Kirk Douglas on the blacklist: Why Hollywood showed so little courage
For all his achievements, Kirk Douglas brags about only one thing — his age. In the middle of an interview the other day, the fabled star, who’s 95, suddenly waved away one of my questions to ask one of his own. “So tell me,” he said with a mischievous grin, seated in the living room of his Beverly Hills home in front of a magnificent Toulouse-Lautrec. “Am I the oldest actor you’ve ever interviewed?”
I fumbled for an answer, caught off guard by his directness. “That’s OK,” he said. “You probably haven’t talked to a 95-year-old author either, have you?”
Hollywood’s white-maned lion king had me there. Douglas has written a lively new memoir about one of his greatest triumphs. Titled “I Am Spartacus!” it recounts how Douglas helped break the midcentury anti-communist blacklist by secretly hiring Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus,” the historical epic that was directed by Stanley Kubrick and produced by Douglas and came out in October 1960.
In most history books, Otto Preminger gets the credit for breaking the blacklist, since he was the first to announce, in early 1960, that he’d hired Trumbo to write “Exodus” under his own name; the film was released in December that year. But Douglas makes a persuasive case that he was actually out in front, having agreed to give Trumbo screen credit for “Spartacus” in the fall of 1959, long before “Exodus” started filming.
Staring back into history from our time, when actors and filmmakers are free to express all sorts of spectacularly preposterous political viewpoints, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when your political beliefs could destroy your career. But that’s what happened in Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s after the nation was swept up in an intense anti-communist fervor.
That was the beginning of the blacklist, which effectively ended the careers of a host of notable writers, actors and filmmakers. Douglas admits that even he was silenced by fear. When MGM offered him a plum leading role in the 1956 film “Lust for Life,” based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, he was forced by MGM to sign a loyalty oath to get the part. “It was terrible,” he told me. “It was vanity that made me do it. Oh boy, did I want to play that part. It was really insulting, but I did it. It’s what everyone had to do.”
By the late 1950s, the climate in the country had changed. Sen. Joe McCarthy, who had been the most visible anti-communist crusader, had been censured by the Senate in late 1954. Still, Hollywood studios continued to enforce the blacklist, even though many of the top blacklisted writers found a way to make a living by either using pseudonyms or hiring other writers as “fronts” who put their names on the original writers’ scripts.
Trumbo, for example, using the pseudonym Robert Rich, won a screenwriting Oscar in 1957 for his script for “The Brave One,” causing a stir when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn’t locate the mysterious Mr. Rich to present him with the award.
By the time Douglas had acquired the rights to the novel “Spartacus” by Howard Fast — also a blacklisted writer — the actor had no trouble finding Trumbo. He was busily cranking out scripts, even though he was being paid a fraction of what he’d made before he went to prison.
“Dalton loved to write and talk while he was in the bathtub, so I’d go to see him and he’d be in the tub, with a parrot on his shoulder,” Douglas recalled. “He was unbelievably talented and, boy, was he fast. If he wrote something that didn’t work, he’d throw it away and write something even better.”
The top executives at Universal didn’t find out about Trumbo (who’d written the script under the pseudonym of Sam Jackson) until Douglas went public with the news. By then, it was too late to stop him, especially since Douglas’ agent, Lew Wasserman — who did know — was already in negotiations to purchase the Universal lot.
Keeping Dalton’s identity under wraps was just one of the challenges Douglas was facing on “Spartacus.” He had to deal with many of the same business realities producers deal with today. “Spartacus” was sped into production, for example, because a rival studio was moving ahead with a similar historical epic called “Gladiators.”
After 11 days of shooting, Douglas fired the original director, Anthony Mann, because Universal, the studio releasing the film, was upset that the picture was behind schedule and over budget. When the studio announced Mann’s departure, it used the same language we hear from today’s studios: creative differences.
After the film was completed, Douglas even had to battle the censors at the Production Code Administration (PCA), the forerunner of today’s MPAA ratings board. The code was just as arbitrary as is today’s ratings system. Douglas says he was ordered to eliminate the use of the word “damn” and provide the film’s slave characters with less revealing loincloths. The PCA also insisted that Douglas cut any dialogue suggesting that Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier, is attracted — gasp! — to both men and women, saying “any implication that Crassus is a sex pervert is unacceptable.”
The censors were especially unhappy with a scene where Crassus provocatively asked his body slave, played by Tony Curtis, if he had a taste for oysters and snails. Douglas says that the censors actually considered allowing him to keep the scene if he substituted artichokes and truffles for oysters and snails, but he was eventually forced to cut it.
Many of us today have a tendency to romanticize the old studio moguls, especially when compared to the bland corporate chieftains of today. Not Douglas. “When it came to the blacklist, they were the guilty parties,” he says. “They loved to push around writers and actors,” but they didn’t have the guts to stand up to Washington. “They all caved in when they could’ve taken a united stand and stopped it.”
In the end, what really mattered was the bottom line. For all of Douglas’ courage, the real end of the blacklist came when, despite scattered protests, Variety reported in late December 1960 that “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” the two films that openly gave credit to a blacklisted screenwriter, were No. 1 and No. 2 at the box office that month.
After Hollywood saw that the public had no problem paying good money to see movies written by an ex-communist, it found its lost courage in a hurry. When I asked Douglas if he thought people in Hollywood were more courageous today, he fell silent. Finally, he said, “Some people are. But everyone? I’m not so sure.”
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Photo: Kirk Douglas, photographed at his home in Beverly Hills in 2011. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times