very upstanding, even though she had secretly had an out of wedlock daughter with Clark Gable in the 1930’s. (Young’s cover story was that she had “adopted” the girl.) Young had a “swear jar” on the set of all of her movies. Every time someone on the crew swore, they would put in a nickel for “hell,” a dime for “damn,” and so on. This drove Robert Mitchum nuts, and one day, feeling extremely frustrated, he put a large bill in the jar and let forth with a torrent of profanity. I can only imagine the look on Loretta Young’s face. 

Mitchum’s film with Gregory Peck, Cape Fear, from 1962, offered Mitchum a fantastic part as the criminal who blames lawyer Peck for his going to jail. When Mitchum gets out of jail, he systematically taunts and harasses Peck’s family. It’s one of Mitchum’s best roles, and he oozes menace. Mitchum’s sexy but intimidating physical presence was used very well. Peck is also superb in his role, as he finds himself having to stoop to Mitchum’s level to stop the threat to his family. Peck and Mitchum got along well during filming, even though during the climactic fight scene Peck accidentally hit Mitchum in the jaw. Mitchum said he was sore for three days afterwards. Peck and Mitchum also appeared in cameo roles in Martin Scorsese’s vastly inferior 1991 remake of Cape Fear, which replaces the unseen malevolence of the original with over the top ultraviolence. 

Unfortunately, Burt Lancaster and William Holden never worked together in a movie. I think it would have been great fun to see these two superbly athletic actors in the same film. But they did think highly of each other. They were both nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in 1953, Lancaster for From Here to Eternity, and Holden for Stalag 17. Holden won the Oscar. Holden said to journalist Bob Thomas, “I really thought Burt would win…I honestly believed that Burt did the best acting of the year, and I told him so when I saw him.” (Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden, by Bob Thomas, p.94) Lancaster sent Holden a telegram after Holden won that read: “Never had a doubt about the outcome for a moment.” (Fishgall, p.125)

Deborah Kerr starred in films with all five actors. I don’t know if she’s the only actor or actress to appear with all five, but she’s certainly the most famous. She must have gotten along well with some of them, as she worked with Lancaster three times, and starred opposite Mitchum four times.

Here’s my “best of” list for these five actors:

Aged the best: Gregory Peck. His hair turned gray, but that's about the only way he aged.

Aged the worst: Robert Mitchum. Mitchum actually aged really well until about 60 or 65, but then all of a sudden he just looked super old.

Best album: Robert Mitchum, “Calypso Is Like So,” 1957. It’s just as amazing as you would think a Robert Mitchum calypso album would be.  

Runner-up: “William Holden Presents a Musical Touch of Far Away Places,” 1959. Holden doesn’t sing or play any instruments; he just “presented” the music and wrote the liner notes.

Best single: Robert Mitchum, “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” 1958. Mitchum starred in, produced, and co-wrote the screenplay for the classic 1958 movie Thunder Road. He also co-wrote the theme song for it, which he sings in his wonderful deep voice.

Most intense: Kirk Douglas

Most laid-back: Robert Mitchum

Best hair: Burt Lancaster, in The Crimson Pirate.

Best chin: Kirk Douglas. I’ve read somewhere that early in his career a studio wanted Douglas to have his signature dimpled chin filled in. It’s probably the same studio who complained about Gregory Peck’s ears being different sizes. 

Most literate: Kirk Douglas, who has written several autobiographies and novels. He’s the only one of the 5 actors to write a book.

Most underappreciated: Robert Mitchum, with a total of 0 Best Actor Oscar nominations. (He was nominated once for Best Supporting Actor for The Story of G.I. Joe in 1945.)

Most traveled: William Holden, who supposedly accepted some movies just to travel to new countries. That’s really the only reasonable explanation for him making The World of Suzie Wong. Entranced by Africa, Holden started a wildlife preserve in Kenya.

Least Picky: Robert Mitchum, whose IMDB filmography lists 135 credits. Even not counting his bit appearances early in his career, he made the most movies by far.

Most Picky: Gregory Peck, who has “only” 58 credits on IMDB. In looking at Peck’s filmography I was really surprised at how few movies he made after 1970. For the record, Holden has 77 credits, Lancaster 89, and Douglas has 92.

Favorite Kirk Douglas performance: As Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life.

Favorite William Holden performance: Tie between Sunset Boulevard and Picnic.

Favorite Burt Lancaster performance: Elmer Gantry.

Favorite Robert Mitchum performance: As the charming/creepy preacher in The Night of the Hunter.

Favorite Gregory Peck performance: It’s obvious, but he was perfect in To Kill a Mockingbird.

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