If there are four screen stars with the granite jaws and steely gazes worthy of replacing the presidents’ faces on Mount Rushmore, they are those who rose as actor-producers in the immediate post-World War II era and projected themselves as larger-than-life characters on screen: Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston. Other stars of the era — Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Victor Mature, Cornel Wilde — miss the category by being not quite as stellar, less predictable and therefore less conventionally heroic.In their time and for long afterwards they were derided by critical cognoscenti for not being the same type of actor as Olivier or Laughton or Muni, totally losing themselves in their roles. I’ve come to agree with Bette Davis, who, remarking on her Warner Bros studio-mate Paul Muni, regretted that he submerged himself so far into his role that there was little real flesh and blood showing on the screen. Spencer Tracy, if not Fredric March, might have lent something to them — though he too was too much of a thespian and boozer to be a producer. Brando, too, in the end, thought little of his craft, dabbling in directing often to the detriment of his films, and bent as he was on being an activist.
The Rushmore Four were also liberal activists in their day, even Charlton Heston — sticking his neck out for others’ civil rights, like Burt Lancaster, on protest marches with Martin Luther King. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were instrumental in breaking down the Hollywood Blacklist, the brick wall of rabid hatred erected by Senator Joe McCarthy and maintained by Nixon and many others starting in the late Forties and persisting for the next fifteen years with few exceptions. Gregory Peck, particularly after he gained civil-rights iconic status through To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), was near the top of Nixon’s dirty tricks hitlist. As far as acting went, the Four were plenty disciplined enough (unlike Brando) and convincing enough to carry the central role in at least a hundred major films between them from 1945 to say, 1975, though the flow had thinned out considerably over the last decade.
Though all could be relied on best to project virility effortlessly on screen — something hardly captured by the Arnies and Sylvesters with all their huffing and puffing, in their biggest, pumped-up bodies — Burt and Kirk were from the start capable of considerable subtlety of emotion along with the naked power, and Gregory and Chuck improved with age. Greg Peck’s early screen performances were described in terms of various levels of inadequacy even by his major biographer. The open implication always was that he made it on his looks in openings at a time when the real, established stars were off at the war. And at the peak of his box-office popularity in the late Forties and early Fifties he was singled out as “the kind of actor that Humphrey Bogart despised”, whatever species of beast that be. Critics held reservations about Charlton Heston because of what was said to be his “reserve” on screen, slow to come to the boil in front of the camera, for example — though probably it was all down to a highly controlled technique. He had considerably more stage experience than the others, after all. And he never quite made the Motion Picture Herald top 10 in personal popularity for any one year though starring in the biggest box-office blockbusters of all through the Fifties: The Greatest Show On Earth, The Ten Commandments for DeMille again, and Ben Hur — supposedly for lack of any deep connection felt by the audience. Lancaster and Douglas were said to be “terrible tempered twins” though not really much alike — renowned for their egos though, as good friends, surrendering status to each other in the many films they made together. Lancaster once suffered from faint praise by co-star Shirley Booth, admittedly a stickler for stage standards of quality, for relatively rare moments of “truth” in Come Back Little Sheba (1952). All were highly regarded for their ability by British audiences, foremost Douglas just shading Lancaster.
Burt (The Killers, 1946) and Kirk (Champion, 1949) were both launched to stardom at age 33. Greg and Chuck made it at 27 — vi Days of Glory (1944) and Dark City (1950) respectively, though a little less convincingly. None had difficulty filling the screen from the outset — better than say, contemporaries Richard Widmark, who just misses this bunch, with Robert Mitchum, missing only for reasons of lackadaisical anti-heroism — but only two of them made the annual top 10 box-office stars lists, and only twice each, Greg and Burt. Kirk and Charlton narrowly missed the honors list several times, as did Widmark and Mitchum. Sure there was more, and hotter, competition for places in those days. But there also wasn’t the all-fired rush for bigger blockbusters every time. Many of their films were actually made to be personally uplifting. Also, for whatever reason, in recent decades the Harrison Fords, Sylvester Stallones, Arnold Schwarzeneggers, Chuck Norrises, Samuel L Jacksons and Jackie Chans have been named top box-office draws when special effects afficionados would go along to see a trained chimp in their roles.
As far as their acting went, some of their roles have rarely been surpassed: Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956) as Vincent Van Gogh and as the disillusioned colonel in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1958). Lancaster, after a swashbuckling period — The Flame and the Arrow (1950), The Crimson Pirate (1952) — applied himself to as versatile an oeuvre as Brando, including such classics as Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Watching him recently in Run Silent, Run Deep, up against the old warhorse Clark Gable, admittedly twenty years past his prime, Lancaster came across as fine — sensitive and subtle. Surely, adding that same year his frightening portrayal of abuse of power in The Sweet Smell of Success and of sexual frustration (pursued by Rita Hayworth at her most alluring) in Separate Tables gave him the acting honors for 1958. All of them infuriated a certain type of critic at one time or another — Peck especially for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and evil Dr Mengele in The Boys from Brazil, “boring” or inert in other roles; Heston for being irredeemably dignified and monumental — as if he could be anything else in his best, most demanding roles; Lancaster for not being “method” enough to need a therapist — so definitely not the actor’s actor in the Fifties; Douglas, though more “method” and facile in displaying feelings, still too much of a hunk to please other, generally weedy actors.
Burt was an acrobat pre-acting, Kirk a professional wrestler, and Greg and Chuck similarly athletic. That by itself is enough in most circles to consign them to the monosyllabic Action Man category and disqualify them from serious artistic consideration today, when slightly built, androgynous Johnnny Depps, Brad Pitts, Matt Damons and Leonardo DiCaprios rule.
All four retreated to rather routine westerns in the latter 1960s to extend their commercial lives — and all were better for their presence. At the same time they continued extending their experience in different types of roles, just as other old timers essayed risky roles late in the decade, giving their last hurrahs in ground-breaking blockbusters: Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler), John Wayne (True Grit), Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West), Rod Steiger (Waterloo), George C Scott (Patton), with Marlon Brando (The Godfather) still to come. Of the four, as always Lancaster and Douglas did best in attempting to stretch the boundaries. Heston (Planet of the Apes) was the only one to lower himself to “disaster movies”, though he fitted them in to finance his Shakespeare and other literary classics.
Douglas produced and directed the anti-establishment western Posse (1975) before semi-retiring into the production side; Peck the same, emerging on screen for superior horror The Omen (1976). Lancaster did best through this era with 1900 and Atlantic City. All four boasted marriage partnerships of extraordinary duration, especially where Hollywood is concerned. And all lived at least into their mid-eighties, Douglas still going at 92, again maybe reflecting outstanding professionalism and discipline.