Jews in the News: Kirk Douglas, Natalie Portman and Max Cassella

Kirk Douglas Turns 100

As I write this, KIRK DOUGLAS’s 100th birthday (Dec.9) is a week away, and, G-d willing, he’ll celebrate it with family and friends. Here are some things about Douglas unlikely to be in most birthday celebration articles. Born Issur Danielovitch, the son of a ragman, Douglas had a remarkable run of quality hit movies from the late ‘40s through the mid ‘60s.  Less well known is that he was the producer, as well as the star of two great movies: “Spartacus” and “Paths of Glory”.  He hired a virtually unknown STANLEY KUBRICK to direct those films and he hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus” and gave him screen credit—a mortal blow to the blacklist.

He starred in the first Hollywood film made in Israel (“The Juggler”, 1953). This story of a Holocaust survivor starts dour. But ultimately it’s a hopeful look at the then new country. A near death experience in 1991 started the intellectual process that led Kirk to embrace rigorous Jewish practice and he had his second bar mitzvah, age 83, in 1999. His wife of 62 years, ANNE BUYDENS, now 86, converted to Judaism in 2004. It must be gratifying for Kirk that MICHAEL, 72, the most famous of his four sons, decided in the last few years to firmly identify as a Jew. Michael was led to this largely by his own son, DYLAN, now 15, who expressed a sincere wish to be Jewish and have a bar mitzvah (which happened in Jerusalem).

Last year, on his 99th birthday, Kirk gave $15 million to build a larger center for Alzheimer’s patients at the Motion Picture & Television Home. This is on top of $25 million Douglas has already given the Home. This is most famous charity, but there are scores of others.

I suspect part of Kirk’s fortune stems from his foresight in buying up (1962) the rights to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. He starred in the first dramatization of the novel (1963). His Broadway play co-star was GENE WILDER. He couldn’t get a studio to make it into a film and eventually lent the film rights to Michael. “Cuckoo” won the Oscar for best picture (1975) and Michael, as producer, got that Oscar.  It cost $3mil to make and made $170mil (over $750 mil today).

By the way, “The Juggler,” can be purchased for less than $15.00, but finding a rentable copy is hard. However, the 1982 TV film, “Remembrance of Love,” can be viewed for free on Youtube (enter title). Kirk Douglas stars as a Holocaust survivor traveling to Israel with his adult American children to attend a survivors’ convention. ROBERT CLARY, now a mere 90 years old, plays himself. Clary was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp, age 14, in 1945. He’s best known for playing French prisoner LeBeau on “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Jackie: The Jewish Connection                                       

The feature film, “Jackie,” starring NATALIE PORTMAN, 35, as Jackie Kennedy, opened in limited release last Friday. It will open in most cities sometime this month. The film centers on the most dramatic period of Jackie’s life--the period just before and after the JFK assassination. The reviews, which you may have already read, have been very good to great and it’s almost a sure bet that Portman and others connected with the film will be Oscar-nominated.  If you watch any trailer, you can see that Portman has mastered Jackie’s distinctive voice—a mixture of a New York accent, finishing school diction, and a breathiness that reminds one of Marilyn Monroe. But, Portland’s performance is far more than the voice. Top critic DAVID EDELSTEIN, 57, says Portman just nails “Jackie’s mix of slyness and shyness.”

MAX CASSELLA, 49, co-stars as Jack Valenti, the LBJ aide who clashed with Jackie when she insisted that that would walk in the open streets with JFK’s casket as it was taken to his funeral. The screenplay, by NOAH OPPENHEIM, 38, won the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival. Oppenheim has a foot in screenwriting and politics and that’s perfect for this film. A Harvard grad, where he wrote sometimes on Jewish issues for the “Harvard Crimson,” he went on to produce political talk shows like “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Scarborough County.” Later, he was a senior “Today Show” producer.

Because this film will be in the news through the “awards season” (Golden Globes, Oscars, etc) I’ll save some interesting Jackie/Jewish connection stories and Jackie film nuggets for a future column.


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