Friday, January 16, 2015

Damme Words: I Am Spartacus!

I ever tell you about the time I kind of met Kirk Douglas?  The Chinese Theatre was celebrating it's 85th anniversary and charging admission prices of decades past, .25 cents.  So for a couple of months patrons could check out classics like Shanghai Express, The King and I as well as my my personal favorite, Spartacus!  The inspired by true events epic of a slave turned gladiator turned leader who inspired a rebellion against the Romans starred Hollywood heavyweights Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis.  Director Anthony Mann was fired just weeks into filming and replaced by a barely 30 year old Stanley Kubrick.  To celebrate, Kirk Douglas attended a re-dedication ceremony of his hand and foot prints from 1962 as his 10th book, I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist was made available.  It was a pretty busy 2012 for the then 95 year old as he would also attend a special event celebrating the figure of Spartacus, made popular again by the Starz television show, introduce an Academy screening and be bar mitzahed for the third time, a world record.

It was a mad house outside the theater as Douglas spoke to the crowd about his book that tackled the fear mongering witch hunts of 1950's Hollywood, McCarthyism, Communism and the blacklist.  While in the lobby buying a copy of the book, Mr. Douglas himself ambled over and stood right next to me, telling the staff to make sure they were charging full price.  I could only smile and try to ask the living legend to sign my book before some idiot lady crowded us and tried to take a picture with her iPad but she couldn't figure it out before Mr. Douglas was whisked away by security.  The film, of course is a magnificent epic of Hollywood proportions as we meet uneducated, feral laborer Spartacus.  He attacks a guard and is then thrown into a school for gladiators where he quickly becomes leader of the pack and stages a revolt against the cruel owners and task masters.  With a small army at his side, Spartacus finds love and meaning to his life when he continuously defeats and embarrasses the well organized and armed Roman forces.  The title of the book comes from a pivotal scene where the Romans offer mercy on the captured slave army if Spartacus gives himself up.  Before the man himself can do it, others stand up and claim to be Spartacus until they're all on their feet chanting, "I'm Spartacus!" as a big F you to the Romans.  Unlike today's happy ending blockbusters, Spartacus like other true to life epics such as The Great Escape, ends on a seemingly down note with many of our protagonists dead or imprisoned.  Yet there's still the unquenchable feeling of hope that these characters risked it all and lost so much for the greater good so there's no sadness.

I Am Spartacus is a quick and entertaining read.  I've consumed several of Douglas' other books and they're all a nice mix of anecdotes, history, humor, inside stories and his own subconscious feelings on being an insecure, angry, passionate and horny guy who became a superstar.  In hindsight, Douglas' role in bestowing writer Dalton Trumbo credit on the film is viewed as a landmark in Hollywood history as it helped to break the blacklist.  By the late 1930's, the American Communist Party had lost steam  but the House Committee on Un-American Activities declared that the party still had roots deep in Hollywood.  The Hollywood Reporter released names of supposed Communists and sympathizers which became the first blacklist.  HUAC hearings found several  Hollywood professionals in contempt of Congress for not declaring their political affiliations.  Dalton Trumbo being one of them.  After being named on the blacklist and serving time in prison, Trumbo could only find work as a ghost writer and never be credited.  Trumbo would end up with 17 non-credits over a decade.

The book chronicles the making of Spartacus, from Douglas' first encounter with the source novel by Howard Fast (also blacklisted) and trying to turn it into a big, Hollywood movie.  Author Fast was not a screenwriter and struggled as Douglas enlisted Trumbo to secretly writer another draft.  Trumbo was an expert at dialog, story and could write quickly.  Unfortunately for producer Douglas, The Gladiators starring Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn and directed by Martin Ritt was already in pre-production thus leaving little interest for Spartacus.  Talent agent Lew Wasserman was in the midst of buying Universal Studios and suggested Douglas take it there.  Priced at $5 million the film would end up costing around $12, shot for over a year and took three years to premiere.  The book goes into some great detail on the era surrounding the blacklist, how the cast shaped up, the conflicts between styles, Trumbo's secret involvement, Kubrick not changing his clothes, Douglas' wife Anne being a genius and a saint, his best friend and manager stealing his money and much, much more.  There's a great line from Douglas during a story meeting at Trumbo's home that sums up the hectic period, "I'm retiring...from sobriety" followed by the pouring and downing of a vodka.

Pressure in Hollywood mounted over the open use of blacklisted talent with one high profile case seeing Frank Sinatra folding and telling Kirk to kick them in the balls for everyone else.  In several bold moves, Douglas left studio passes for Dalton Trumbo at the gate, brought him to lunch on the lot for all to see and then gave him credit under his real name. Off screen drama aside, Universal was concerned with the film's political message, sexual undertones, violence and use of the word "damn" and made many cuts, 42 significant ones by Douglas' count.  The flick was finally released to rave reviews, boffo box office and received a half dozen nominations from the Golden Globes and Academy Awards each.  Newly inaugurated president John F. Kennedy even ventured out during a snow storm, crossed picket lines and sat down for the film, declaring it a great movie.  Coupled with the fact that Trumbo received credit on not one but two films in 1960, it seemed like the blacklist had come to an end.

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