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Hollywood icon and francophile Kirk Douglas and his love affair with France

Kirk Douglas at Cannes Film Festival in 1980 alongside Jeanne Moreau and Leslie Caron.
Kirk Douglas at Cannes Film Festival in 1980 alongside Jeanne Moreau and Leslie Caron. RALPH GATTI / AFP

Actor Kirk Douglas died on Wednesday at the age of 103. Best known for his roles as Spartacus and Van Gogh, the cleft-chinned movie star was a confirmed francophile, declaring in the French town of Deauville: “people here like me more than in the United States”.

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Douglas made more than 70 movies in a career that stretched across seven decades. Films such as "Spartacus" and "The Vikings" turned him into one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1950s and '60s.

He regularly came to France but regretted that he had acted in only two French films, notably "Paris brule-t-il?" (Is Paris burning?) by René Clément.

In an interview in 1978 he confessed he dreamt of being directed by the likes of Claude Lelouch, François Truffaut and Claude Sautet. 

“They have a lot of talent. I love the way they work. It gives me the impression that it’s easier. You take an idea, and work together. You don’t feel obliged to do something huge to and have to earn millions to pay for it. I’d like to make a film with a good director and stay in France for eight, ten or so weeks for the shoot.”

Douglas spoke fluent French and began learning the language after starring in "Acte d'Amour" (Act of Love) by Anatole Litvak. The tragic-romantic film was set in France and featured Brigitte Bardot.

He met Anne Buydens, his second wife, during the making of that film and they married in 1954.

Buydens, a film publicist, was a French-speaking Belgian and reinforced Douglas's attachment to France and the French language.

Kirk Douglas in 1950.
Kirk Douglas in 1950. AFP

Like many a Hollywood star, Douglas was drawn to France through the Cannes Film Festival. 

“When he arrived on the Riviera, life was beautiful,” Gilles Jacob, former president of the festival, told Le Parisien. "Living in a palace free of charge, playing in the Casino, being the darling of so many women, he got a very warm welcome!" 

Douglas sat on the Cannes jury twice: as a member in 1970 and then as president in 1980. He had to choose between "All that Jazz" by America's Bob Foss and "Kagemusha, l’ombre du Guerrier" by Japan’s Akira Kurosawa.

“Douglas preferred Bob Fosse and got up to announce the good news on the phone. But the jury didn’t agree,” explained Jacob. “So he left the discussion table and went to his room at the Hotel du Cap. No one saw him until Robert Favre Le Bret [the festival’s general delegate at the time] suggested an ex-aequo.”

In a TV interview in Cannes in 1970 he told journalist France Roche he didn’t enjoy being on the jury.

“I like watching the films, but suddenly I realise it’s my job to judge the others and I don’t enjoy that. It’s difficult. I think it would be better if there weren’t prizes.”

He made frequent appearances on French television to talk about his Hollywood career. 

In 1989 he was a guest on the top literary chat show Apostrophes hosted by Bernard Pivot. He’d come to talk about his memoirs and the conversation turned to his role as van Gogh in "Lust for Life", for which he won a Golden Globe.

“I almost lost myself in the character,” he told Pivot. 

He related a now-famous anecdote about actor John Wayne, star of many a western.

“John Wayne told me I had to be macho. But I replied that as an actor you can play every role. Wayne was angry.”

He also revealed his no-nonsense side during the Apostrophes interview. When the French advertising guru Jacques Séguéla contested his iconic status, the actor cut him down to size. 

“Who are you to judge what makes a star?” 

25 March 1985, Michael Douglas (L) applauds his father Kirk Douglas, at the 57th Academy Awards
25 March 1985, Michael Douglas (L) applauds his father Kirk Douglas, at the 57th Academy Awards ROB BOREN / AFP

In 1980 France awarded Kirk Douglas a César d’honneur and Légion d’Honneur. It mattered to him. Three times an Oscar nominee (“Champion” (1949), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) “Lust for Life” (1957)), his only Academy Award was in 1996 when he received a lifetime Oscar

Douglas also played a major role in breaking the Hollywood blacklist whereby actors, directors and writers were shunned professionally because of links to the communist movement in the 1950s. As a producer he felt free to hire a blacklisted screenwriter. 

He said he was prouder of that than any film he had made.

“Because of my straight-talking, I was the most detested actor in Hollywood for a long time,” he declared.

But he remained respected and popular in France throughout. 

Speaking in Deauville film festival in 1999 he raised eyebrows, describing Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as “not even sexy!” 

It was also at Deauville he seduced the French once and for all: “France is my second country. People here love me more than in the United States.”
 

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