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.