The Greats: Michael Douglas

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

Although he has several memorable films associated with his name, Michael Douglas isn’t defined by any of them. He’s bigger than his movies, and large enough to escape the sizable shadow of his famous father. He’s not just a persona, but we probably think of him more as a star than an actor. That’s nothing to be ashamed of: Douglas carries his pictures in a way that goes beyond character motivations or craft. He’s a movie star because it’s impossible to imagine him as anything else.

Born in September 1944, Douglas grew up as the son of Kirk, who was just about to begin a career as a film actor. In a 1986 interview in Playboy, Kirk said of his boy, “If I’d known what a big shot Michael was going to be, I would have been nicer to him when he was a kid. For one thing, Michael had a hatred and contempt for the world of entertainment when he was growing up; I thought he might make a good lawyer.” By the time Michael was seven, his mother Diana had filed for divorce. (Kirk had been sleeping around.) In Marc Eliot’s biography of Michael Douglas, the younger man recalled, “I think my earliest memory was about three, and it was them fighting. Not physically fighting, but arguing. Voices being raised.”

Though Douglas grew up on the East Coast, he went to college in Santa Barbara. (He’d heard that there were far more female students there than male.) At first, his interest in theater came from laziness: He figured it wouldn’t be that hard of a major. As hetold New York in 2013, “God bless Dad, he came to every one of my shows. I was bad, and I had horrible stage fright. My dad was so relieved—he’d say, ‘You were terrible, this kid is not going to be an actor.’ Finally, I did a play and he said, ‘Son—you were really good.’”

The burgeoning actor’s big breakthrough was The Streets of San Francisco, a cop show, which aired on ABC starting in 1972. Karl Malden got top billing, but Douglas felt like he’d arrived. “That was the first time I was famous on my own,” he told New York. “Being second generation in Hollywood is complicated: Success is expected, and yet the track record of the second generation is not great. Only a small group of us, like Jane Fonda, have succeeded. The good and the bad of being second generation is there are no illusions: I always knew that this was a business. It can be wonderful, but it is a business.”

By the mid-1970s, Kirk Douglas had already been nominated three times for Best Actor, as well as starred in classics like Ace in the Hole and Paths of Glory, helping to bring the latter’s director, Stanley Kubrick, to the attention of Hollywood by drafting him to shepherd the big-budget Spartacus. But it was Michael who received an Oscar first. Kirk had read galleys of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, in the early ’60s and bought the rights. The book was adapted for Broadway, and Kirk played the story’s antihero, Randle McMurphy. For years, Kirk tried to make it into a movie, but Michael made it happen.

“It was, in fact, a classic story: the story of an individual man fighting the system,” Michael told Playboy in 1986 about his love of Cuckoo’s Nest. “Particularly in the ’60s, people identified with this individual trying to overpower the establishment and, at the same time, breathe life into a group of men who had been buried by the system. … So I said to my father, ‘Look, I love this thing. Let me take it.’ I told him I would get the money he was looking for. Also, he originally wanted to play the part of McMurphy. By then, he had become a little older than the character, so his interest diminished because of that. Finally, he said OK. I think he saw it as an opportunity for me to learn about the business.”

In 1975, the film came out, winning five Oscars, including Best Actor for Jack Nicholson and Best Picture for Michael Douglas and fellow producer Saul Zaentz. At the time, Douglas was still primarily a TV actor, but the Oscar win successfully transitioned him into film. Not that the films were great: In the late ’70s, he did forgotten pictures like Coma and Running, with The China Syndrome the hit in between.

But perhaps because Douglas knew from an early age that the most important part of the phrase “show business” was the second word, he managed to navigate the 1980s much more confidently than peers who had been prominent in the previous decade, only to discover that Hollywood was becoming more of a blockbuster industry.

First, there were the Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile films, silly Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoffs that were enlivened by Douglas’s chemistry with costar Kathleen Turner. (And don’t forget Douglas’s old pal Danny DeVito, whom he’d known since the mid-’60s.) The movies, which were huge hits, allowed Douglas to undercut his beautiful features with a knowing sense of humor.

In a sense, ever since he’s played versions of Jack Colton: a handsome man of the world who isn’t all that he seems. How else to explain his predilection for portraying impressive men laid low by their own failings? It’s the line that connects the dots from his philandering husband in Fatal Attraction to the jilted, vengeful husband in War of the Roses to his seduced detective in Basic Instinct. Interestingly, the one movie in this span from the late ’80s to the early ’90s that most runs contrary to that pattern is the one for which he won Best Actor.

Like many fine actors before and after him, Douglas will be remembered for taking home an Oscar for a role that’s probably not his best work. Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko is too showy, too much of a representation of 1980s greed to be a flesh-and-blood person. (And on a nit-picky level, he’s not even the lead character: That’s Charlie Sheen’s impressionable Bud Fox.) But it’s the kind of strapping, swaggering bit of gusto that Douglas could execute with that slightly oily charm of his. If his other performances from the time suggested that such strutting men had weaknesses, Gekko threw cold water on our hopes: Even when the character finally gets his comeuppance, there was a sense that he remained master of the universe, even in prison. (Perhaps that’s why Oliver Stone brought Douglas back for a sequel almost 25 years later. Gekko always walks amongst us.)

“As a director, he really tests you,” Douglas once said at an AFI seminar about Stone. He recalled the filmmaker challenging him early on during filming of Wall Street: “You doing drugs? Because you look like you’ve never acted before in your life.” In truth, Stone thought Douglas was doing a fine job, but he wanted more. “He was willing, as the director, for me to hate him for the rest of that movie, right? Just to bring it up a little more,” Douglas said. “You look at Jimmy Woods in [Salvador], you look at Charlie Sheen in Platoon, you look at Kevin Costner in [JFK], you look at Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July … every actor has probably given his best performance with Oliver Stone, because he tests you. He doesn’t treat you like a wuss.”

Douglas wasn’t afraid of tests. In 1993, he was in Falling Down, an angry-man drama in which he plays William Foster, an unhinged, unemployed defense engineer who exudes zero charm as he marches around Los Angeles in a fog of exasperation and violence. Gekko was the embodiment of Reagen-era celebratory excess and success; Foster could be seen as one of the many working stiffs trampled by Wall Street’s Gekkos. An imperfect, nervy, reactionary film, Falling Down is held together by Douglas’s oft-kilter performance as a regular guy who can’t quite come to terms with the fact that he’s the story’s villain.

His résumé is, quite plainly, a mixed bag from there. But the highlights keep the stinkers at bay, partly because we like the man and we prefer to think positively. The American President finds him as the most enjoyable, persuasive big-screen president ever. (And it’s not because Douglas’s Andrew Shepard is the smartest or savviest: It’s because he looks the part, with all the casual, telegenic gravitas we’ve come to expect in our leaders.) From there, he took another trip into the darkness of his slick persona. The Game may be his most divisive film, but no matter its faults, it’s an incredibly underrated performance—the story of a walled-off one-percenter who gets a shot at redemption in the oddest, most extreme way imaginable.

As for Traffic, Douglas’s role as the newly appointed U.S. drug czar will always be connected to the fact that Harrison Ford famously turned it down, a decision that seems to have sent that actor’s career down a disappointing path ever since. What’s forgotten is that Douglas had actually turned it down first. “The script was obviously three separate stories, and I thought that the weakest part of the movie was my character,” Douglas said in 2006. “It was just so passive, so as much as I wanted to work with Steven [Soderbergh] I said no.” After Ford walked away from it, though, Douglas came back around, and the character was reworked. In truth, Douglas’s storyline remains the weakest of the three in Traffic—the least dynamic—but that’s only because the other two are flat-out terrific. Still, if The American President reflected our romanticized notion of what government can do, Traffic (in the guise of Douglas) acknowledged such idealism was baseless, our government officials hamstrung by their own insufficiencies and personal blind spots.

As with The Game, Traffic features a top-notch, overlooked Douglas performance—perhaps even as great as his celebrated turn as the scoundrel author Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys from the same year. As Tripp, the charm was there, but so was the sadness and disappointment of a creative type who perhaps sensed that the best days were behind him. Like with his portrayal of Shepard, Douglas’s performance in Wonder Boys is an idealized depiction of the character’s profession: In Tripp, lots of writers see themselves, except not nearly as handsome. In Tripp, Gordon Gekko had finally lost his edge, and Douglas made us love this shambles of a man.

If we all choose to overlook Douglas’s later years, what’s the harm? But let’s spare a moment for the modest, consistent pleasure, Solitary Man, which leans heavy on the actor’s Wonder Boys mode. And let’s recall that when he announced he had cancer in 2010, it was a shock, and a reminder of the sterling work. He’s doing better now, thankfully, but he went through dark days. “Yeah, well. Stage-four cancer and a shit-pot of chemo and radiation. That’s a rough ride, that can really take it out of you,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “Plus, the amount of chemo I was getting, it zaps all the good stuff, too. It made me very weak.”

But he returned, triumphant, in Behind the Candelabra, directed by Soderbergh with Matt Damon. In the United States, it played on HBO, but overseas it was in theaters, heralded as one of Douglas’s finest performances. (He was the infamous, overflowing pianist Liberace, and it’s fun to compare the portrayal to that of Gekko: two men who rule their universes by warping the reality around them.) With Douglas’s cancer treatments, it wasn’t assured that he’d ever get to make the film. “There was a year’s gap between when we thought we were going to shoot it and when we actually did,” he said in The Guardian. “The whole thing kept getting postponed. And me, as paranoid as I am, thought it was never going to happen. But, in truth, I think [the filmmakers] were just being kind to me. They knew I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know. They knew, and they were right. As soon as I got on set I thought, ‘Man, I never would have been able to do this a year ago, it would have finished me off.’ As it was, it proved very healing.”

Maybe you saw him afterward in Last Vegas. Or in And So It Goes. Those things happen. At this point, after surviving cancer, Douglas is allowed a few mediocrities. But he looks plainly joyful in them, happy to be here. This is a new Douglas than the one we used to know: a little frailer, a little more twinkle in his eyes. Still the movie star.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.