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When Geniuses Collide: The Uneasy Partnership between Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas

Sometimes out of chaos, works of art are created. It isn’t unheard of, especially in Hollywood. Throughout the decades there have been less than favorable partnerships that have resulted in absolutely brilliant films on screen. 

John Ford was a taskmaster on set. He was exacting and knew how to get the results he wanted. The director was famous for cutting his films “in camera” so he could have control over the finished product and not someone in the editing room. 

It wasn’t unusual for him to berate his actors in public. However, they continued to work with him because they realized that he truly was a genius and his films were visual masterpieces. Ford would forever be linked with another man of tough principles, John Wayne. While the two fought like cats and dogs behind the scenes, they were able to forego all that backstage drama to create works of art. 

In fact, Wayne recognized that Ford was the man who guided his career and through his direction, the actor achieved the kind of success that most in Tinseltown dream about. Maybe it’s that constant friction that in the end produces the kind of films that people talk about decades later. 

Another case of geniuses colliding would be prevalent in the professional relationship between Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas. Both men were forged in iron and tough as nails. Each came to the table with their opinions and their visions and woe to the parties that got caught in the middle. 

Despite their differences, these two artists were cut from the same cloth. It almost seems from their formative years; this pair were destined to circle one another at some point in time. Douglas was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants and from the beginning, he had to make his own way in life. Ambition and drive were part of his lexicon. 

He paid his way through college working different jobs and continued that pattern when he began to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Like all thespians at that time in the 1940s, he appeared on Broadway briefly before finally making his debut opposite the titan of leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Three years later, he received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a relentless boxer in Champion (1949). 

Where Douglas was persevering with his eye on the prize at all times, Stanley Kubrick was an underachiever and a rambler who barely attended school. Although, as it turned out, he had an eye for photography and at 16 years of age, was selling his pictures to Look magazine. Kubrick was a pioneer of sorts and in 1953, his first movie, Fear and Desire was an independent effort that was unheard of at a time when studios ruled everything in the entertainment industry. 

The catalyst that brought the two men together was Humphrey Cobb’s, Paths of Glory (1957). After Kubrick made The Killing in 1956, he was searching for his next project and Cobb’s novel which he was enamored with for many years sprang to mind immediately. After he optioned it, he brought it to Douglas’ Bryna Productions. Kirk believed in the story and it was also a starring vehicle for him. Despite the fact that he knew a picture expressing an anti-war stance wouldn’t exactly be a box office bonanza, he rolled the dice and made the movie with Kubrick in the director’s chair. 

However, all was not copacetic because both men fought over the script. Kubrick, who was thinking like a businessman at the time, wanted to give the film a happier ending. The director thought by doing that, audiences would like it and would be more compelled to recommend it to others. He did so without running it by his producer and star of the film which incensed Douglas to no end because he wasn’t interested in making a popular film. For him, this effort wasn’t about the money. It was more about the ideals that the production represented. The two giants went back and forth over this make or break bit of business until Douglas forced Kubrick’s hand. For keeping the ending in line with the book, in the words of Kirk Douglas, “Paths of Glory will always be good, years from now.” How right he was! To this day, the movie is considered to be one of Kubrick’s most beloved works and a harbinger of masterpieces to come. 

Three years later during filming of the epic blockbuster, Spartacus (1960), the two almost came to blows again. This time over an iconic scene that would become the tagline for the movie. From the get-go, this production was fraught with tension. Kubrick replaced director Anthony Mann and almost immediately came in like a whirlwind imposing his vision on everything. Russell Metty who was the cinematographer basically did nothing on the film because Kubrick took over since Metty’s approach wasn’t what he was looking for. 

But that wasn’t the only part of the endeavor that met with Kubrick’s derision. He found the script to be “silly and melodramatic.” The director wanted to eliminate the now famous, “I am Spartacus!” scene. The row between Douglas the producer and Kubrick became a battle to end all battles. At one point, their arguments on set were so rancorous and vindictive that Kirk’s wife suggested counseling for the duo. Even Tony Curtis at one point asked who did he have to screw to get off the set?

Once again, as he did in Paths of Glory, Douglas bested his director and “I am Spartacus!” stayed in the picture. Even though the fights were epic and on the scale of a nuclear war, the end results were timeless classics that influenced generations of films to come. One can still catch glimpses of Paths of Glory in Kubrick’s later Vietnam War opus, Full Metal Jacket (1987). The legend of Spartacus clearly lives on and resonates in Ridley Scott’s Academy Award-winning, Gladiator (2000) starring Russell Crowe. 

Whoever said art wasn’t worth fighting for? Sometimes compromises must be made in order to bring a specific vision to light. In the case of Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick, their uneasy partnership was the stuff that dreams and lasting legacies are made of.

About Susan Leighton

Susan Leighton has written for many entertainment sites including 1428 Elm, VHS Revival, Cult Faction, The Queen of Style, TV Series Hub, Heroic Hollywood, That's My E and Crash Palace. She is known for her interviews with genre icons, Bruce Campbell, Joe Lansdale, Joe Bob Briggs, Dee Wallace, Michael Ironside, Jeffrey Combs, Josh Becker, Danny Hicks, Brent Jennings and Alice Krige. As well as prominent paranormal experts, Christopher Garetano, Chuck Zuckowski, Paul Bradford, Daryl Marston and Kristen Luman. She has also hosted two podcasts, Nerdrotic & Pop Culture Minefield. Her short stories are featured on the Get Scared Podcast on all platforms. Currently, she is writing a paranormal TV series and a feature film script with the hope of eventually obtaining "hyphenate" status, lol. Look for her collection of essays to be included in Lee Gambin's upcoming compilation on great sitcoms of the70's and 80's, "Tonight, on a Very Special Episode."

One comment

  1. I’ not going to google it – didn’t Stan end up directing Spartacus after Antony Mann was fired from the project? Presumably on Kirk’s recommendation, recognising his talent. Interesting conflict in stan’s personality between the pragmatist who wants a box office hit and the artist who wants to confront us with uncomfortable, depressing truths. Fortuntaely, the pragmatist had terrible ideas, like the wretched pie fight that could’ve sunk Dr Strangelove, a betrayal of the preceeding minutes. He still gave us a get-out with the macabre-cheery We’ll Meet Again – a bitter, self-deluding optimism, knowing that if the shit goes down, we will not ever meet again. Stan used his moves wisely – after being fired from one megastar’s movie (Brando’s ‘One Eyed Jacks’), the Spartacus gig would elevate his profile into the big leagues, much as loathed working on a project he didn’t originate. I think he resented becoming identified with a ‘star’, certainly did not want to cultivate a director-acvtor partnership a la Scorsese and DeNiro, and baulked at the notion of owing a debt of gratitude to anyone, least of all Kirk Douglas. Stan was a self made genius, at least in his own estimation. His later self-exile away from the Hollywood machinery, away from the whims of ‘Stars’ and his casting of unknowns, up and comers and dependable character types speak volumes about his experience with Kirk. Imagine an ego the size of Kirk exacting demands on Doctor Strangelove or 2001 A Space Odyssey. ‘I’m not making this film to show off your fucking physique, motherfucker’. I can imagine the pragmatist thinking but not saying, knowing the next film will be done his way. No more stars until Eyes Wide Shut. Lee Ermey claims that Stan told him Cruise-Kidman-Warners ‘had their way’ with him on that movie. The Posthumous Kubrick machinery strenuously denies this, Lady Lyndon watching over the money, ‘we’ll change our Irish ways, or adopt English ones’, but it has a sting of credibility, even if not literally true. Another game of chess – Stan versus the movie making machine, with his artistic independance and supremacy the prize. For more good Kirk struff, apart from the terrific fun Omen knockoff ‘Holocaust 2000’, watch better-with-age icy creepy love triangle space giallo ‘Saturn 3′, and read Martin Amis’ ‘Money’ – not for it’s sledgehammer subtle ‘satire’, but for priceless disguised reportage on the on-set struggle between Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel (who lost his voice to Roy Dotrice), and Farrah Fawcett. Kirk and son Michael sort of hit on a winning formula of machismo plus neediness, and Kirk did the old JC self-sacrifice move better than Charlton Heston and Brando put together! When we see Bradley Cooper or Gerald Butler or any of those other current bozos end a film crucified then we’ll talk, til then Doris day is more man than they’ll ever be

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