Kirk Douglas’ book I AM SPARTACUS: MAKING A FILM, BREAKING THE BLACKLIST is an amazing read, full of awesome portraits of Kubrick, Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov, and most importantly Dalton Trumbo. Spartacus was a huge undertaking with its fair share of great challenges; it was essentially in a race with a rival film on the same topic, The Gladiators; it had an original troubled script by the author of the novel; and its initial director was not up to the monumental task.
Douglas, as the film’s producer (he was also its star), managed the latter of these problems by hiring Stanley Kubrick, with whom he’d worked on Paths of Glory, to take over, and what brilliance the film has is due to this bold decision. But the braver managerial decision Douglas made was to hire Dalton Trumbo, who was very much on The Blacklist, perhaps more than any other Hollywood writer, to take over the writing of the screenplay under the pseudonym “Sam Jackson”.
Douglas is an excellent writer, not afraid of expressing his opinions and also not shy of indulging in a little gossip; he emerges as a brave, committed and politically advanced man, someone of honour and decency. That he wrote this clear-eyed book at the age of 96, after two strokes and all sorts of other disabling events, is astonishing to me. Obviously his memory is entirely undiminished. This is a fascinating history of an intriguing production with a terrific cast of very famous characters and a great look at how the infamous Blacklist was finally beaten.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: when the infamous “snails and oysters” scene between Olivier and Tony Curtis (cut from the original release) was restored for the criterion release thirty years later, the audio was no good. Curtis was still alive and came in to re-record his dialogue. Olivier, however was dead. But, upon Joan Plowright’s recommendation, Anthony Hopkins came in and did his Olivier impersonation! Here’s a link — it’s a perfect impersonation: