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Artillery Row

Kirk Douglas and cancel culture

Do we believe all stories as true, or presume innocence until proven guilty?

So, the legendary actor and producer Kirk Douglas has finally died, at the staggering age of 103. For many admirers of his films, he seemed as American and timeless as Mount Rushmore, despite, or perhaps because of, his humble origins, born to penniless Russian-Jewish immigrants in Amsterdam, New York in 1916 as Issur Danielovitch Demsky. For context, the Battle of the Somme took place the year he was born, and he was nearly 11 when the first ‘talkie’ film, The Jazz Singer, was released. He began his film career in 1946 with an appearance in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, with Barbara Stanwyck, and continued to act well into his eighties, with his final film appearance coming in 2004 in The Illusion, in which he played a dying film director. 

His heyday was, of course, in the Fifties and Sixties, and he has long been synonymous with the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood. The best roles that he played divided roughly into two categories. In the first were the unimpeachable men of honour, battling against dastardly forces of oppression. These included his Colonel Dax in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a heroic physics professor in the wartime adventure The Heroes of Telemark and, of course, his signature role of Spartacus in Kubrick’s eponymous epic. In the second were more morally dubious figures such as the unscrupulous journalist Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Machiavellian film producer Jonathan Shields – a combination of David O Selznick and Orson Welles – in The Bad and the Beautiful. And, occasionally, he mixed the two categories up, as in his wonderfully lunatic appearance in The Vikings as Einar, the one-eyed Viking king. Douglas, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a villainous role with full hammy bravo, also ensured, in his capacity as the film’s producer, that his character quite overshadowed Tony Curtis’s nominal hero. 

Douglas’s achievements as an actor have also been complemented by his role in the breaking of the Hollywood blacklist. He hired Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus, at a time when the Oscar-winning Trumbo’s Communist sympathies had ensured that he was unable to work under his own name in the film industry. He had even served time in prison for refusing to name names to the McCarthy enquiry. Douglas insisted that Trumbo was credited as the film’s writer, and invited the then-president elect Kennedy to the premiere, ensuring that the blacklist crumbled thereafter. 

His apparently heroic motivations have been questioned by various people involved in the film’s production. It has been suggested that he wished to frustrate Kubrick from taking screenwriting credit, and that Douglas acted when he realised that Trumbo would be credited for his script for Otto Preminger’s forthcoming film Exodus, acting opportunistically rather than idealistically. Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that Spartacus remains a splendidly stirring epic with an IQ, perhaps the greatest of all big-screen historical adventures save Lawrence of Arabia, and a rousing tribute to solidarity in the face of adversity.   

Unfortunately, in the wake of Douglas’s death, a different kind of solidarity has emerged. A rumour had circulated for years that Douglas had raped a teenage Natalie Wood in the 50s, at the beginning of her career, at the Chateau Marmont. Allegedly, Douglas had invited the fifteen-year old Wood to his room, assaulted her for hours, and then threw her out, curtly informing her that ‘if you tell anyone, it will be the last thing you do.’ The story has never been substantiated, but with Douglas’s death, it was reported as fact. Social media was quickly ablaze with tributes to Wood, and Douglas was pilloried as a paedophile, a rapist and a degenerate; as one film critic put it, ‘he was most probably a sexual predator who went unpunished and unchallenged for half a century’.

Hitchcock’s career would understandably have ended for his predatory behaviour towards female leads, but it would also have meant we would not have Vertigo, Psycho or Rear Window

It is impossible to know, with both Wood and Douglas now dead, whether he really assaulted her, or if the story was simply a tawdry anecdote that had been attached to various other actors over the years. Certainly, it would be foolish to regard Douglas as a saintly figure. By his own admission, he was ‘probably the most disliked actor in Hollywood’, something that he ascribed to aggression and rage at his difficult childhood, and his co-star Burt Lancaster wryly remarked ‘Kirk would be the first to tell you that he is a very difficult man. And I would be the second.’ He was, by his own confession, a serial adulterer, and his dominant influence on the films he made often ensured that he was a difficult man to work with. He famously fired the original director of Spartacus, Anthony Mann, at the end of the first week of filming, and then attempted to keep his Paths of Glory director Kubrick on a tight leash, although the memorable final film suggests that this collaboration, at least, was a worthwhile one. 

It is even possible to be dismissive of Douglas’s public philanthropy (he donated tens of millions of dollars to medical facilities and schools throughout California) and his stint as a goodwill ambassador for the US Information Agency as being little more than pieces of moral window dressing, designed to assuage his troubled conscience. After all, those who claim he assaulted Wood would argue that she was unlikely to have been his only victim, and that a wealthy, influential and powerful man like him was able to do what he liked, with the complicity of both the studio system and the newspaper columnists. If Douglas was guilty of heinous crimes, we should not be mourning his death, but mourning the lack of justice that he faced during his lifetime. 

Of course, scandal and Hollywood have always been inextricably intertwined. From the Fatty Arbuckle saga, in which the comic actor Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was acquitted of rape but in such a fashion that it destroyed his career, to the contemporary horrors sparked by the #MeToo movement, the combination of greed, sex and violence has always been a toxic one. Certainly, there has been a sense that certain figures have got away with it. It now seems extraordinary that Roman Polanski could assault a 13 year old girl in 1977, flee the United States rather than go to prison, and continue a high-profile career working with many of the industry’s leading actors. Yet matters have now been belatedly addressed. Polanski has been expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which awarded him the Best Director Oscar in 2003, to a standing ovation from those present) and his current film An Officer and a Spy has not been released in Britain or America, as outrage as to his lack of punishment or apparent contrition continues. Ironically, the picture deals with the Dreyfus affair, and the persecution of a Jewish army officer. Polanski might be forgiven for finding any parallels between his own situation and the film bleakly amusing. 

On and on it goes. Harvey Weinstein, once the doyen of middlebrow literary adaptations, is on trial for several counts of rape and predatory sexual assault. The director Bryan Singer, whose last film Bohemian Rhapsody won several Oscars, will struggle to work again after allegations of sexual assault against young boys. His frequent collaborator Kevin Spacey is in a similar position, being reduced to appearing, in character as his House of Cards President Underwood, in rather strange videos that he has released on YouTube in which he bemoans his inability to work while apparently taking delight in the deaths of those who have accused him of assault. Bizarrely, no fewer than three of Spacey’s accusers died in 2019, meaning that, for the moment, no outstanding criminal charges exist against him. Yet, unless he is happy to appear in low-budget films for nominal fees, he will not be able to pursue his career. When his former collaborator Sam Mendes seems on the verge of collecting a second Best Director Oscar for 1917, one could forgive Spacey – an innocent man, by the legal definition of the term – for feeling aggrieved at being the apparent target of a witchhunt. 

The furore shows that decades-old stories can still incite outrage as if they had taken place yesterday

It is entirely possible, of course, that Spacey, Singer, Polanski, Woody Allen and many others – including Douglas – are sexual predators who richly deserve punishment, and that the #MeToo movement has alerted us to malefaction on a grand scale that would otherwise have been concealed. Yet those without the strong personal investment that so many social media crusaders apparently feel could be forgiven for feeling a sense of unease at the rush to judgement and the apparently black-and-white nature of the accusations. Many great figures in the history of cinema – Alfred Hitchcock being the most notable example – could be charitably described as deeply strange and complex individuals, whose neuroses made their films fascinating even as it ensured that they were difficult, even threatening collaborators. If he had been working today, Hitchcock would undoubtedly have had his career ended for his predatory and controlling behaviour towards his female leads, which is understandable, but it would also have meant that we would not have Vertigo, Psycho or Rear Window.

It is impossible to know how this movement will develop. The central incompatibility between having to believe all stories of rape or sexual assault as incontrovertibly true, and the legal necessity of believing innocence before guilt is proven, shows no sign of being resolved, and the furore over Douglas’s involvement with Natalie Wood shows that decades-old stories can still incite anger and outrage, as if they had taken place yesterday. It is tempting to believe that, if there is an afterlife, Douglas now finds himself in it surrounded by the shades of former co-stars and colleagues, and that they are greeting him with a chorus of ‘I’m cancelled!’ ‘No, I’m cancelled!’ Whether this is deserved, or a regrettable overreaction, is a question that could well involve us all for another century, and one can only wonder who else will face similar accusations, during or after their lifetimes. 

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