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Imagine spending a day getting drunk while talking about Spartacus with Laurence ('Larry') Olivier, Dalton Trumbo, and Kirk Douglas--Douglas' memoir I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist (2012) is full of such entertaining vignettes.
Lots of appalling details of McCarthyism: 'pompous ass' congressional committee chairmen, contempt of congress prison sentences, black listing, etc. Lots of interesting details on how movies were made in the 1950s: securing funding, securing rights to adapt novels, writing and revising screenplays, casting actors, finding directors, promoting films, worrying about entertainment columnists, costume fittings, table readings, editing, satisfying the Motion Picture Association censors, etc. Lots of snapshots of Hollywood stars: Lauren Bacall, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, George Sanders, Jean Simmons, etc. Lots of intriguing pieces of Kirk Douglas' biography: Russian Jewish ancestry, birth name Issur Danielovitch, beloved mother, first movie role, stardom, marriages and children, production company, etc. Lots of apt insights into human nature: why persecuted people like Jews would persecute their fellows; what kind of people name names of friends to save their careers and what kind don't; what kind of religion would be most helpful to the world; etc.
Of course the book is full of interesting details about how the classic historical epic Spartacus was made: the involvement of the author of the novel, Howard Fast; the race to beat a rival studio before they could make their similarly themed epic; the efforts of Douglas to find another studio to back his movie; and the chaotic making of the picture, including the director and the female lead actress getting fired after filming had begun, Douglas breaking the jaw of another actor during a fight scene, and Tony Curtis splitting his Achilles tendon while playing tennis with Douglas, the recording of 73,000 college football fans at an MSU game shouting 'I am Spartacus' in unison, and the purchase from Franco of the Spanish army to play clashing armies in the climactic battle filmed at the last second. Douglas' depictions of the large personalities involved are entertaining: Laurence Olivier suffering the break up of his marriage to Vivien Leigh; Charles Laughton throwing temper tantrums; Peter Ustinov stealing scenes; Tony Curtis greeting Douglas, 'Hail Spartacus!' Not to mention Kubrick, the young director, rubbing everyone the wrong way with his perfectionist genius, deficient empathy, and refusal to change his clothes, and Dalton Trumbo, the Oscar-winning black listed writer, chafing at having to write yet another screenplay under yet another pseudonym, a screenplay plagued by constant requests for changes.
Although the book is mostly about the making of Spartacus and the raising of the Hollywood blacklist, part of its appeal concerns the struggles of Douglass at 95 to recall his 1950s' self, not only because it's difficult to remember events from long ago but especially because it's painful to remember the man he was then: cocky, energetic, and at times possessed of an anger that pains him to realize resembled that of his 'cruel' father (as when he threw a chair at Kubrick in a rage over the scene of Spartacus on the cross being cut without prior discussion). Without pride, Douglas, mentions that Tony Curtis' description of him back then was spot on: 'A panther with a thorn in his side.'
Douglas writes a lot of witty lines, like these:
--'I didn't enjoy firing people. I'm not Donald Trump.'
--'Nobody wrote outrage better than Dalton even in a telegram.'
--'Eddie was a man of conviction. Stanley was a man of calculation.'
--'His sighs and grunts and soft reproaches somewhat unhinged me at close quarters.'
Michael Douglas gives a fine reading of the audiobook, his gravelly voice a nostalgic echo of his father's.
Fans of Spartacus or Kirk Douglas or people curious about McCarthyism or Hollywood of the 1950s should like this book.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
This is a great personal account of a film that I loved when I was a kid and still love today. I love the fact that it is read by his son, although it is hard to believe he is an actor as his diction is sometimes unclear. For a man who is 95yo it feels like it just happened to him a decade ago and there are often personal reflections from his past and present that make this an enjoyable listen.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
The film Spartacus tells the story of a great Roman slave revolt. But its the making of this film in the midst of the Hollywood blacklist and hysterical anti-communism that is the real story here. Kirk Douglas does a great job of weaving together the characters, both contemporary and historical, into a facinating account of how the film was made. And as the lead actor and producer he experienced it all first hand.
Most significant was the scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who had to work anonymously as he had been blacklisted and even imprisoned. There are many more major Hollywood players involved in the making of the film, Stanley Kubrick and Laurence Olivier amongst them. Had never realised what an important film Spartacus was and is.
loved it and if Kirk can't read it to us himself then who better than Michael.