Watching old movies provokes a strange set of conflicted emotions. All those beautiful people up there on the screen are frozen in time, locked in eternal youth and bringing joy to yet another generation of viewers. Sadly, however, time slips by as relentlessly as the strip of film through the projector. Movie stars, like the rest of us, suffer the indignities of age and eventually pass from the scene.
Kirk Douglas lives on as the corrupted boxer in “The Champion” (1949), as Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956), the morally righteous French officer in “Paths of Glory” (1957) and the charismatic warrior slave in “Spartacus” (1960). Through more than 60 films, those penetrating eyes, that broad mouth and dimpled chin became genuine screen icons. How can anyone imagine him a white-haired 90-year-old, using a cane to steady his two artificial knees, losing his hearing and slurring his speech as a result of a stroke?
Douglas himself senses the transformation keenly. In his garden he often addresses his questions to a two-headed stainless steel bust of himself, one a replica of the movie star at the age of 27, the other as a man of 88. The first brims with vigor and self-confidence, the other suggests mortality, wisdom and self-examination. What has his charmed life meant for him and for those around him? What happened to Izzur Danielovich, the poor Russian immigrant’s son, as he reinvented himself as Kirk Douglas the movie star and gradually became Mr. Douglas, icon of films past (known to a younger generation of filmgoers as the father of Michael Douglas), philanthropist, retiree and writer?
In Let’s Face It, his ninth book, Douglas invites his readers to share these disconnected reflections on aging, laced generously with memories of Hollywood’s golden age. This could be considered a coda to his more conventional autobiography The Ragman’s Son, published in 1988. In the present book he refers back to his impoverished youth and his strong sense of Jewish identity, but as one now trying to put the pieces together into a pattern that makes sense to him in the final stages of his life. In 48 brief chapters, he recalls the past, as is the privilege of a man of his years, but also offers his own analysis of the present state of the world. He balances melancholy for lost opportunities with the delight he finds in remembering old friends.
Douglas does not dwell on the high points of his own career. In this book, he seems much more concerned with the events of the recent past, like his involvement with schools and playgrounds in Los Angeles and the state of his family. As a man unabashedly proud of his background, in his later years he returned to his Jewish roots as a source of strength and meaning. He has strong feelings about the state of Israel and the current outbreak of mindless violence throughout the world.
A more vigilant editor could have spared Douglas a few lapses in accuracy. When he writes of the terrible days of the blacklist in Hollywood, he conflates the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy with HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). One howler inconceivably got through a copy reader, who possibly was using spell check rather than actually reading the proofs. In an otherwise serious reflection on old age, the book provides a mangled quotation from Walter Savage Landor: “I warmed both hands ’gainst [before] the fire of life,/ It stinks [sinks] and I am ready to depart.”
Let’s Face It offers a pleasant, entertaining read. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite the seriousness of many of the reflections on mortality, and that constitutes a recommendation for anyone who relishes the movies of a bygone age.