Friday, 4 May 2012

VHS Heroes: Michael Douglas

Hollywood Stooge or Inside Man? The ERHQ Star Chamber reconsiders the career of the movie star that divides audiences deeper than a sportive pair...

VHS Heroes: Michael Douglas

At 66, Michael Douglas has earned his cinematic dotage. Other than the lip-smacking rumours of his involvement in Untitled Liberace Project and his role in the stupid sounding star-studded supersoldier symphony Haywire – his career seems to be settling into an uncharacteristically dull and predictable late autumn. Indeed, other than his recent corking turn in A Solitary Man, avuncular turns in shameless rom-com paydays (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), lovable oddball duties in misfiring indies (King of California) and retreads of former glories (Wall Street 2: Chump Change Charlies) would have allowed him to drift from the movie-going consciousness had it not been for the media circus that attended his marriage to that Zeta-Jones woman.

The Eighties and Nineties glory days may well be over, but one question still tantalises: was Michael Douglas ever anything more than a priapic A-list stiff, or was he - as the ERHQ brain trust has always thought him – a crafty left-field schemer working the system from the inside..?
Ghosts of Yearbooks Past
Despite being born with a Tinseltown spoon in his mouth and some decent early turns in counterculture dregs Hail, Hero! (‘69) and Adam at Six A.M. (‘70) it would be the jumping box that gave Douglas his big break as Inspector Steve Keller, the good looking – if overluxuriantly coiffured - sidekick drafted in to take some of the heat off co-star Karl Malden’s Vesuvian hooter in ‘The Streets of San Francisco’. Far from satisfied with his TV (back)lot, however, Douglas’s extra-curricular activities ran to nothing less ambitious than putting together one of the greatest films of American cinema’s Golden Decade, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (‘75). Ah, but, you say, this top-heavy Jack Nicholson acting workshop is nought but self-regarding Oscar-bait; a prestige picture on especially queasy terms with mental illness, tragedy and martyrdom. Maybe so, but there are notably few films of such calibre that centre on mercy killings and frontal lobotomies: Driving Miss Daisy, for instance, does not end with Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy hopped up on librium speedballs ploughing their blood spattered Chrysler through an orphanage in a heavily-filtered geriatric murder-suicide pact....

Cuckoo’s Nest was a major success, of course, but one that did little for Douglas’s on-screen profile. With roles proving hard to come by for this over-privileged TV actor-cum-arriviste-producer, he set about amassing his own damn movie career. Spartacus would have been proud.
"OK... And how much is it for the full hour..?"
Producing and starring in the timely nuclear parable/Movie-of-the-Week scaremongering (delete to taste) of The China Syndrome (‘79) may have done little more than keep things ticking over, but nobody could ignore the noise and heat that came off his clutch of dusty derring-doers, Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile (‘85 and '86). Their success meant that his bank balance was bulging and his huge, gurning mug was now impossible to ignore. It was time to take on the Dream Factory at its own despicable game.

Even before the monster success of his anti-Indiana Jones diptych, Douglas had - with the latently homosexual, white–collar vigilantism of The Star Chamber (‘83) - started a run of films in which he would play some of the most unpleasant, dysfunctional and morally dubious characters in modern cinema. Any of these performances would be hailed as an acting masterclass if delivered in overwrought critical darlings or little-seen indie gems, but Douglas, like his father before him, had the cojones, the cleft chin and - by now - the clout to serve up the darker half of the human condition in a series of full-tilt big budget Hollywood behemoths that trod that jagged line between ludicrous and lucrative.
The Eighties? Ca va!
From the clammy essays on male weakness and ethical dilapidation that hallmark Fatal Attraction (‘87) and Disclosure (‘94 and utterly piteous) to the in-your-face examinations of moral turpitude and self-deception of Black Rain (‘89) and Basic Instinct (‘92), no star ever brought more shades of grey to the screen than Iron Mike. And this, of course is not to mention three of the greatest inventions of modern cinema – The War of the Roses’ Oliver Rose, Falling Down’s D-Fens and, of course, slicked-back Eighties godhead, Gordon Gecko.

The War of the Roses (‘89) must surely rank as the most unhinged and dark-hearted comedy ever released by a major studio. Deluded, vindictive and solid-gone crazy, Douglas plays Rose as if Jacques Tati had directed Charles Bronson through a script by Ingmar Bergman, trading marital body blows with his female equivalent in bringing the spleen to the screen - Kathleen Turner. Falling Down (‘89) is a different kettle of fish. It might fall apart in the final act, but for a while there it thrusts Travis Bickle into a decade to which he is even less suited and lets the chips fall where they may. It never delivers the social impact it strives for, but Douglas is quite at home with a character that couldn’t have been more out of step with then-current Tinseltown trends.
Greed is good - but not for the pool filter, Michael.
Gecko, of course, defined an age. Not just in cinema, but as the spiritual and sartorial template for a generation of wrong-headed corporate shitbags and sharp-suited City boys. While it is easily the most grandstanding and straightforward of Douglas’s major performances, it is difficult now to imagine any other actor delivering those lines with such relish or inhabiting that reptilian skin with more glee.

No-one can keep up that kind of pace forever, and the mid-Nineties saw him slip into MOR applesauce like The American President (‘95) and contrived guff like The Game (‘97), with only the occasional Wonderful Boys or Traffic Jam (both ‘00) to remind us that he still had the ability to confound or confront us with odd choices and lefty polemics.
Waiting with Spiderman
It was a magnificent run, though. And one that, despite Brad Pitt’s occasional dips into the darker end of the celluloid spectrum or Clooney’s eventually-redemptive sojourns in the geopolitical netherworld, we are unlikely to see again for a good long while.

Then again, he did have that mullet…

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