The old man is 88 now, and his oldest kid turned 60 last year. Finally they’re ready to heal old wounds, or at least manfully take a stab at it, in HBO’s “A Father ... a Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
“Was I a good father?” asks Kirk Douglas, his speech still affected by a 1996 stroke.
“You have ultimately been a great father,” Michael Douglas tells him.
The one-hour, 35-minute film, directed by Michael’s longtime friend Lee Grant, is both revealing and somewhat frustrating. Father and son hash a few things out on camera together, but not enough time is spent with just the two of them. Instead we get a wealth of film clips that aren’t particularly well-organized. There also are separate interviews with Kirk, Michael, other Douglases and various pals and associates.
“A Father ... a Son” also is something of a vanity project, gift-wrapped near the end with Kirk’s bar mitzvah at age 83, tributes to the two Douglases’ charity work and footage from Kirk’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration, in which he repeated his vows to wife Anne. A giggling Catherine Zeta-Jones, whom Michael married in 2000, contributes little of any import. And director Grant occasionally resorts to sappy mood music, an Old Hollywood touch that in this case just feels old.
There are, however, some moments. Kirk has festered for years over Michael’s decision to leave him out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The film won five Oscars in 1975, including best picture and best actor for Jack Nicholson’s performance as Randle McMurphy.
Kirk had coveted the McMurphy role for years and played it on Broadway after buying rights to the Ken Kesey book. But he couldn’t get “Cuckoo’s Nest” made for the big screen and then couldn’t understand why Michael left him out of the picture after finally securing financing.
“You could have said, ‘No, no, my father must play that part,’ ” Kirk tells Michael.
“I cajoled and I persuaded and everything else, Dad!” Michael replies. But in the end, Nicholson was both 24 years younger than Kirk and far more bankable and believable at the time. Also, as a neophye producer, Michael had little clout.
“I forgive you,” Kirk says rather suddenly while they sit together at a food-laden dining room table.
“I forgive you,” Michael says as they buss each other on the lips.
Kirk, whose signature films include “Spartacus,” “Champion” and “Lust for Life,” had a difficult relationship with his own father, Jacob Danielovitch.
“It was hard for him to express his delight with my success,” Kirk says in a separate interview.
He in turn was less than an ideal father to his four sons by two marriages. Joel Douglas remembers Kirk as a “bully” at times. Michael says he “kind of formed a cast-iron stomach” and “learned pretty early to stay away.” Youngest son Eric, briefly shown in the film, died last summer at age 46 of a drug overdose. Michael’s son, Cameron, also has battled drugs.
Kirk and Michael have shared another vice. Both freely played the field during their first tries at husbandhood.
Diana Douglas, mother of Michael and Joel, is interviewed for the film and seems to bear no animosity toward the man she divorced in 1951.
“I guess I was a bad boy,” Kirk concedes. “Yes, yes, I’ve had lots of women in my life.”
Michael’s first marriage, to the former Diandra Luker, lasted 23 years, until their divorce in 2000. During an earlier separation, he had a robust affair with frequent film co-star Kathleen Turner (“Romancing the Stone,” “The War of the Roses”).
“We carried on like bandits, on-screen and off,” Michael recalls.
The current-day Turner also speaks of this, but Diandra is not interviewed in the film.
Michael eventually bottomed out, undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse in 1992. To this day he resents a British tabloid story that said he was hospitalized for “sex addiction.” But Kirk says that’s not so bad.
“Well, what’s wrong with sex addiction?” he asks. “I have had it all my life. It’s never bothered me.”
Father and son end up singing “Whale of a Tale Together,” which Kirk first performed on screen 51 years ago as Ned Land in Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
They then walk off arm in arm, lending a classic happily-ever-after ending to a watchable, interesting film that falls short of great expectations.
“A Father … a Son … Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” airs at 7 tonight on HBO.