Film series celebrates Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland centennials

Two Hollywood legends will reach their 100th birthdays this year, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque film program will mark their centenary milestones this fall with special screenings of some of their most significant films.

Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland at 100! is a series of free Sunday afternoon films shown at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW-Madison campus. Films featuring each of the honorees will alternate.

The demure de Havilland, born July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, may be best known for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939). The athletic Douglas, born Dec. 9, 1916, in Amsterdam, New York, was already a star when he took the lead in Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick and produced by Douglas’ own Bryna Productions.

Spartacus will receive a special showing on Douglas’ actual birthday, but Gone with the Wind is not part of the series. However, there will be ample examples of films highlighting each actor’s contribution to the medium, according to Jim Healy, Cinematheque’s director of programming.

“I like the idea of doing a centennial series for two people who are still with us,” says Healy. “In both cases, the actors maintained control over their images and material for decades, making them unique in the Hollywood system.”

‘Women’s pictures’ and the anti-hero

Both Douglas and de Havilland made significant contributions to the intellectual evolution of Hollywood storytelling during their active years, Healy says. Along with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, de Havilland ushered in the age of “women’s pictures,” turning the camera’s lens on the leading lady as the key figure around whom the film revolved.

“These are important films and de Havilland had the ability to be radiantly beautiful, as well as the willingness to look plain if that’s what the role called for,” Healy says.

Among Douglas’ earliest contributions were roles that made the anti-hero acceptable to filmgoers. Douglas was not the first to play such roles, Healy admits, but his relatively bright star power helped take the anti-hero into the mainstream. Douglas paved the way for other actors to pick up the mantle, including Paul Newman and Robert De Niro.

Each actor’s films in the series are definitely worth viewing, if only to study the individual performer’s range, Healy explains.

“In Captain Blood, de Havilland is the leading lady, but plays second fiddle to Errol Flynn’s antics. However, she looks beautiful on screen,” Healy says. “In The Snake Pit (in which de Havilland plays a mentally ill woman locked in an asylum), she goes through a real range of emotions that culminate in a devastating effect.”

Douglas, too, deals with his dark side, most notably in Champion, in which he plays a boxer who sees the whole world as his opponent, and Ace in the Hole, the Billy Wilder-directed drama about an unscrupulous newspaper reporter who uses the suffering of others for personal gain.

“Then there’s Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory where Douglas shows his noble side as a tragic World War I hero, and The Last Sunset, which is a Western like I have never seen before,” says Healy.

Film critic Leonard Maltin’s described The Last Sunset as “strange on the range … and throws in everything from incest to Indians.” Draw your own conclusions.

Regardless of viewer preference, Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland at 100! offers something for virtually all film fans. It also gives the last living stars from Hollywood’s golden era the chance for their lights to sparkle once more.

Douglas and de Havilland On Screen

The UW Cinematheque film series Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland at 100! continues through December on Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., on the UW-Madison campus.

Films still to be screened:

Oct. 9: Ace in the Hole (1951, directed by Billy Wilder) casts Douglas as a cynical newspaper reporter willing to exploit other’s misfortunes for his own advantage.

Oct. 16: My Cousin Rachel (1952, directed by Henry Koster) centers on the death of a newly married husband and his bride de Havilland, who becomes a chief suspect in this Hitchcock-style suspense film from author Daphne du Maurier.

Oct. 23: The Last Sunset (1961, directed by Robert Aldrich) pits outlaw Douglas against lawman Rock Hudson, who put their differences aside to aid a cattle drive to Texas in this most unlikely of Westerns.

Oct. 30: Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, directed by Robert Aldrich) combines madness, a decaying Southern mansion and reclusive Southern belle Bette Davis who falls prey to her scheming cousin de Havilland.

Nov. 6: Champion (1949, directed by Mark Robson) casts Douglas as the boxer Midge in the first of what became his signature anti-hero roles.

Nov. 13: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, directed by William Dieterle and Max Rheinhardt) is the Shakespeare comedy that marked de Havilland’s film debut. It also features a host of Warner Brothers contract players, including James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck.

Nov. 20: The Vikings (1958, directed by Richard Fleischer) still stands as the best adventure film about Vikings ever made, featuring Douglas as the Viking leader vying with the slave Tony Curtis for the affections of captured English princess Janet Leigh. Hail, Ragnar!

Dec. 4: The Snake Pit (1948, directed by Anatole Litvak) finds de Havilland cast as a women suffering from anxiety and delusions who is trapped in a corrupt mental institution. This is one of the actor’s most dramatic works.

Dec. 11: Paths of Glory (1957, directed by Stanley Kubrick) casts Douglas as Col. Dax, who works tirelessly to keep his platoon of World War I French soldiers safe in the face of a maniacal superior officer in what is considered the greatest anti-war film ever made.

Dec. 18: Captain Blood (1935, directed by Michael Curtiz), in which swashbuckling pirate captain Errol Flynn needs someone to rescue, and who better the de Havilland in the first and best of a series of such films pairing the two?

Special Screening

For more Kirk Douglas, visit room 4070 of Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. on the UW-Madison campus, where Cinematheque normally screens its films, for a showing of the classic gladiator opus Spartacus (1960, directed by Stanley Kubrick.) The film screens at 7 p.m. on Dec. 9, Douglas’s actual 100th birthday, and is free and open to the public.

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