By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | October 25, 2010 |
By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | October 25, 2010 |
For a period of about ten years there, Michael Douglas really deserved his own category of film. He was practically a genre unto himself. He starred in the sort of movies that middle-class couples took seriously enough to go out and hire a baby sitter for the night, and then after the film, would sit down over a bottle of wine and debate the “adult” themes the movies explored.
This streak of Douglas’ stretched from the mid 80’s into the 90’s, and it wasn’t unusual for these films to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine, as they were often considered to be transmitters of ascendant cultural trends. They were alarmist in their way, fueling the anxious sensibility of those who looked to Time Magazine to inform them of what was going on in America. In short, the movies of Michael Douglas captured a kind of zeitgeist and catered to middle class fears, and those of privileged white men in particular.
Douglas was born in the 1944, the son of actor Kirk Douglas (I am Spartacus!).
This gave him the patrician status of “Hollywood Royalty,” something that likely helped him to secure his role in the successful 70’s cop drama The Streets of San Francisco.
Instead of drifting into television obscurity, becoming “Miami Vice’s” Sonny Crockett or a regular on “Hollywood Squares,” Douglas won an Oscar for producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before going on to produce and star in The China Syndrome (1979), a movie that managed to capture the sense of national dread surrounding nuclear power.
Douglas was proving a canny Hollywood presence, in spite of the not-horrible-but-still-lame, Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-offs, Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile that he made with Kathleen Turner in the mid 80s.
No matter, for this was all just preamble to the Douglas brand that was about to be launched in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. In this vision of modern suburban life, Douglas was just a happily married family guy living the American Dream. However, temptation dangled, and framed as a reluctant, almost innocent participant that was provoked into a sexual transgression, he was then visited by a world of bitch-faced crazy. In spite of the fact that it was Douglas’ character alone that committed adultery, he and his marriage survived, while the spurned lover was shot to death in a bathtub.
Men seemed to “get” this movie, and their sympathy lay with Douglas, rather than the wife or the dead lover.
In Basic Instinct, Douglas faced off against the Vagina Dentata Sharon Stone, a homicidal predator with a limitless sexual appetite. And then in 1994’s Disclosure, family-guy Michael Douglas was the victim of sexual harassment from the hard-bodied Demi Moore, and although lip service was made to female empowerment in these films, the mainstream message was that guys had it tough.
Somehow, Michael Douglas managed to convince America that he was the (mostly) innocent victim of murderous female desire, and in the process became a lightning rod for a class of men who resented and misunderstood the waves of brutalizing feminism they felt washing over them at the time.
Smart, attractive and always capable of a boyish, almost naïve enthusiasm, any mistake a Michael Douglas character made always seemed perfectly understandable. I mean, it was never REALLY his fault. He was the perfect projection of an idealized American everyman. Feeling under-siege from all manner of squawking minorities, middle-class white guys felt their entitlements unfairly threatened, and the safest way for them to work out this aggression, besides voting Republican and forming a garage band honoring The Boss, was to imagine themselves Michael Douglas.
His status as single-combat hero of the Middle American Male took it’s ultimate shape in the 1993 film Falling Down. Douglas, underestimated and looking like a door-to-door bible salesman, rampaged through LA avenging every petty indignity the victimized suburbanite might imagine himself subjugated to in North America—sort of a pre-figuration of the Tea Party. He was an honest-broker who played by the rules, and finding the system that was supposed to serve his interests betraying him for the shiftless, dissolute and lazy, he had no choice but to act out in glorious violence.
Douglas’s great trick, and a testimony to his ability and appeal as an actor, was that both men and women seemed to like him, and he could position the passivity of his characters as expressions tolerance and goodwill that could quickly be transformed into muscular aggression should the need arise.
Although Douglas made a convincing, even compelling lead in Aaron Sorkin’s The American President, he was at his authoritarian best as Gordon Gekko in 1987’s Wall Street. Never exactly a warm presence, Douglas has always had the cast of aristocracy about him. He seemed a man of reptilian authority, somebody who could easily flash into pitiless Alpha aggression and was never afraid to exercise the power that the rest of us didn’t have. Bloodless and perfect, this serpentine grace earned him an Academy Award as Best Actor, a role he’s replayed in multiple variations over the years, including the underrated thriller The Game.
However, my favorite Douglas role is from Wonder Boys, where he plays Grady Tripp, a buzzed-out novelist who fears his best days are behind him. There was a sincerity and tenderness to his portrait that was entirely convincing. Having evolved through the Alpha stage of his life, Douglas projected a melancholic and empathetic wisdom that few actors, save Bill Murray, can muster.
Now in his 60s, Douglas has recently been diagnosed with advanced throat cancer, a revelation he made on the David Letterman Show while promoting Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in late August. I happened to be watching at the time and was unexpectedly moved by the easy(ish) confidence, acceptance and professional accommodation that Douglas expressed.
I don’t know, Douglas was never an actor whom I thought much about. He was a brand more than a person, the continuation of a line of Hollywood product, but seeing him so absent of self-pity, and, well, considerate, made me realize how much I would miss him if he were to be lost to cancer, and how much his career, and the intelligence and ability that informed it, has actually been underrated.