In sorting through the political ping-pong that is the gay issue these days, it’s often encouraging to hear from people who may have no skin in that particular game but who have the caché and worldview to offer a compelling appraisal. Likewise, it’s one thing to have politically correct affirmation that everybody ought to be able to get married and another for one of humankind's all-time hetero swordsmen to actually observe gay passion as a bona fide aesthetic.
“That scene between Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier with the homosexual underpinning was beautiful,” says 95-year-old Kirk Douglas, in a private one-on-one with me at his house. He’s referring to the aggressively censored gay Roman bath scene in the 1960 blockbuster Spartacus.
With a still keen and analytical mind, Douglas tells me about the timing for him to publish his latest book, I Am Spartacus, Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.” Like his films, his bold writing shows how guts and fair play can torpedo the hull of political constipation and bigotry. Not only did Kirk help break Congress’ lingering McCarthy-era Communist blacklist by giving screen credit to Dalton Trumbo—one of “The Hollywood Ten”—in Spartacus, but Douglas has worked nearly a century with America's ersatz commies—gays, both closted and not so much.
He successfully restored a gay-themed scene featuring Tony Curtis and Sir Lawrence Olivier negotiating a same-sex dalliance. Formerly blocked by prudish censors, the updated print of the film features this history-making scene in its full splendor with an unexpected production bonus. “That scene between Tony and Larry was beautiful—it was just beautiful. What we originally shot was censored, and thank God it’s been restored to the picture.”
Douglas smiles, referring to the scene in which two Romans about to bathe naked together, in the mothership of all hot tubs, explore their mutual appetites for “snails and oysters”—erotic code for pudendal pleasures. Olivier, known in closeted Hollywood for his particular fondness of snails, had long passed away when the scene was finally restored. Unfortunately, while the print remained in perfect form, the audio track had long vanished and the crucial dialogue was lost forever.
“We were able to get Tony Curtis—in his 80s—to voice the scene perfectly to match his voice when he was in his 20s.” A more serious look now covers Douglas’ face. “But Lawrence Olivier was dead, so what were we going to do? Well, Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright, used to laugh that Anthony Hopkins could mimic Larry perfectly. So, she got Anthony Hopkins to do Olivier’s voice for the scene—and you can’t tell the difference at all! It’s amazing.”
When Kirk Douglas produced and starred in Spartacus, it was the most expensive film in history. And his executive choices also buffeted the closed-minded armor of the studio system and set the stage for more compelling storytelling. He recalled the risks he took, his blue eyes sparkling. Though a stroke some 15 years ago left him with impaired speech, his delivery is focused and feisty.
His housekeeper draws a curtain in the living room to soften the late morning sun as he outlines the salesmanship it took to recreate the sexual ubiquity of Roman times. Turns out, bombshell actress Jean Simmons was yet another to submerge herself in the steamy waters of the Spartacus bath. Said Douglas, “Jean Simmons was wearing a bra and panties, but the bra came up too high and you could see it through the water. If the bra was too low, well, you could see too much.” Kirk pauses, grinning straight at me. He’s clearly revving up for the kill.
“[Director Stanley] Kubrick was frustrated because we couldn’t get it right. So I said, ‘Jean, why don’t you take off your bra. She looked at me and started to laugh. I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ She said, ‘I’ll bet you’ve had a lot of experience taking bras off girls.’” Kirk Douglas giggles like a teenage boy, underscoring his well-known prowess. “With that, she took off her bra—she has beautiful breasts by the way—and we finished the scene,” he beams.