Reminiscing with a silver-screen legend

At an exclusive event at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque, two-time Academy Award winner Michael Douglas reflects on his storied career and why playing the bad guy can feel so good.

Michael Douglas in Jerusalem, June 18, 2015 (photo credit: ILIA KITOV SOUL PHOTOGRAPHY)
Michael Douglas in Jerusalem, June 18, 2015
It couldn’t have been easy to pave your own path when living in the shadows of Spartacus himself. As the son of legendary film actor Kirk Douglas, in some ways it’s surprising that Michael Douglas was able to get noticed at all.
And yet, Douglas rose to the top of the Hollywood elite without riding on his father’s coattails and created a fascinating snapshot of contemporary cinema’s depiction of the modern man.
His characters are almost always guarded, enigmatic and complex.
Whether waxing philosophical on the benefits of greed in corporate America or playing a widowed US president courting an earnest lobbyist, above all else, Douglas is disarmingly charming.
That charm was evident at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Thursday where Douglas spoke about his storied career as an actor and producer.
During the one-hour conversation with director and moderator Benjamin Freidenberg, he regaled the audience with amusing behind the scenes anecdotes and provided insight as to what drives him as an artist.
“I guess that’s who you are, you know?” a bemused Douglas responded when asked why he gravitates to playing these largely narcissistic, emotionally flawed and manipulative men.
“I know that I was attracted to those gray areas in characters and I think generally our culture has changed since my father’s time, where the people wore white and black hats,” he explained.
“I think those of us who grew up with the Vietnam War, where there were a lot of questions asked, it was a lot more difficult to decide who was right and who was wrong. So I’ve always been attracted to ambivalence of a person trying to do the right thing, but always seduced by something else – sex, money, whatever.”
Douglas didn’t always play jerks. In fact, in his first film he barely got a chance to act at all. Douglas’s first appearance on screen was an uncredited role in his father’s Cast a Giant Shadow. The 1966 film was shot in Rome and Jerusalem, and for the most part, the younger Douglas’s function was to fetch coffee for the set.
“It was an incredible experience,” Douglas, who remembers those days fondly, said.
The film told the story of US Army colonel David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus who fought for Israel in the War of Independence. With Frank Sinatra and John Wayne acting alongside the elder Douglas, Michael had a front row seat observing some of the greatest names in Hollywood doing what they do best.
“Learning the story at the time, helped me understand a little bit more about this new country,” Douglas said of his first experience in the Holy Land.
“Besides that, I remember a stunning young Yemenite soldier hitchhiking on the road with an Uzi on her back and wearing a military skirt,” he added with a mischievous smile. “It left a lasting impression clearly, even 50 years later.”
But it was his five years on the 1970s ABC series The Streets of San Francisco, where Douglas was really able to get his feet wet. Ahead of its time, the show’s raw, unfiltered account of San Francisco crime influenced the many cop dramas on the air today. It was his co-star, Karl Malden, however, who helped shaped Douglas the actor.
“Karl was a key person in my life, he was my mentor in many ways,” he said.
Douglas admired the actor’s strong work ethic, generous spirit and professionalism on set. “His biggest help as an actor was to listen, and Karl taught me the strength and value of listening. Too many actors just act when they’re talking and just shut off when they’re listening,” he said.
For example, instead of Douglas trailing a few steps behind him, Malden insisted he come up right beside him so both actors could appear in the frame. That sense of camaraderie and the value of an ensemble stuck with Douglas throughout his career.
The fast-paced nature of the shoot, where an episode was shot every week for eight consecutive months, served as a boot camp of sorts; he came out of that experience prepared for anything thrown his way.
As such, when his father gave him his movie rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas hardly felt overwhelmed when producing what has become a classic and which earned him his first Oscar for the 1962 film.
Although Thursday’s lively discussion was informative, it barely scratched the surface of Douglas’s filmography. With Fatal Attraction (1987), The War of the Roses (1989) and Basic Instinct (1992), Douglas owned the lovable bad guy role from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s.
It was his portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987), though, that earned the most attention and acclaim.
On screen, Douglas sneered: “Ladies and gentleman, greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
The audience loved it. He won his second Oscar.
“If you look at Oliver’s films, every male actor has probably given his best performance in an Oliver Stone picture,” Douglas said of his Wall Street director. “Jimmy Woods in Salvador, Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, Kevin Costner in JFK, Van Kilmer in The Doors.”
In a blunt assessment of Stone’s take no prisoners attitude, he said bluntly, “With Oliver you were in a trench or not... I think all of this made the film rise to a higher level, but it was not pretty and not necessarily pleasant.”
Today, Douglas continues to work in earnest – a big budget take on the Marvel comic Ant-Man is set to hit theaters soon – but most of his recent films have failed to resonate with audiences in the same way his earlier movies did.
His work in the HBO movie Behind the Candelabra (2013) is one notable exception. His depiction of Liberace is proof that Douglas can check the womanizing alpha male persona at the door and still emerge as a towering charismatic force capable of delivering a raw, emotionally honest performance.
The film tells of the rocky relationship between the virtuoso pianist and his lover of five years, Scott Thorson (played by an equally impressive Matt Damon). For a man known for almost two decades for being able to seduce the pants (or skirt) off any woman, it’s surprising to see his charms turned on the same sex. And, yet, not only is he believable, he manages to make Liberace’s predatory pursuit of a much younger man seem almost forgivable.
Douglas, now 70, will, one hopes, make more such daring choices. After all, we know he can play the consummate ladies’ man. Let’s see what else he has up his sleeve.