Tag Archives: Kirk Douglas

A thought on Burt Lancaster ageing

 

Reflecting this morning that one of the interesting things about watching Burt Lancaster film in chronological order is that you see him age before your eyes, in an accelerated fashion, day by day. And one mourns and admires in equal measure. One mourns the loss of beauty –that little aquiline tilt of the nose that in some angles transformed him from handsome to beautiful, snipped by the surgeon sometime in the early sixties. Seeing his face day after day one notices the oncoming liver spots, the increasing scars, the hair thinning, dyed, then left white, the heroic attempts to stay fit even as the body expands before finally sagging like everyone else’s. One also notices, the increase in skill, the risks, the intelligence of the choices, the struggle to stay relevant, to comment on current conditions, sometimes with worse directors in central roles, with better ones in key small roles, in material that is risky and pertinent, and being in such works becomes more important than the role offered. He dies young and heroically early on and then in the later films the death scenes take on another meaning, hit closer to home, offer moments of a different type of reflection. His audience, for he did have one, huge early on, smaller later, must have reflected on his ageing in relation to their own. It’s one of the functions of stardom. Like with great beauties, or action stars, stars for whom the physique was central to their value as commodities and in relation to meaning, the gradual loss of what others valued, what constituted their value, and the attempt to alchemise it into another type of value, to offer something else, seems moving and heroic.

José Arroyo

Tough Guys (Jeff Kanew, USA, 1986)

Tough Guys

Forty years after his debut in The Killers ( Robert Siodmak, 1946), Burt Lancaster toplines a major studio film (Disney´s Touchstone Pictures),  capping a legendary partnership with Kirk Douglas. They starred together in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947), Gunfight at the Ok Corral (John Sturges, 1957), The Devil´s Disciple (Guy Hamilton, 1959), Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964), did cameos for John Huston in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and appeared together in the Victory at Entebbe (Marvin Chomsky, 1976) ‘event’ TV Movie. This was their seventh time together and, as you can see in the charming clip below, they were widely perceived as a team by the public, appearing several times together at the Oscars and in this particular clip below bringing down the house with their banter and performance:

 

 

I saw Tough Guys when it came out and found it pleasant but not very good. This time around I enjoyed it even more. I now know their personas better, can flesh out all the echoes of and rhymes with the different epochs of their careers, get the joke when the film makes references to their previous films such as  Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on. But, if anything, I found the film even worse than the first time around.

Tough Guys is a very typical and typically overblown comic action movie of the 80s, with the gym sequence then so prevalent, the throwaway humour, the car chases, the things being blown up behind the protagonists as they throw themselves towards the camera, the action sequences tied together by a song  to add up to a video clip the producers hoped would get heavy rotation on MTV and help market the movie, the ugly synth score and the stuffing of the movie with songs so as as to have an extra revenue and promotion resource from the soundtrack (see the pre-packed ‘MTV montage’ below).

 

All of the above made me realise that stars not only develop and change over time, that meanings accrue and change, that they´re different for each generation of filmgoers and across social formations, but also that stardom inhabits forms. As argued and characterised above, Tough Guys is High Concept 80s cinema, it´s ‘Burt and Kirk as tough guys, but they´ve been in jail for 30 years so they and the audience can hark back to their film noir days in the late forties, and the comedy will come from age and cultural dislocation´. I could have cut the tagline to one sentence had I wanted to.

The plot revolves around Harry Doyle (Burt Lancaster) and Archie Long (Kirk Douglas). The film begins as they come out of prison after 30 years for a failed train robbery, the last attempt at one in America, with their late forties/ early 50s hats, sharp suits, and two-toned shoes (see montage of images above). The guard taunts them by saying they’ll be back within the week. Their parole officer, Richie Evans (Dana Carvey), a fan, quickly explains the set-up, sends Archie to a welfare motel and Harry, whose older, to an old folks home. Everything in this new world is strange to them and they can’t abide by the rules, which seem to infantilise and dismiss the old as asexual, brainless and without agency. Moreover, they have two people on their tail, a hit man who’d been hired to kill them 30 years before and has been waiting ever since (Eli Wallach) and the cop responsible for sending them to prison in the first place, who believes they’ll never reform and is merely waiting for them to set up the next hit (Charles Durning).

To pursue this idea of stardom inhabiting forms, just think of how the very first scenes immediately recall the 4:3 underworld of shadows and crime that is Lancaster’s first star persona, the guy from The Killers, Brute Force, Criss Cross, Kiss the Blood of My Hands, and with Kirk, also in a narrative about an ex-con let loose in a world he doesn’t recognise, I Walk Alone. 

Then think too about the ´Muscles and Teeth’ roles in The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, still in 4.3 but now in vibrant technicolour. One can also chart Burt Lancaster’s development as a star in Westerns, the move from the 4:3, black and white of Vengeance Valley in ’51, through the Technicolour SuperScope of Vera Cruz, right up to the Cinerama of The Hallellujah Trail, and then, as his stardom diminished, back to the then standard widescreen of Valdez is Coming or Ulzana’s Raid.

Think too of how the seriousness Burt Lancaster signified is so often associated with John Frankenheimer’s wide-screen black and white aesthetic, the experimentation with compositions and angles, as well as with the seriousness of theme. Or how seeing Lancaster pictured in Richard Aldrich’s  fractured, suspenseful and imaginative split screen in Twilight’s Last Gleaming also communicates aspects of Lancaster’s persona in the late 70s, purposeful, serious, committed, an old pro trying to be newly dynamic and ‘with it’.

In Tough Guys, Burt and Kirk are newly burnished for High Concept stardom but see above how the big spectacular finale, harks back to Westerns, but now with helicopters on the chases instead of Indians.

 

burt-and-kirk

Even from behind and past 70, Burt walks gracefully. Kirk is the other one. Kirk’s always doing bits of business, Burt is relatively minimalist, paired down: that’s why their chemistry is so good, perfect counterpoint. And that is and was evident to even those who´d never seen them in anything else together. The film is a very pleasurable, if not good, send-off to a legendary team.

 

 

Jose Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Kirk Douglas models 80s fashions in Tough Guys

In 1986 Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas headlined a reunion in one of those big studio bombastic action vehicles of the period, with gags and fights and chase sequences and musical montages designed for MTV rotation like this one. Kirk Douglas modelling someone’s idea of 80s fashions is a sight to see. It’s exaggerated of course, and it’s there as a comic interlude to show generational dislocation…but one does remember seeing some of those outfits on MTV.

 

A note on The Devil’s Disciple (Guy Hamilton, 1959)

Seeing The Devil´s Disciple and thinking that in the space of a decade or so Burt Lancaster essayed Shaw, Inge, Williams, Rattigan, Miller, Odets: All the major dramatists of his day. I can´t think of another major star who did that (and yes I know Brando did Shakespeare and Williams). On another note, Kirk Douglas is so much better in the film than Laurence Olivier, who acts 25 expressions for every word, and every word is given a different intonation.

Olivier ‘acts’:

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Burt plays a saintly minister until he can’t take British oppression any more and is forced to take care of the action:

 

burt-long

José Arroyo

An observation on the blondness of Sturges’ West in Gunfight at the OK Corral

My Burt Lancaster film of last night was Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957), a landmark hit of the fifties, with one of those ballads sung throughout (by Frankie Laine), that help pace and narrate and that Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965) would parody to great effect a decade later. What struck me most was not just the whiteness of Sturges’ West– there isn’t a black person, Indian or Mexican in the whole movie — but its blondness. Everyone seems fair haired or blu-eyed or both: not just Kirk and Burt and Joan Van Fleet, but the supporting cast as well: Earl Holliman, John Ireland, Martin Milner, DeForest Kelly, Lee Van Cleef. Rhonda Fleming’s red hair is about the only bit of diversity. Dennis Hopper as the youngest Clanton brother, fresh from his appearance in Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), lit very beautiful to underline the tragedy of his death to come, still to shed his baby fat, and half the size of Burt, is what led to this thought.

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The film pays subtle hommage to John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946):

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It’s worth comparing what this film might signify in contrast to Burt and Kirk’s first pairing as two Depression gangsters caught up in a postwar world of passion, crime and shadows a decade earlier in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947).

It’s also worth contrasting to the presence of native peoples, Mexicans and blacks –the latter often in tiny or non-speaking roles but as soldiers or figures of authority — in the Robert Aldrich/ Burt Lancaster westerns such as Apache and Vera Cruz, both released in 1954.

 

 

The film was a worldwide success that left an imprint on several generations and was easily parodied. As you can see here in the Goodies episode of Bunfight at the OK Tea Rooms that  Nicky Smith directed me to:

 

 

And Richard Layne has also pointed out to me that there’s also the Doctor Who version, complete with a song:

 

 

 

I’m on base, you’re doing the pitching

Burt get propositioned again, this time in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947). Night-club singer Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott), Dink Turner’s (Kirk Douglas) main squeeze, has been ordered to be sweet to Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster. But Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller), the woman Dink plans to marry, catches Frankie from the corner of her eye and makes a move: ‘I’m on base,’ he tells her ‘you’re doing the pitching’.

José Arroyo

Coding Lesbianism in Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1950)

I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956),  she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).

The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.

Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .

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We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.

Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.

When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):

But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy.  We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.

Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.

Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.

‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:

At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:

 

When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.

Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall,  it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.

José Arroyo