He was Spartacus, of course. But the great thing about Kirk Douglas living for more than a century – with most of those years spent as a Hollywood icon and cinematic family patriarch – is we got to see him do so much more than just wield sharp weaponry in an epic adventure. (And, man, he had that down.)
Douglas, who died Wednesday at 103, was a tried-and true icon who began his epic run in the mid-1940s with films including “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” and “Mourning Becomes Electra” and who owned the ’50s and ’60s, formed a great partnership with Burt Lancaster and earning three best-actor Oscar nominations (but never won). Douglas worked well into his twilight years, including a starring role opposite son Michael, ex-wife Diana and grandson Cameron in “It Runs in the Family” in 2003.
Here are the five essential movies to seek out in order to remember Kirk Douglas’ lasting film legacy:
Way before Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone were on-screen pugilists, Douglas received his first Oscar nomination for the noir boxing drama (by “High Noon” screenwriter Carl Foreman) playing Midge Kelly, a go-getter who takes on all comers and becomes a huge success in the ring who is equally adept at breaking hearts and betraying close confidantes when the gloves come off.
‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ (1952)
Lana Turner was the beauty and Douglas the beast – though an Oscar-nominated one – in the classic melodrama. Douglas starred as amoral movie producer Jonathan Shields, who charts a ruthless path through Hollywood, and Turner played alcoholic actress Georgia Lorrison, who becomes one of the performers he takes under his wing – and as a love interest – before brutally leaving her behind (though it works out OK for her).
‘Lust for Life’ (1956)
Oscar nod No. 3 came for Douglas with this biopic about Vincent van Gogh, where he played the artist as a tortured soul whose obsessions hindered his life rather than helped it. Douglas deserved the many accolades for his deep dive into the portrayal of a man struggling with mental health issues who ultimately receives important needed support from his brother, Theo (James Donald).
‘Paths of Glory’ (1957)
Director Stanley Kubrick struck an anti-war tone with the drama that starred Douglas as Col. Dax, a commanding officer in the French army in World War I. Dax’s men are given orders that border on a suicide mission when they’re tasked to attack a German contingent. After they refuse to leave the trenches and head to certain death, Dax has to defend his men on a cowardice charge at their court martial.
Kubrick and Douglas teamed up again – this time more famously – for the action-packed historical epic that cast the actor as the title gladiator, who leads a slave revolt and is central to one of movie history’s most famous scenes. “Spartacus” was a box-office hit, and Douglas gave rise to one of the era’s great film heroes, but more importantly he championed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – one of the Hollywood Ten – and was a key figure in ending the blacklist.