The leader of a slave revolt, a pugnacious prizefighter, a western gunslinger, a teenage girl’s rapist. Kirk Douglas was all of these things, but only one for real.
This is what we must accept if we are to believe Lana Wood, the younger sibling of Natalie Wood, who this week named Douglas as the man who sexually assaulted her sister.
Lana’s account of the attack finally puts on the record a story that has swirled around the industry for decades.
In a podcast in 2018, Lana described a childhood memory of accompanying Natalie to a private meeting with a “big star” at the Chateau Marmont hotel, during which Natalie was raped while Lana and their mother, Maria, sat outside in their car.
At the time of recording, Douglas was still alive, and Lana declined to name the star in question. But when he died in February last year at the age of 103, the story had circulated widely enough that Natalie’s name began trending on social media alongside his own.
In Lana’s memoir, Little Sister, she identifies Douglas as her sister’s assailant.
The story is as sickening as it is horribly familiar: Hollywood cover-up culture in action, running as smoothly as its inventors could have dreamed. A powerful man behaves monstrously, safe in the knowledge the system will stub out his young female victim before allowing him to be compromised.
Maria had been determined to make her pretty, middle daughter a movie star, and in 1955 the plan was firmly on track. Natalie had just appeared in Rebel Without a Cause opposite James Dean, and had been cast alongside Lana in The Searchers.
The transition from cute child parts into more substantial, grown-up roles is a precarious moment: the worst possible point at which to rock the boat.
Douglas, then aged 38, was one of the industry’s most influential figures.
Perhaps Natalie felt that in the fullness of time she would reach a point at which the dreadful secret could finally be disclosed. But after her death by drowning in mysterious circumstances at the age of 43, the fullness of time was not a privilege she was ever to be afforded.
Douglas worked steadily into his 70s and remained married to his second wife, Anne, who died last April, for the rest of his very long life. On his own death in February last year, his son Michael Douglas described him as “a humanitarian whose commitment to justice and the causes he believed in set a standard to aspire to”.
The awful events of that night, more than 60 years before #MeToo, are a part of Natalie Wood’s legacy. They must also be a part of Kirk Douglas’s.
For decades he traded on his reputation as the embodiment of Hollywood’s progressive credentials.
But he is also the man who used his influence and status and the admiration of millions of cinema-goers to launder a sexual attack on a teenage girl who was less than half his age and at least a year below the Californian age of consent.
It was Natalie who had to live under the cloud of it; Natalie who asked her sister never to divulge what had happened that night.
Lana writes in her book that circumstances now allow her to break that promise in good faith, which seems reasonable. No rule of etiquette prevents us from sincerely reckoning with a dead celebrity’s faults, and the case against Douglas – which stemmed for so long from unverifiable whispers – is now vouched for by his victim’s sibling and confidante.
We all know it, but it bears repeating: real life isn’t like the movies, and tends to be short on neatly scripted conclusions. Douglas remains the monumental figure in Hollywood history he has been since Spartacus became the most successful film Universal Studios had ever made. Perhaps even more so than Harvey Weinstein, he is now also the embodiment of the industry at its most predatory and debased. (© Daily Telegraph London)
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