Of all the major stars of the last 30 years, Michael Douglas is an aberration. Where other stars (Toms Hanks and Cruise, Will Smith and Johnny Depp) have built their careers on playing relatively clean cut roles (or in Depp’s case, offbeat but benign characters), Douglas has distinguished himself with a near unbroken series of unsympathetic and morally ambivalent characters.
While the other stars mentioned have occasionally played unsympathetic characters, these roles are outliers, not a career path (see the public reaction to Hanks in Road To Perdition or Cruise in Collateral or Magnolia). With Douglas, the inverse is true. Since his rise to prominence in the mid 80s, he has specialised in playing characters with questionable (or nonexistent) principles — in many ways, he could be seen as a late-blooming member of the New Hollywood generation of the previous decade. However, where Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino were lauded for their versatility, Douglas built his star on a series of vaguely similar roles in which he played, for lack of a better word, absolute tossers.
In this respect, he is closer to the stars of old — performers like Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, who made their respective names playing gangsters. Where Douglas is different is that, unlike Cagney and Robinson, he looks like a leading man.
What Douglas brings to his characters is the charm and personal magnetism of a traditional movie star. With these superficial attributes, Douglas could have spent the 80s coasting by as a romantic lead or an action star. Instead, he has displayed an ongoing desire to play against the things which should, by Hollywood standards, have consigned him to the ‘handsome nothing’ role currently being filled by the likes of Ben Barnes.
Unlike any other major star of his generation (or since), Douglas has stayed to the dark side of the street. Even in his first major hit, Romancing The Stone, Douglas plays a morally ambiguous smuggler. It’s not until the climax that he has redeemed himself. From the beginning of his headlining career, Douglas’ appeal and success has been based on a rogue’s gallery of dupes, sociopaths, murderers and outright pricks.
There are probably three factors for Douglas’ career trajectory. The first is age. While he had success on TV and as a producer, Douglas did not become a movie star until he was over 40. The second factor is his father’s example. It is intriguing how both Kirk Douglas and his son were attracted to playing darker, more unsympathetic characters — consider Papa Douglas’ roles in Billy Wilder’s acidic Ace In The Hole, Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory and Minelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful. His father provided a precedent for his son to follow.
The final reason for Douglas’s image is how he became a star — in 1987 he starred in the surprise hit Fatal Attraction and consolidated his new status by co-starring in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, snagging an Oscar nod for his role as human lizard Gordon Gekko. These two films set the stage for the rest of his career — in Fatal Attraction, he plays a family man who has a fling with a work colleague, while in Wall Street, he is the poster child for yuppie success and avarice. These hits, with their focus on morally questionable characters, gave Douglas a chance few leading men ever get — he got to play a variety of roles, with the knowledge that there was an audience for his particular brand of big screen knavery.
While other stars get locked into playing variations on whatever ‘good guy’ that made their name, Douglas had more freedom in his choice of roles, as he went on to show. Following his twin successes in 1987, Douglas went on a creative tear, with a series of roles which both increased his critical and financial esteem. In The War Of The Roses, Douglas and co-star Kathleen Turner show a remarkable lack of vanity in the roles of an imploding married couple, as they tear each other apart.
While it lacks a lot of nuance, Basic Instinct plays almost as a parody of the typical Douglas role, with him playing a sex obsessed cop. In Falling Down, Douglas took on a role that put even Gordon Gekko in the shade. Embodying the frustrations and resentments of a deranged WASP, Douglas reaffirmed his status as a daring leading man.
The rest of the 90s saw Douglas reaching a career cul-de-sac, as he took on a series of rules which were little more than variations of his previous roles. In David Fincher’s The Game, he plays a callous businessman who is progressively stripped of everything that makes him successful — home, money, power. The film’s most powerful scene is when Douglas, at his lowest point, is forced to beg from a restaurant’s patrons. In A Perfect Murder, Douglas plays an out-and-out villain who ends up brutally murdered. While these roles were not Douglas phoning it in, there is a sense of him becoming pigeonholed.
Among this slew of Gekko clones, two roles from this period stand out for showing how Douglas’ star persona can affect role and a film, for better or worse. Test cases: The American President and The Ghost And The Darkness. Coming in the middle of Douglas’ greatest period of success, Rob Reiner’s The American President offers a fascinating case of how a star persona can be utilised to increase the dramatic impact of a film. Part of what makes The American President as powerful a film as it is is the decision to cast Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, the titular president and a veteran politico who finally decides to take a stand for his principles.
Aaron Sorkin’s script, the direction and the performances make the movie, but the decision to cast Douglas as a shallow cynic who rediscovers his humanity gives the film an external resonance that it would not otherwise have. When Douglas starts the film as a weak, somewhat duplicitous president, it feels right. When he decides to stand up for what’s right, it is more powerful because it is not just Shepherd who the viewer is watching, it is Douglas’ back catalogue of Gordon Gekko, William Foster and all the rest. Having Douglas play a redemptive arc packs a intertextual punch.
Whereas The American President is a great example of Douglas’ persona enriching a role, The Ghost And The Darkness is a great example of Douglas’ limitations. As a Great White Hunter, Douglas fails to convince. This type of character is meant to be enigmatic, but after rewrites to make the role fit Douglas, the character had been drastically changed — originally he was meant to be a mysterious figure who arrived to aid the film’s underprepared hero (Val Kilmer) a la Quint in Jaws.
In the finished film, Charles Remington (Douglas) is all backstory, with a tragic past that ultimately unbalances the film. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell? the film’s screenwriter William Goldman hypothesizes that because Douglas is so convincing as a contemporary, morally ambiguous character, he is completely unconvincing as a period character who is painted in primary colours. For a film that Goldman intended as a throwback to old colonial era adventure films like Gunga Din, Douglas’ casting therefore makes no sense. With such an archetypal character, Douglas’ presence undermines its sense of mystery. He is too recognisable a star for the role to work.
What is most impressive about Douglas is how that willingness to play dark has continued and matured in a variety of fascinating ways. Whereas the greats of the 70s, De Niro and Pacino, moved away from the darkness and have spent the last couple of decades phoning it in, Douglas has kept finding dark, complex roles that feel like older variations on his persona. That fearlessness enabled him to find great roles as he edged out of leading man status, and entered the new millennium with two of his best roles in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
More recently, in 2009’s Solitary Man, Douglas is a born salesman who finds the trappings of success mean absolutely nothing when he has a brush with mortality. In any other movie, this would be the catalyst for the character to try and make his remaining time worthwhile. In true Douglas fashion, instead he turns into an irredeemable ladies man who breaks up his marriage and destroys his business. Even after he realises that his old charms no longer work on a younger generation, rather than seeing this as a sign that he needs to grow up, he just sees this as a new challenge to overcome and proceeds to get in bigger trouble.
What makes the film so interesting (and somewhat frustrating), is that Douglas’ character never learns from his mistakes — he thinks he still has something to prove, and he’s going to do his damnedest to do so, whatever the collateral damage. It is a disquieting performance, as Douglas manages balance the character’s ‘charm offensive’ exterior with a pensive melancholy — unable to hide his true nature behind youth and sex appeal, he is just a hollow, burnt out old man. It is one of his best, and most underrated performances.
Michael Douglas has had a fascinating career — unlike so many stars with the duration and breadth of his run, he remains just as interesting now as he was 30 years ago. It is a testament to the esteem Douglas is held in that, as he entered his seventh decade, he got one of the best roles of his career as Liberace in Behind The Candelabra. Despite Douglas’ reputation as a ladies man, it is a role that fits him like a glove. Beneath the glitz and the camp, Liberace is the same kind of character that Douglas has made his stock-in-trade: a man with all the trappings of success, but haunted by his willingness to compromise himself to maintain his status.
One hopes that today’s current generation of male thespians can maintain the kind of character trajectory that he did. With actors such as Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Jake Gyllenhaal consistently taking dark, unsympathetic roles, Douglas appears like less of an anachronism and more like the vanguard of a new generation of Hollywood leading men, a generation for whom going to the dark side is no longer a detour, but a viable career path.
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