KIRK DOUGLAS – On stage at the Castro Theatre, July 24th

31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival to honor cinematic icon and “Hollywood Blacklist” breaker Kirk Douglas with 2011 SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

On Sunday, July 24th, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will present its Freedom of Expression Award to Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas on the stage of the Castro Theatre in celebration of the 50th anniversary of SPARTACUS and Douglas’ proudest professional achievement: breaking the Hollywood blacklist.

Douglas – who is Jewish, born Issur Danielovitch – bravely broke the Hollywood blacklist when he insisted on giving a screen credit to blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for SPARTACUS, which Douglas starred in and produced. Though the decision was widely criticized at the time, Douglas is now celebrated as having helped put an end to the legacy of the McCarthy era in Hollywood. At 94 years old, with over 87 films, 10 plays and 9 books to his credit, Douglas continues to regard breaking the blacklist to be his proudest career achievement.

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KIRK DOUGLAS and DALTON TRUMBO

“We’re extremely proud to present Kirk Douglas with our Freedom of Expression Award not only for his indelible contributions to American cinema as an actor, but also for his courageous actions in support of artistic freedom,” said Peter L. Stein, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Executive Director. “In every way he represents the spirit of the award and this Festival.”

SFJFF’s Freedom of Expression Award honors the unfettered imagination, which is the cornerstone of a free, just and open society. Douglas will appear on the Castro Theatre stage to receive the award and to introduce a special 50th Anniversary screening of SPARTACUS (released October 1960) – the historical epic drama directed by Stanley Kubrick that follows the story of Thracian slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) who leads an uprising against Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Trumbo adapted the story from a novel by fellow blacklisted writer Harold Fast. Trumbo initially wrote under the name Sam Jackson, but it was Douglas who insisted against the use of a pseudonym.

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Numerous plotlines in the film can be read as critiques of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). At the film’s conclusion, when the Romans finally defeat the rebellion, the captured slaves refuse to identify Spartacus. Throughout the 1950s, McCarthyism and fear of Communism prevailed in the United States, and the blacklist prevented filmmakers, screenwriters and actors suspected of having ties to the Communist party from working in the motion picture industry. The Hollywood blacklist era of the 1950s is now known as one of the darkest chapters in American political and media history, and one that additionally had a profound impact on the lives and reputations of many Jewish artists working in cinema.

“We feel that Kirk Douglas is the ideal recipient for this year’s award, and we can think of no better film to present in the context of Freedom of Expression,” said SFJFF Program Director Jay Rosenblatt, himself a former SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award Winner (in 2005). “It will also be an interesting experience for our audience to view SPARTACUS within the context of a Jewish film festival. SPARTACUS is the story of slaves freeing themselves from the Romans. That has particular reverberations for Jews familiar with the Passover story of deliverance from slavery in Egypt.”

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival joins a growing list of organizations to honor Douglas for his courageous act. When SPARTACUS was restored in 1991, the Writers Guild of America honored Douglas with the Meltzer Award. In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union honored Douglas with the Bill of Rights Award, and in 2007, PEN USA gave Douglas its Freedom of Expression Award. He was also honored by the American Film Institute (AFI) in January 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Spartacus, and the breaking of the blacklist was emphasized.

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A lifetime of achievement
Kirk Douglas attended Saint Lawrence University on a wrestling scholarship. He received a second scholarship from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and set his sights on Broadway, making his debut as a singing Western Union boy in Spring Again. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and a brief return to the Broadway stage, Douglas made his cinematic debut opposite Barbara Stanwyck in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS. It was Douglas’ subsequent role as boxer Mr. Kelly in Stanley Kramer’s CHAMPION (1950) that earned him both stardom and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

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Douglas later received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1953) and LUST FOR LIFE (1956). In 1996, Douglas was honored with a Special Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Douglas formed one of Hollywood’s first independent film companies when he founded Bryna (named for his mother) in 1955. The Bryna Company produced a number of films including PATHS OF GLORY, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, SPARTACUS, THE VIKINGS and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY.

In 1981, Douglas was presented the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award in recognition of his years as a self-financed goodwill ambassador for America. Douglas visited more than twenty countries in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe as well as the war zones of Beirut, Lebanon, and Red Cross hospitals and Afghan refugee camps near the Khyber Pass, speaking on the function of democracy and the meaning of freedom. In 1990, he was appointed Officier de la Legion d’Honneur for distinguished services to France in arts and letters. He has also been honored by the countries of Italy, Portugal, Israel and Germany.

A notable philanthropist, he formed the Douglas Foundation with his wife Anne in 1964. With funds raised by auctioning off their personal art collection, the Douglases restored 400 neglected playgrounds in Los Angeles schools, created a series of playgrounds in Israel for both Arabs and Jews, and committed funds for the erection of a theatre across from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. In 2000, he was honored by the Jerusalem Film Festival and was invited by King Abdullah and Queen Rania to Jordan for meetings. Mr. Douglas recently received a standing ovation from the audience when he presented the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 2011 Academy Award ceremonies.

Judaism takes a leading role in Douglas’ life
Douglas’ interest in Judaism was renewed after a series of life-altering events – first a helicopter crash in 1991, then a stroke in 1996. At 83, Douglas had a second Bar Mitzvah and now takes the time to meet for weekly study sessions with his Rabbi, David Wolpe, as well as to participate in Shabbat rituals every Friday evening. Douglas has always lived by Jewish principles, especially Tzedakah (charity), having learned from his mother Bryna that no matter how poor you are (and his family was nearly destitute) you must always spare money for those who have less. In 2003, he starred alongside son Michael Douglas and grandson Cameron Douglas in the film IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY, a touching comedy about a New York Jewish family that unravels over a family Passover dinner. Many of his books have touched on Jewish themes, especially autobiographical works like Climbing the Mountain and My Stroke of Luck and he has written several children’s books including Young Heroes of the Bible.

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Michael, Kirk, and Cameron Douglas

About the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) is the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival. SFJFF’s mission is to promote awareness and appreciation of the diversity of the Jewish people, provide a dynamic and inclusive forum for exploration of and dialogue about the Jewish experience, and encourage independent filmmakers working with Jewish themes. The SFJFF’s signature summer Film Festival, monthly screenings, youth mentorship program (New Jewish Filmmaking Project), publications, and online resources have made SFJFF a leader in the use of media arts to foster cultural understanding. Annually attracting more than 33,000 filmgoers, the SFJFF is world-renowned for the diversity and breadth of its audiences and films.
Click here for more information: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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