When Kirk Douglas died at the age of 103 on Wednesday, one of the last threads connecting this era to Hollywood’s Golden Age was severed forever. Having outlived – by decades – such colleagues as Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy, Douglas was one of the few actors left who personified what it meant to be a movie star, when movie stars mattered.
“We had faces,” Gloria Swanson’s faded siren says about the silent era in “Sunset Boulevard.” And what a face Douglas had. With his cleft chin – the perfect fit for a left hook or an errant kiss – and hungry alertness, he was the ultimate “dangerous personality”: the actor who, in any scene, you simply couldn’t stop watching.
Douglas’ virile physicality, his energy and charisma, were ideally suited to the cinema when it was a medium of big screens and mass audiences: when people would flock to their local bijou to luxuriate in celebrity and vicarious glamour by way of silvered, monumental images. He always lived up to his side of the bargain, which entailed the price of admission and a surrender to total, immersive belief on the part of the audience, with him carrying our projected dreams with the ineffable combination of authority, allure and lightness that defines what it means to be a matinee idol.
Now, the term “matinee idol” is obsolete, having given way to personal brands and social media influencers. When filmgoers gather at the suburban multiplex today, it’s to see their favorite comic book franchise or animated sequel; if an actor of the caliber of Robert Downey Jr. happens to be in it, that’s a bonus but not a necessity. The proliferation of high-toned TV dramas and streaming platforms has provided a refreshingly egalitarian bonanza for hard-working actors who deserve their shot, whether they’re marquee material or not. But the stars of those programs are directors and showrunners, who are more likely to cast an ensemble of accomplished but obscure (and often British) character actors than famous known quantities.
Peak TV has produced its own A-list – Emilia Clarke, from “Game of Thrones,” recently made a promising splash in her holiday rom-com “Last Christmas” – but it’s unclear how sustainable its component parts are. A quick census of “matinee idols” who are still able to command huge audiences produces a soberingly shortlist of names: Clooney? Di Caprio? Hanks? Streep? There’s no doubt that Brad Pitt proved he’s still got it when he stole scene after scene in the Oscar-nominated “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” But “it” didn’t help a few months later, when his pensive star vehicle “Ad Astra” fatally stalled. If there is still a bankable, bona fide movie star to be found in Hollywood’s firmament of interchangeable players, it’s Denzel Washington, who can still be depended on to coax fans out of their laptop-lit cocoons.
This isn’t to say there aren’t actors we love: Downey, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth and Samuel L. Jackson, are considered our biggest stars mostly because the “Avengers” franchise they appeared in. Comedians such as Melissa McCarthy and Adam Sandler, and musclemen such as Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, can still pack ’em in. But the artistic and commercial success of a movie is just as dependent on the property itself: If stars are involved, they could easily be playing second banana to snazzy CGI effects or de-aging techniques.
Of course, it was precisely how Douglas aged so gracefully that magnified his mythic persona. Here was a man who might forever have been pigeonholed as Spartacus, but instead exhibited remarkable range in films as diverse as “Young Man With a Horn,” “Ace in the Hole,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Seven Days in May” and “Paths of Glory.” Who survived not only a stroke, but a midcareer misfire like “The Villain.” The kind of stardom he embodied – the talent for transcending genre and even quality of material to become the whole point of going to the movies – increasingly feels like a quaint artifact from a vanished age.
They had faces then. Today we have a rationalized matrix of corporate IP, box office algorithms and Q-ratings that will spit out the most viable actor for the job. Somehow, it doesn’t feel like a fair trade.