Forty years before 'Gladiator', the epic splendor of 'Spartacus' conquered the box office; but as star Kirk Douglas discovered, all Roman roads do not lead to Oscar

By Steve Daly
February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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Stanley Kubrick was talking like he had his first Oscar nomination sewn up. It was fall 1960, and the 32-year-old director was in New York meeting the press to promote the opening of the Roman-slave-revolt epic Spartacus.

”I think the film will be a contender for awards,” Kubrick blithely told a New York Times reporter. ”It’s just as good as [1957’s] Paths of Glory, and certainly there’s as much of myself in it.”

The paper noted that ”with icy aplomb,” Kubrick had taken over the reins of the $12 million production — one of the priciest Hollywood-financed films ever at the time, close behind 1959’s $15 million Ben-Hur — as a last-minute pinch hitter. (He got the gig only after executive producer and star Kirk Douglas dismissed the first director, Anthony Mann, who departed two weeks into shooting.) With equally frosty self-possession, Kubrick used interviews to take the lion’s share of credit for a picture he hadn’t conceived or cast. ”I don’t mean to minimize the contributions of the others involved,” he said. ”But the director is [the] only one who can authentically impose his personality onto a picture, and the result is his responsibility — partly because he’s the only one who’s always there.”

It was a nervy boast, given the fact that Spartacus was a work-for-hire sort of gig. It also proved to be something of a jinx. In stark contrast to the lockstep march that Gladiator has taken toward award glory this year under DreamWorks’ Oscar-campaign generals — the tale of the warrior Maximus is a front-runner in many of the major categories, including picture, actor, and director — Spartacus got clocked on the way to the forum.

When nominations for 1960’s pictures were announced in February, 1961, two other first-time contenders — Jack Cardiff for Sons and Lovers and Jules Dassin for Never on Sunday — effectively bumped would-be initiate Kubrick out of the directors’ race. (His chances of victory were slim anyway against eight-time nominee Billy Wilder, the eventual winner for The Apartment, and fifth-time nominee Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho.) Not until he made 1964’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would Kubrick find himself competing, in his first of four unsuccessful runs at Best Director.

But enough about Stanley. Spartacus was really Kirk Douglas’ baby, and he had high Academy hopes for it. So how about a Best Picture nod? Denied, even though John Wayne’s appalling, self-produced dud The Alamo got a slot (thereby also squeezing Psycho out of the Best Picture lineup). And what of Douglas’ shot at a fourth run for Best Actor, having already been nominated for playing a boxer in Champion (1949), a producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and artist Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956)? Dashed, in a race eventually won by Burt Lancaster for hamming it up in Elmer Gantry. Douglas never again had serious prospects for the award, though he was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1996 by — great Caesar’s ghost! — DreamWorks cofounder Steven Spielberg.

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