Let's put it this way, if you don't like Kirk Douglas, then you have a big problem.
Yes, Kirk freely admits in this movie that he was a womanizer.
And, yes, his two oldest children, Michael and Robert, do point out that he didn't spend nearly enough time with them when they were growing up -- Robert characterizing his fathert at times as a "bully" -- Michael saying that he knew when to "stay away."
But saying you're not charmed, mesmerized, taken in, enchanted, fascinated and awed by Kirk Douglas ... you might as well say you're indifferent to the sun or the stars or to some equally remarkable natural phenomenon.
If there's a better acting job than the one Kirk Douglas di in "Lust for Life," I haven't seen it; and I've seen lots and lots of movies. I'm a tough guy, see, and I would say that of all the films I've seen three maybe four of them made me cry. "Lust for Life" was one of them. ... Vincent would have been proud.
I also admire what Kirk Douglas did in giving screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the "Hollywood Ten," his onscreen props on "Spartacus," basically saying to the anticommunist witch hunters to "go ahead, make something of it."
Even though Spartacus came out toward the end of the witch hunting years, there were no doubt plenty of people in Hollywood who would have said, "Why bother? Why look for trouble?" So Kirk Douglas "giving Dalton Trumbo back his name," as Dalton Trumbo put it in a letter to Kirk, meant a great deal to a great many people, in and out of Hollywood. It's too bad there's not more of that nowadays in the entertainment industry.
It's wonderful in this documentary to see the rapport between Kirk and his eldest son Michael Douglas, as they reminisce over cake and coffee. Evidently, Kirk still feels bad that Michael, as producer of "One Flew Over thew Cookoo's Nest" back in 1976, didn't cast his father as R.P. MacMurphy, a role Kirk played on Broadway to rave reviews.
"But Jack Nicholson was 24 years younger than you, Dad," Michael reminded his father. To which Kirk, waiting a beat, replied: "Oh, was it that long?" And then they both broke into laughter.
Kirk also remembers how he bought and developed a property for a film Michael starred in as a very young actor, and how he feels Michael "gave up" on the picture in post-production. But, again, what's interesting to watch is the back-and-forth between father and son -- Kirk bringing up how he was "hurt" by something his son did, but then the easy way in which the two of them talk it out, defend their actions, and then laugh it off. What a wonderful sense of humor they both have! A sense of humor, I have no doubt, equalling a sense of humanity.
It reminds me of what psychologists and psychiatrists say about "couples" fighting, be they fights between husband and wife, parent and child -- the important thing is not so much to avoid arguments but, rather, to know *how* to argue -- and then to know how to resolve the argument, how not to hold a grudge or end the argument still mad.
I'm sure that all parties were well aware of the camera's presence and of the "images" they were presenting to the viewing public, but it's hard to imagine that the Douglas family is anything but a close, loving, extraordinary family.
One thing about the movie that I found especially interesting is how the movie handled Kirk's marital infidelities. After Kirk's womanizing was thorougly described, discussed and disssected in the documentary, here we have lovable old Kirk confessing that, "I guess I was a bad boy."
All involved -- his children, his former wives, his close friends -- all admit that Kirk was not the easiest man in the world to live with. His ambitiousness, his womanizing, his incredible intensity, this dynamo of an man was no doubt difficult to understand much less to tolerate on a daily basis -- but I kept thinking to myself: With whatever faults this man may have or did have, if I needed a friend whose loyalty I could count on, this is the guy I'd want in my corner.
How now, "in his last act," can anyone not love the guy? His disarming charm, his lust for life, his refusal to go quietly into that good night -- there's not likely to be another of his kind who'll pass this way again. His work and his life are extraordinary, nothing less than inspiring.
J.D. Salinger in his short story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," tells of people who experience life so intensely that it's as if they swim into a hole in the botom of the ocean, eat lots and lots of banana fish, and then too fat and too overblown (overawed by life), they can't get out of the hole and they die. Such people, Salinger tells us, as soon as they go into the hole looking for bananafish, are dooomed. ... But Kirk Douglas is the exactly the opposite! He seems to have "eaten everything," experienced all there is to experience; packed into his life more living, more loving, more lusting, more curiosity -- wanting to do everything, try everything, succeed at everything, grab everything, everything life has to offer -- and with an intensity and a desire that, had he not found a way to express that drive artisitically, would probably have consumed him.
There are any number of people who are like that, but what often does them in is that they don't have an especially healthy, "connective" family life. But Kirk Douglas seems to have had that, too. Indeed, after his stroke it's those family connections that no doubt have allowed him to to not only suvive but, as his son Michael points out, to have become a different, more giving, more loving husband, father and all-round human being.
All I can say is that when in "Lust for Life" Kirk Douglas hears Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn) coming up the stairs of his apartment -- and sees him! -- and rushes to embrace him, collapsing into his arms, collapsing in his arms with joy and delight that someone has come to be with him so that he won't be lonely. ... That's probably the most wonderful, most moving moment on film I've ever seen. Nobody -- nobosy else -- could have done that scene, that moment the way Kirk Douglas did it. What it told me was: when you're not sure whether to embrace life or not, when you're not sure whether to give your enthusiasm over to something, when you're not sure whether to make yourself open and vulnerable, do the right thing, seize the moment, live "in" whatever is around you. Embrace it, enjoy it, be intrigued by it, be intoxicated by it, involved yourself with it, enliven yourself with it, entangles yourself with it, enthuse yourself with it. Live *in* it!
In the documentary, Kirk maintains that acting "technique" is often overemphasized. Being a good, he feels, doesn't have to do with "method" or with huddling with yourself and digging deep into your innermost thoughts. Rather, being a good actor depends on "what the camera sees" -- does the camera like you? does it take you in? does it recognize your "presence" in a scene? And this, Kirk maintains, can't be taught. Acting therefore is more the person as a whole, on or off the screen. And this, I suppose, is what distinguishes Kirk Douglas, as an actor and as a human being; because whether it's in a movie or in life itself, you can't keep your eyes off the guy: he's a natural phenomenon, a force of nature, the personification of what Nietzche called "the will to live."
So that if art is life, if art is connecting with the life-force, then Kirk Douglas' life is what art is all about.
Finally, this being the first review here at Amazon of this *excellent* documentary by Lee Grant -- who, speaking of blacklists, was blacklisted in the 1950s -- I hope Kirk and Lee read these few thoughts and observations of mine and in doing so I hope they realize that, try as I might, I don't have the words to express how much I enjoyed the film and how much I think of their careers and, of course, of their courage.