Kirk Douglas and the Role of Jewish Masculinity
Kirk Douglas was born more than 100 years ago in Amsterdam, New York, 28 miles from Albany. Beginning life as Issur Danielovich, Douglas’ parents were illiterate immigrants from Belorussia. Because the mills and factories of Amsterdam excluded Jews, his father earned his living as the town’s junk dealer.
In my view, Douglas will always matter for two primary reasons: he was one of the male stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and he was also the epitome of American Jewish masculinity in the second half of the 20th century.
American Jewish intellectuals, from Leslie Fiedler to Norman Mailer and beyond, have both loved to live and to analyze the problematics of American Jewish masculinity.
But it was not always so. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the dairyman, reborn on the Broadway stage in the hoofing “Fiddler on the Roof,” has money problems galore — but not masculinity problems. Of course, he fought never-ending battles with his wife, Golde, and his daughters, especially the strong-willed Hodel, who married a revolutionary, but there was never any real doubt about who wore the pants in Tevye’s family.
Contrast that with Woody Allen, America’s Jewish anti-hero and ambivalent-male nebbish, who was a magician at alchemizing his fictional women’s problems into gold until reality intruded and his mojo evaporated.
Kirk Douglas, I argue, is the epitome of the post-Holocaust American-Jewish re-masculinization that occurred parallel and counter to the anti-heroic ambivalence of Woody Allen.
Dirt poor, Douglas came to New York City as a teenager, initially having to depend on his friend — young model named Lauren Bacall — for her uncle’s winter coat. After playing supporting roles as villains, everything changed when young Douglas starred and received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the heroic boxer in “Champion” (1949). Virtually nobody saw his recreation of a Holocaust survivor in “The Juggler” (1953), but Douglas’ unashamed Jewishness was never in doubt again.
Of course, masculinity is always relative. Douglas and his sometime co-star John Wayne, the iconic goyish Hollywood hero, liked each other but never understood each other.
In an interview by film critic Roger Ebert in 1967, Douglas mused: “That’s why the perfect movie star is John Wayne. I was in a lousy picture with him once, ‘In Harm’s Way.’ I used to think about John Wayne that he brings so much authority to a role he can pronounce literally any line in a script and get away with it. But I figured ‘In Harm’s Way’ had a line even John Wayne couldn’t get away with. It was: ‘I need a fast ship because I mean to be in harm’s way.’ He got away with it!”
Following a screening of Douglas starring as Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956), John Wayne berated him: ”Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so … few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Douglas relates in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son (1988), what he tried to explain to Wayne: “Hey, John, I’m an actor. I like to play interesting roles. It’s all make-believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.”
Kirk Douglas proved that you could be Jewish, American, and unambiguously male.
May Kirk Douglas live forever — or as long as he wants!
Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (Africa World Press, 2015).