“I’ve always liked to make characters in the most precarious situations and try to bring them back.” Michael Douglas exclaims.
During his acting career, Michael Douglas has enthralled his audience, not by playing heroic characters, but by taking on unsympathetic characters and infusing them with charm and humanity. Among those compelling characters are: a corporate raider in ‘Wall Street’, a cheating husband in ‘Fatal Attraction’, an alcoholic detective in ‘Basic Instinct’, and a sexually harassed employee in ‘Disclosure’.
I first met Michael Douglas in Los Angeles last May. Although he was not bubbling with youthful energy anymore, the 65-year-old star hadn’t lost his charm and sex appeal. In spite of the greying hair and wrinkling face, he still looked as glamorous as any other young star.
Unfortunately, two months later, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and since then has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment. It turned out that he had been complaining to doctors of a sore throat, but they had failed to unravel the source of his discomfort. Today, he looks thin and frail, with dark circles under his eyes, his grey hair tousled and his voice hoarse.
“The chemo continues to knock you out. On one side, my tumour is shrinking and getting a lot smaller, but on the other side the processes used to eliminate it take an energy out of you,” Douglas explains.
Nonetheless, Douglas feels good. In these tough times, he derives strength from his family’s support. He is touched by the tremendous support that he receives from the cancer family and the public. However, he prefers to be left alone and spends his time listening to music and reading books. “I believe in solitude. You gotta heal yourself. You gotta rest. There’s not whole lot you can do,” he says.
This type of cancer is largely precipitated by alcohol and smoking, but Douglas believes that in his case it was the result of the hard-living lifestyle and the stress that he endured in the past year, particularly over the incarceration of his drug-dealing 41-year-old son, Cameron.
“I’m generally a positive looking guy and things have gone pretty good for a long time. Once in a while, they got to throw a curve ball just to test you. We’re going to lick this. And I am going to be stronger and a better person for it,” he says.
The revelation about his cancer emerged as he was preparing for the release of Oliver Stone‘s ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps‘, in which he reprises the role of Gordon Gekko, who emerges from prison, having served his time for securities fraud, money-laundering and racketeering, determined to get back in the game. However, this time he is an outsider, who is estranged from his daughter (Carey Mulligan), and earns his living lecturing at business schools.
“The timing sucked,” Douglas laughs. “When I got my biopsy and realised what my program would have to be, which is about eight weeks of intense radiation, combined with chemotherapy, I realised it was an overlap with the opening of the picture. So I decided to get it out there and try to separate it from the movie. So it doesn’t become one big blur when the movie is opening up and try to do that.”
In spite of his condition, Douglas hasn’t ceased promoting the movie, including walking the red carpet at the premiere because, he says, “I am very proud of this movie.”
Indeed, Gekko, with his ‘Greed is Good’ creed and memorable lines such as ‘Lunch is for wimps’ and ‘You need a friend, get a dog,’ became an iconic figure. The role also got Douglas his only Acting Oscar.
“I savour the opportunity to be able to resurrect a character that meant a lot to a lot of people over a long period of time. Gekko was as good a villain as you’re ever going to want to find. But it just goes to show you that moviegoers love a villain, especially one who has all the accoutrements.”
However, Douglas was surprised and even shocked by the enormous interest and effect this character had on Wall Street go-getters. “I just still, to this day, never get over the number of people who came up to me saying ‘you’re the guy that got me into this and I watched you,’ and they are not bothered by his imprisonment,” he wonders. “It’s been an insight for me into that world of people whose only occupation is to make money. They don’t care how they do it. Nothing else is of value to them in their lives.”
While the original film defined the excesses and ambitions of brokers just before the stock market crash of 1987, the sequel deals with events around the 2008 crash. “I thought this was an even more interesting time to explore this financial world than the period of the original Wall Street,” he says.
Michael Douglas is the son of one of Hollywood’s legends, Kirk Douglas. His relationship with his father was tumultuous, and he saw little of him as he was growing up. But after they connected, he began to spend time with him on film sets, where he had the opportunity to learn about acting, directing and producing from Hollywood legends.
“When I came out to visit my father and all his friends, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Janet Leigh, you could see the insecurity of actors. You could see them as real people. We had a different guest star each week, a different director so you learned so much about producing.” Douglas says.
In fact, Douglas learned so much about producing that he won a Best Picture Oscar for producing ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ which swept the top five Oscars. He subsequently followed this success by co-producing and starring in ‘The China Syndrome’ and ‘Romancing the Stone’.
“Having these two hats throughout my career made me see the whole movie,” he says. “It enables you, as an actor, to ask questions to a director without insulting them. It’s my way of being like a sounding board to find out whether they really know what they’re saying or not.”
In spite of his success, Douglas believes that it was ‘Wall Street’, followed by ‘Fatal Attraction’, which established him as an A-list actor and enabled him finally to slip out from under the shadow of his famous father, who, at 93, is still a commanding presence in his son’s life.
Douglas attributes his success in ‘Wall Street’ to Oliver Stone, who is known for pushing actors to the limits.
“He is no walk in the park,” Douglas laughs. “He’s really talented, tormented and confrontational. He tests you yet you know what you’re going to do. This is a guy who gave me my Oscar as an actor. Other actors have probably done some of their best work with Oliver. You feel as if he wants to be an actor, but he maintains that kind of distance.”
Old age is making it harder these days for Douglas to find interesting leading roles that he likes to play. And a family with two young kids forces him to be much more selective. In the meantime, he is looking forward to portraying the flamboyant pianist and entertainer ‘Liberace’ in Steven Soderberg’s upcoming movie, which begins shooting in the spring.
“My plans are to lick this cancer and beat it. It will be probably four or five months. We’re still planning on doing ‘Liberace’. I always pride myself in trying to put as much into whatever I do as possible. I’ve always worked hard, played hard and that would hopefully continue.”