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Breaking the Mold

Actor and producer Michael Douglas defies leading-man expectations with bold creative choices.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

Michael Douglas creates real men. Flawed. Good. Human. Conflicted. Passionate. Smart, decent men who occasionally have moral lapses. And immoral men who are dazzlingly desirable. As an actor his choices reflect a fearlessness in the face of a public who constantly wants to identify and define its icons by the characters that they portray on film. He's a leading man who doesn't always want to do what the traditional leading man is supposed to do. And he is one of the few men, in any age category, who consistently weaves raw and blatant sexuality into the threads of incredibly charismatic characters.

Douglas eschews the typecasting trap partly because of his own journey as an artist, and partly because the public is willing to continue to go see his movies, regardless of the genre. "I create challenges by the roles I take," he says. "I'm sort of proud of the fact that I'm not really typecast. People are always trying to get a handle on what you do. With me either it's my sex trilogy--Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure--or my businessman trilogy--Wall Street, The Game and this picture I'm doing now called A Perfect Murder. I've been fortunate that, within those categories, [I've been able] to choose different types of roles, and I am proud that the audience has been able to accept me in whatever type of role I play. They are not the typical 'movie star' roles. They're more ambivalent characters. Sometimes they are morally depraved. They are not the outright positive type of images that you attribute to selecting a 'star' type role.

"And the pictures themselves are more oddball," Douglas adds. "I've been very fortunate in that area, too. I've taken chances and so far the audiences have basically condoned those choices. They have allowed me to do those different types of roles. I do pictures for myself, because I figure if I like them, some other crazy people out there might like them, too. You know, once you've gained your confidence and done some bizarre, strange films with some roles that have been successful, it gives you the confidence to go out there and take more chances."

Two hammocks, four palm trees and twilight on the magical island of Bermuda. The cigars are lit, the Black Seal Bermuda rum poured--a feat not easily accomplished on this windy evening. But we are, after all, in paradise. Michael Douglas's paradise: the Ariel Sands Beach Club, to be precise. Amid the coral-painted cottage colony that he has recently invested in (owned by members of his mother's family), on the idyllic beaches where he happily played as a boy, and near the golf courses that he cannot get nearly enough of as a man, Douglas is literally and figuratively at home.

Dressed in neatly pressed khakis and a cozy cashmere sweater, he looks much younger than his 53 years. Of course, there's his father Kirk's cleft chin to consider, as well as the sparkling aquamarine eyes of his mother, actress Diana Dill. Settling back into a hammock with an El Rey del Mundo, Douglas is your basic brilliant, successful, hard-working, recently divorced guy who just happens to be an Academy Award-winning actor and producer. He's a celebrity who dearly wishes he had more time to escape to the golf course and play hooky with his buddies. And, not unlike many men who have encountered a mid-life transition, he wonders what he is going to do to imbue the second half of his life with meaning, now that his marriage has ended and his child is in college.

His career as an actor has been driven by a series of passionate, if seemingly quirky, choices. In a way, Michael Douglas has helped reshape our definition of what a leading man is supposed to be. Very few movie stars will allow themselves the creative latitude to craft morally ambiguous or flawed characters on a regular basis. The Hero is supposed to save the day. The country. The planet. Our celluloid heroes need to be better than good. If If a movie star can't use his mind or his body or his spirit to vanquish all foes in 120 minutes or less while still looking great, that movie just isn't a star vehicle.

Douglas's body of work shows that he has built a successful career around a collection of risky characters, some of whom were downright unappealing. Even when he was portraying the romantic hero Jack Colton in the 1984 hit Romancing the Stone and its sequel, Jewel of the Nile, he did so with a self-deprecating, recalcitrant smirk. It was almost as if he had to constantly argue with himself to make the correct heroic moves.

His Academy Award-winning performance in Oliver Stone's 1987 hit Wall Street showed a seductive, arrogant Gordon Gecko, a devil in a custom-made suit whose amorality spoke to that part within each of us that secretly resonates with his ice-cold, bottom-line heart. That same year he played the husband who succumbs to a steamy, adulterous affair with Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Six years later, he was the victim of sexual harassment at the hands of Demi Moore in Disclosure.

We were saddened when we realized that there was most definitely an ice pick somewhere in detective Nick Curran's future in Basic Instinct. Falling Down cast Douglas as a disenfranchised, downsized defense department worker avenging the wrongs of the world during a day-long gun-toting rampage across Los Angeles. He played The Game as successful investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, who had to lose everything he thought he had before he could find his way back to his own heart and avoid committing suicide like his father. Even in Rob Reiner's romantic comedy, The American President, Douglas created a man who could run our country, romance a woman and conduct a sexual relationship in the White House. Of course, President Andrew Shepherd was a widower.

As the light of the day slowly begins to fade, Douglas takes a puff on his El Rey del Mundo and muses metaphorically about how he decides which film he wants to work on.


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