Based on the best-selling novel by Irving Stone, "Lust For Life" (1956) is a great biographical film about the life, passion and torment of one of the world's most gifted artists, Vincent Van Gogh. And it was through Kurt Douglas's own motivation, talent and skill as an actor, that he was able to recreate not just a character, but a person onscreen.
It was early in his career, Kirk Douglas found his own fascination with Van Gogh after being told he had a physical resemblance to the red-haired, stone-faced painter. It was when Douglas formed his own production company, Byras, that Douglas wanted the first picture to be of a film about Van Gogh with Douglas in the title role. However, while Douglas was negotiating making the film, MGM Studios bought the rights to Irving Stone's novel "Lust For Life."
What the actor didn't know was that he was going to have his chance to play Van Gogh when director Vincente Minelli replaced the original director, Jean Negulesco. Douglas was Minelli's first and only choice for Van Gogh, since he knew the actor not only resembled the painter physically but could justifiably play the role. Also, this was not the first time the actor and director had worked before either. Four years prior, Minelli directed Douglas in the Hollywood noir film "The Bold and The Beautiful" (1952).
Once he was cast and production began, Douglas made every effort to bring Van Gogh to life. To the point where, whenever Douglas returned home from set, still in character and costume, he scared his own wife. Douglas's method approach made the role a visceral experience for the viewer. Every feeling and emotion of Van Gogh is explicitly expressed through Douglas's use of not just his voice or facial expression, but his entire being. Onscreen, his every atom is dedicated to expression the frustration, the madness and the intensity of Van Gogh's temperament. His performance reaches out to the viewer, so that when Van Gogh's paintings appear in the film, blazing with the painter's signature colors and brush strokes, there is small understanding and compassion for the artist and his efforts.
Douglas's performance was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award, but would lose to nominee Yul Brenner for his portrayal as King of Siam in "The King and I" (1956). Douglas was devastated by the loss, quoted saying at the time, "I really thought I had a chance." And Minelli stated his own disappointment over Douglas's loss - "Kirk Douglas achieve a moving and memorable portrait of the artist - a man of massive creative power, triggered by severe emotional stress, the fear and horror of madness. In my opinion, Kirk should have won the Academy Award."