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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

(continued from page 6)

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.

"Choosing which movie to do is a lot like falling in love with a woman," he says, the twinkle in his eyes attempting to disguise just how seriously he takes this process. "I don't know how well you analyze what qualities of a woman you are looking for, as opposed to what hits you in the face. You are attracted to her, you are attracted to a project. You then, because you are a little older now, don't impulsively go out and get married, i.e., commit to a project, but you find out about it. How many times do you find yourself thinking about it? Do you have to have a paper and pen by your bed at night? Do you wake up thinking about her, about the project? And if she stays with you, that project, and you can't get enough of her, you're hooked and you know you gotta do it. You gotta go and make that movie. If the initial infatuation wavers and wanders, you know that you don't want to make that commitment."

He takes another puff on his cigar. "Sometimes you want to do the dance a little bit. The director is of utmost importance. There are only about eight directors that I would walk off the boardwalk to make a picture with. So, short of those directors that I would sign off on immediately based on their résumé, I want to talk to the director. I want to be sure that they have a vision, that they actually have a picture in their mind of this movie, how they want to do it--even if it is different from what I saw when I read the script. It's important to see just how clear and strong their vision is."

Pausing for a moment and exhaling smoke, he adds wryly, "Although it is possible to have love at first sight. I have learned that, professionally at least, I have pretty good instincts."

The eldest son of Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill Darrid grew up in New Jersey and Connecticut, away from the glare of Hollywood. His desire to become an actor surfaced at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as far as a young man could get from the rigidity of his New England prep schools.

"I went to Choate, which was this very fancy prep school. For a while I was debating about going to Yale. Going to California to go to college at UC Santa Barbara was the first real decision in my life. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was a real tight-ass and I figured I had to change, so I made the most radical change I could think of. I went to my college adviser and then to a travel agent and I looked at all these brochures and said, 'I want to go there.'

"It was great to be in California in the early 1960s. The UC system was in fabulous shape. The whole culture was just spectacular. It was an important time in my life and I think it paid off pretty well. I was undeclared for years and years and then in my junior year they called me and said, 'You gotta get a major.' I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was a hippie and I was hanging out. I had flunked out for a year already and I was enjoying myself. So I thought, I'll take theater. I figured, Mom was an actress in the theater and my stepfather was a Broadway producer before he was a writer and it just seemed like it was an opportunity to do something that would be easy. I thought, my dad's an actor, but I had this terrible stage fright. So after majoring in theater, I worked as an assistant film editor on my dad's film, Lonely Are the Brave. I worked as an assistant director on The Heroes of Telemark and Cast a Giant Shadow."

After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1968, Douglas moved to New York City to continue his dramatic training, first with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and eventually with Wynn Handman at the American Place Theater. "I did a lot of Off-Broadway work and summer stock and eventually I was put under contract to CBS. I did three pictures for CBS Playhouse that did not work out particularly well, but it did bring me out to Los Angeles. I did a few episodes of 'Medical Center,' 'The FBI' and the like, and then the series ["The Streets of San Francisco"] came. And it was a really, really phenomenal opportunity."

"The Streets of San Francisco," which Douglas starred in from 1972 to 1976, became one of ABC's highest-rated prime-time programs; it was, in a sense, his graduate level curriculum as an actor. The fast-paced, demanding work of a one-hour dramatic series honed Douglas's talents. "What happened on 'Streets' is that I learned what each actor's responsibility was to the process as a whole," he says. "In my case, I was the second banana and Karl Malden and I were responsible for carrying the plot. Each week we had a different guest star coming in and we had a different director. We did 104 hours of the show. Basically, we made a 52-minute movie in seven working days. It was a lot about structure, prologues, three to four acts, epilogues. The only thing that mattered was, 'Is it good for this episode?' It was a really great experience."

Thanks to Malden's goodwill as an actor, Douglas's character did not fade into the background, like that of so many of his predecessors in the one-hour dramatic format. The exposure allowed him to work though his residual stage fright. "Karl was incredibly generous and supportive," Douglas recalls. "Up until that series, the second banana was always two steps back and in soft focus. He made sure that I really got the chance to shine. He was always saying, 'Come on, come on up here.' Any fears that I had of the camera were allayed by simply having to be up there every hour working." Douglas earned three successive Emmy Award nominations for his work and directed two episodes of the series.

In the fourth year of production, Douglas opted to leave "The Streets of San Francisco" to follow a decidedly different career path. For years, his father had been trying without success to produce and star in the film adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Now Michael decided to take a stab at the project.

"Everybody thought I was pretty crazy to leave the series after four years because it was such a hot show, but I left to produce this picture," recalls Douglas. "I felt really passionate about it. I really loved the project. I had no idea or intention that it would win five [major] Academy Awards and all that kind of stuff, and then it became like a springboard. There I was, an Academy Award-winning producer at 31 years of age. My career as a producer gave me an opportunity to do more acting jobs, like China Syndrome and Romancing the Stone.

"The first few years, everybody just spoke in terms of, 'Why do you even bother acting?' I said, 'I just love acting.'"

His producer's résumé is equally impressive, balancing box-office success and critical acclaim with social relevance. In 1984 Douglas produced the hit of the Christmas season, Starman, which earned lead actor Jeff Bridges an Oscar nomination. In 1986, Douglas created a television series based on the film. Two years later, he formed Stonebridge Entertainment Inc., which produced Flatliners, directed by Joel Schumacher, and Radio Flyer, directed by Richard Donner. In 1993, he produced Whoopi Goldberg's comedy Made in America, and in 1996, Douglas formed a production company with Steven Ruether and produced and starred in The Ghost and the Darkness. In 1997, they gave us the summer action hit Face/Off and John Grisham's The Rainmaker. Recently, the pair went their separate ways, and Douglas now has a production deal with Universal Studios.

During several productions throughout his career, Douglas served as producer and actor, but he found that doing both jobs on the same project was a bad mix. "I don't enjoy acting [when producing] because when you're producing a film that you're acting in, you're looking around at everything else. The joy of acting is being able to have tunnel vision, to have blinders on and enjoy the moment. To have no responsibility for anything else other than for creating that moment on film. To be a producer is to be responsible for everything that is going on around us. Everything. So I used to do it, and I was successful at it, but I wasn't necessarily enjoying it. So I realized that I'd rather go focus on being an actor."

Unlike many movie stars who use their box office clout to control the creative process, often to the detriment of the film, Douglas says he consciously works against this tendency, using his knowledge as a producer to temper his own actor's ego.

"Sure, I like producing. I like the development process and control and being involved in it. I'll do it once in a while. But I'm very different than a lot of guys. A lot of the guys love the control factor. They want the whole thing. I think that's presumptuous. I welcome and I try to encourage everybody else to do their best work and I try to keep my ego in line. I try not to bury everybody that's around me, and I try not to throw my weight around. I want to make everybody else as good as they can be.

"There are some actor-so-called-slash-stars who are in a position to control the production. And they make a mistake of confusing their stardom with good film making," Douglas says. "And they think that because they are a star, they can get directors whose vision they can control and therefore feel that the movie will make a better vehicle for them as an actor. Because of my career as a producer, all I want to create is the best movie possible. I want to work with the best director possible, and usually that person couldn't give a shit about my ego or what I want to a certain degree. They have a very strong vision of their own, and that vision is what I'm betting on."

With acting his true love, the lesson that Douglas would like to learn at this phase of his career has to do with allowing himself to be "creatively selfish," to think a little bit more like an actor and a little bit less like a producer.

"I tend to think in terms of the movie as a whole, first. I want to make good movies, which, as an actor, I'll be a part of. But sometimes I cut myself short as far an as actor is concerned. I don't get a chance to be as selfish as I want to be because I'm always trying to make it work for everybody else. Part of what I'm working on right now is learning how to be creatively selfish and just acting for the joy of it without having to be responsible for the whole picture."

Douglas's love for the business is apparent, as is his gratitude and his awe. "The process of making a movie continues to amaze me. There is a certain magic that happens. And you never know when it's going to be. But while a writer is alone with their word processor, or a painter is alone in a studio, or a musician is working on a song, movie making is a big kind of collaborative family. Certainly it starts with the written word, but then it becomes a collaborative art and that process never ceases to amaze me. It's almost mystical. It's something that is really alive and fresh.

"I have been fortunate that throughout my career, all of my decisions have been based upon what I want to do. And what I like seems to be a barometer for what audiences like," he says. "What it always comes down to is that acting is a passion for me. And all of my decisions are made with my heart. Either the choices are made emotionally or passionately, and I tend to make a lot of dangerous choices. And those dangerous choices have nothing to do with being calculated. They have to do with knowing what I wanted to do at that moment. I'm pretty good about being true to myself about where I'm at creatively. And the truth is, I haven't made that many movies as an actor. I hope my body of work will speak for itself; there just aren't a lot of dips."

Being in the same business with a successful father posed a unique set of problems for Michael Douglas. Even though he had two facets of his career in full swing, it took a while for him to feel like a legitimate success.

"When you are a second-generation success, you are provided for," he says. "And that certainly was a big opportunity. But you don't have that 'rags-to-riches story,' which is always a much more dramatic story to plot. Your success is not one that is as easily accepted by the people outside. Or they don't really have an appreciation of what you have accomplished.

"As a producer, my successes came fairly early in my career; as an actor, they came much later. Winning the Academy Award for Wall Street really helped me to finally overcome that 'second generation' thing. It's hard for people, no matter how generous and gracious they are, to really allow you any slack. They say, 'Oh it must have been hard to be Kirk Douglas's son,' but they don't really want to accept it. You grow up in this business and all that means is that you don't get the joy of succeeding. If you succeed, it's expected." He considers his words carefully, and continues. "If you look around you can see that there are hardly any second-generation people that have succeeded at all. It's a minefield of disasters, of broken careers and self-destruction out there. The public's perception is that you didn't have to do anything. So if you succeed, it's just assumed. If you don't get success, you're an asshole like everybody else.

"I think for me, my success was in two very distinct phases. One was obviously Cuckoo's Nest, and winning an Oscar at 31, which led to my producing career." His success as an actor, he says, eluded him until 1987, when he starred in the financially successful Fatal Attraction and won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Wall Street.

"Unlike your average profession, acting usually comes in concentrated doses. When you're an actor, it's anywhere from two and a half to five months of intense work and then it's done. That's the hardest part of film acting. There is no audience response, so you really don't get any immediate satisfaction," says Douglas. "What I really love is the feeling of nailing something. You nail the scene. Most of the time you don't shoot movies in continuity, you only do things in parts, so nailing a scene is really a rewarding sensation."


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