Kirk Douglas was honoured at the Oscars because Hollywood is sentimental and cynical; the first disguises the second, and not well. Douglas is interesting because he exposes how little Hollywood has changed. The posturing of #TimesUp and #MeToo aside, the industry is as misogynistic as ever, which was something Joaquin Phoenix did not mention as he lamented the lack of diversity at the BAFTAs, all the while holding his prize. Is hypocrisy ageing? We must hope not.
Douglas was not a great actor, but he did not need to be: that was not even his purpose. His expertise was masculine rage, but it was, to be fair, a constellation of rage. The critic David Thompson called him “the manic depressive among Hollywood stars, one minute bearing down on plot, dialogue, and actresses with the gleeful appetite of a man just freed from Siberia, at others writhing not just in agony but mutilation and a convincingly horrible death”. Not a great actor then, but a great star; that is, he was only ever himself.
A great star must have a great myth and Douglas’s was doughty: he was the only son — among six daughters — to first generation Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from what is now Belarus. His father was a ragman peddling in rubbish; he was attacked, as a child, by Jew-hating gangs in New York; and there you have the anger. He was born Issur Danielovitch in 1916; 42 years later he and Bernie Schwarz (Tony Curtis) starred in The Vikings (1958), which always makes me laugh — both were Jews — and demonstrates, too, Hollywood’s magical capacity for personal renewal — for some anyway.
Douglas did what Hollywood stars have always done. He invented himself, and that act of will, for the consumers, made him worthy of them. It was a quasi-religious pact. They would worship him, and he would act out their myths: incrementally.
Women were not allowed this, then or now. The average age of the best actor nominees in 2020 is 51; for women it is 37. The “red carpet” is a beauty contest, advertorial for the fashion industry, and no more. They should not sew the names of ignored female directors onto their clothes, as Natalie Portman did. They should come in workout gear. They should get fat.
And what wretched myths females were given, then and now. I watched Douglas’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) last week, and I saw Lana Turner as she bounced between sexual object and, more troublingly, child. Her character Georgia Lorrison is the daughter of a famous actor and she is defined by him; that is, she inherited her career. She offers sex to Douglas — here, sexual agency is a reliable indicator of nervous breakdown — who compares her, unkindly, to her father, in a line shrill with injustice: He loved women, you’re a tramp!” Later, another character echoes the term “tramp” and Turner appears to barely hear it, let alone react. Why bother, when it is gospel?
Pauline Kael, the most famous film critic in America in the 1960s and ’70s, asked: “If you were acting across someone like Kirk Douglas in the ’50s what was there for a girl to be?”
The answer is the same that the females in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood would give to Brad Pitt if they were given the dialogue, which they weren’t: nothing much at all. You lie down beneath the strutting; you beg, if legally still a child, to give Pitt a blowjob in his car; you are, if Sharon Tate, rescued from murder. In The Vikings Janet Leigh looks on the cusp of an eye roll — or am I dreaming? — even while surrounded by the exciting Vikings; at one point Douglas runs along the oars of a long ship without falling off. The aggression towards other men is a given, but it didn’t stop there. Bluntly put, a Douglas love scene often looked more like a rape.
Offscreen it was, and is, the same. I read how Marilyn Monroe’s top was pulled up by a studio executive, to show another studio executive her breasts, because he considered them extraordinary. She smiled throughout; that was the role; it was familiar. We can hear the testimony of her successors in a court room in New York now.
I would say that Hollywood is so far from understanding feminism that a film merely featuring women — Little Women, and how I adored the crinolines — is called a feminist piece of art. It isn’t. It is a faintly interesting film about women from a female director; we are confusing the maker with the made. I could argue that Star Wars is more feminist than Little Women. I really think it is. Even so, Little Women won an Oscar for best costume design, which is both awful and very funny.
The truth of Hollywood is all in the product; you need look no further. We get an occasional female superhero, for manners — Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the Luke Skywalker character now seems to be a woman — but I see no evidence that the ascendancy of what Kael called “hunkus Americanus” is over, although we now have to contend with a frosting of irony that seems like yet more cynicism. “Did anyone believe,” Kael once asked, “in all that butchness the men put on? I find it very unappealing and it’s boring — those rugged blank faces.” Ask Brad Pitt who won an Oscar for playing just that man in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.
Whether we believe in it or not — or find it appealing or not — we continue to buy it. Where are the women in mass-market — in profitable — cinema? The answer is: at the periphery, as remote and lovely as ever, watching Kirk Douglas and his successors en fête.