I’ll never forget an extended interview I did with Kirk Douglas in Laredo, Texas, between takes of Eddie Macon’s Run (’82). I was doing a set-visit piece for the N.Y. Post, and since Run wasn’t much more than a servicable B-level programmer we mostly talked about his career hallmarks, and to my enormous satisfaction Douglas realized early on that I knew a lot about each of his good films, chapter and verse. All those years and years of watching Douglas’s older films, and now all that TV time was paying off like a slot machine.
I told him I half-loved the foyer freakout scene with Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful. And much of The Devil’s Disciple. And almost all of Champion. And every frame of Paths of Glory and The Big Sky and Lonely Are The Brave. And then I made an attempt at quoting his “eight spindly trees in Rockefeller Center” speech from Ace in the Hole. Douglas was drinking a bourbon (or something fairly stiff), and I remember his leaning forward at this point and saying, “You’ve really done your homework.”
Douglas was on Real Time with Bill Maher Friday night to promote his new book, “I Am Spartacus.” I haven’t read it, but it’s partly a rhetorical reminder about one of Douglas’s proudest moments — his giving blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo full screen credit on Spartacus (’60), and thereby breaking the Hollywood blacklist. (Otto Preminger did Trumbo the same courtesy on Exodus, but we’ll let that slide.)
If I was Douglas I would take the opportunity during his book tour to publicly scold Universal Home Video for issuing that shiny Spartacus Bluray. Restoration guru Robert Harris, who restored Spartacus with Jim Katz in ’91, has called for a new digital harvest that would more closely represent the film as it appeared in its early 70mm Technirama engagements.
Yes, I’ve written that I’m half-cool with the shiny version, but then I’m a bit of a peon in this respect — I’ve admitted this over and over. I respect and support grainy-ish or mildly grainy Blurays, but I hate it when the Iraqi grainstorm effect takes over. I don’t “respect” shiny Blurays, and yet my inner primitive slow-witted goon responds excitedly when I watch one. Put me in jail but I adore the sharpness. I really love seeing the tiny little creases in Douglas’s face in those Spartacus closeups. I’m truly sorry, but the shiny Spartacus Bluray looks 10 times better than Criterion’s DVD version.
One of my favorite passages from Trumbo’s Spartacus script:
Gracchus (i.e., Charles Laughton): I’ve arranged for Spartacus to escape from ltaly.
Ceasar (i.e., John Gavin): You’ve done what?
Gracchus: I’ve made a little deal with the Silician pirates. I’ve assured them that we won’t interfere if they transport Spartacus and his slaves out of ltaly.
Ceasar: So now we deal with pirates? We bargain with criminals!
Ceasar: And don’t you be so stiff-necked about it. Politics is a practical profession. If a criminal has what you want, you do business with him.