"DEAR LIZ, I am NOT Spartacus! I'm your friend. Many pleasant memories. With affection, Kirk."
That is what is inscribed on the opened page of Kirk Douglas' hugely entertaining new book, "I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist."
Now, even if Kirk hadn't autographed his book so sweetly, I would have read it, but the note propelled me to finish it in one day.
IN THE introduction to his memoir about this great film, Kirk says: "I am not a political activist. When I produced 'Spartacus' in 1959, I was trying to make the best movie I could make, not a political statement."
But aside from creating art (with the help of a young director named Stanley Kubrick) Kirk did become a political activist. He went out and hired whom he considered the best man to write the massive script -- Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted from Hollywood after the McCarthy witch hunts, which looked for communists under every blade of grass. Not only was Dalton banned, he served jail time. He could not work in Hollywood under his own name, and if it was known he was writing a script, an entire production could collapse.
With this ugly cloud still dark, Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to pen the screenplay for "Spartacus," under the writer's latest pseudonym, "Sam Jackson."
THIS WOULD have been enough, the tale of Trumbo. But "I Am Spartacus" covers every aspect of the epic from its gestation to premiere. Let's put it this way. Making movies can be profitable, but mostly not much fun. For one thing, Kubrick was not the film's first director. Anthony Mann accepted the job, his work was deemed not up to snuff and he was ousted in favor of Kubrick, whose "confidence bordered on arrogance" admits Kirk.
Douglas includes everything we'd want to know, including the fact that he really needed "Spartacus" to be a hit, because he'd just found out -- through the wise investigating of his wife, Anne Buydens, that Kirk's longtime manager and friend had swindled him big time. (Anne, by the way, is a constant source of Kirk's inspiration, a calming influence, a strong woman with the patience of Penelope, loving but not naive. A partner in every way. He concludes her contributions to this project with "Anne was 'Spartacus.'")
The movie would star Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis and the ravishing Jean Simmons. Kirk, of course, was Spartacus, the rebellious slave/gladiator who actually made Rome tremble for a year or two.
What juicy fun is found in Kirk's memories of trying to pin down his cast, the various adventures and trials each put him through. How Tony Curtis nailed a role in the movie -- though there was no part written for him, so he could get his way out of his detested Universal contract, Charles Laughton's imperious first critique of the script -- "this is s--t," his refusal to accept his role, and then a sudden reversal -- this was Laughton's pattern, Kirk would learn; reluctantly testing his former flame Gene Tierney, for the vital role of the slave girl who loves Spartacus, and seeing instantly that her emotional problems had robbed her of her former charisma. Kirk would suffer a great deal when he eventually had to tell Gene she had not gotten the part.
Kirk would suffer even more after hiring a beautiful German girl, Sabine Bethmann, as the female lead. She learned English, but couldn't act. Kubrick fired her, much to her shock (her appearance had already been widely publicized.) Douglas was then compelled to hire Jean Simmons, whom he didn't want originally because of her British accent. Kirk's divinely pragmatic Anne, said with exasperation, "What does her accent matter if she can act?!" Of course, Jean turned out to be the perfect choice.
THERE WERE illnesses and breakdowns, temper tantrums, the witty, if exhausting, off-screen interplay between Ustinov and Laughton. Jean Simmons would not take her bra off in a crucial scene in a lake. (After Kirk persuaded her, Simmons said, "I have a feeling you know a lot about getting women to take their bras off.")
Always, there were wild budget problems and above all, the specter of what would happen to "Spartacus" if it became common knowledge that Dalton Trumbo was working on it. Though the witch hunts were over, some of the witchy hunters -- Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, etc. -- still had the power to destroy a film, even a project as major as this one.
Yet in the end, Kirk decided that once the film was in the can he was going to tell Universal that "Sam Jackson" was Dalton Trumbo, and that Trumbo alone would receive screen credit as the sole writer. (The wise Anne had said to Kirk shortly before his decision, "Doesn't everybody already know he's writing it?")
After that, things still don't improve stress-wise. Kirk Douglas has to hear the four most terrible words a producer can hear, in the wake of a first screening. After a long silence in a crowded room, somebody pipes up, "The music will help."
There were re-takes, revisions, a brilliant 78-page manifesto/critique from Kubrick on why the film was great, and where it was failing. Arguments over certain scenes, clashes between director and producer, stress, stress, stress.
In the end, Kirk was not crucified, as Spartacus was. His film was a huge hit, and it broke the back, finally, of the blacklist. (Five years later, Trumbo wrote the script of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie "The Sandpiper." Hedda Hopper, a year away from her death, attended. When Trumbo's name appeared on screen she began to audibly complain. Miss Taylor turned in her seat and said, "Hedda, why don't you just shut the f--k up.")
I know it seems I've told a lot, but believe me, there's much, much more!
KIRK SAYS if he'd been a bit older when he made "Spartacus" he might not have hired Trumbo, he might not have had the courage. Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. Kirk Douglas is a man of honor, a truthful man who has admitted his own personal failings and his reflections on mellowing in previous books. His strength in the face of his stroke and the inevitable encroachments of age has been epic, inspiring. "Perhaps it is possible to outlive your anger. I think I have" he muses here.
George Clooney has written the foreword to "I Am Spartacus!" He says: "Kirk Douglas is many things. A movie star. An actor. A producer. But he is first and foremost, a man of extraordinary character. The kind that is formed when the stakes are high. The kind we look for in our darkest hour."
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)