June 2, 2009

Whatever Happened To: Michael Douglas?

["Whatever Happened To:...?" is an occasional feature about an actor or actress who, despite having had a highly successful film career at some point, has for some unknown reason faded from the spotlight in recent years. ]

If I didn't know better I'd propose a r
idiculous theory here. While acknowledging the well-cataloged evidence of gender-based age discrimination in Hollywood (you might remember a rich discussion after I asked "Whatever Happened to: Meg Ryan?"), the case of Michael Douglas could fool you into thinking that the market isn't really flooded with opportunities for older men these days, either.

I even found a recent argument in favor of this idea, but a simple look back at Best Actor nominees this decade reveals a veritable AARP membership roster: Frank Langella (age 71), Richard Jenkins (age 62), Clint Eastwood (age 79), Peter O'Toole (age 76), Tommy Lee Jones (age 62), David Strathairn (age 60), Ben Kingsley (age ), Jack Nicholson (age 72), and Michael Caine (age 76). To be generous you could add Anthony Hopkins (age 71), who is perhaps deserving of a "Whatever Happened to...?" feature of his own (like Sean Connery), even though he was still great as recently as five years ago in Proof and The World's Fastest Indian.

So yes, I do know better than to make the age discrimination argument for Douglas, and even contrarians could continue arguing that there are even older (mostly British?) women landing major roles in recent years (Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench). But...yeah, that's a pretty short list.

In any event, where does all of this leave 64 year-old Michael Douglas, a well-respected Best Actor winner who could command as much as $20 million per picture as recently as 10 years ago?

Fatal Attraction (1987), Falling Down (1993), Disclosure (1994)

I think the secret to much of his success, in addition to acting talent, confidence, a gravely voice and good looks, was a keen sense of self-awareness. He appeared to know exactly which roles suited his look and his style, like Tom Cruise or George Clooney behind him. This made him an easy target for the criticism of "always playing the same misogynistic/womanizing character", but the other side of that coin is "always playing the same
misogynistic/womanizing character really, really well". Which is not to say that Douglas never took off his suit and stepped out of the office and away from the women. Movies like Falling Down (highlighted as an Underrated MOTM last summer), The Game, and even Wonder Boys showed Douglas in more emotionally tormented roles, while other performances (Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, The Ghost and the Darkness) showed that he wasn't afraid to break a sweat out in the wild.

Somewhere around the year 2000, however, Douglas must have become restless in these roles. Wonder Boys was a bit of risk for him artistically, and despite the positive reviews the film received, he was pretty hurt by his peers' cool reception to it. IMDb quotes him as saying, "Wonder Boys was a huge disappointment personally. I loved the movie and we didn't even get critically acknowledged as far as awards go. I thought it was a fucking disgrace. I'll be honest - it really hurt my confidence. It was a punch in the gut."

How this affected his future choices in roles I can't say, but as I see it, 2000 was the year his career took a downward turn. Coincidentally - and I really do think it's a coincidence - it was also the year that he married Catherine Zeta-Jones, his junior by 25 years to the day (they share the same birthday, which is completely useless information that you now have stuck in your head).

The Game (1997), Traffic and Wonder Boys (2000)

But what actually happened after the year 2000? Well, he began exploring roles in comedy films (as well as a guest appearance on TV's "Will & Grace"), and almost immediately had two of the worst years of his career: 2001 (One Night at McCool's and Don't Say A Word - the latter maybe being an unintentional comedy) and 2003 (The In-Laws and It Runs in the Family, the latter of which also starred his father, Kirk, the screen legend-turned-MySpace blogger). As with Meg Ryan, these duds were followed, perhaps coincidentally, by a complete hiatus from any acting roles - nothing at all until 2006, when the terrible trend unfortunately picked right back up where it left off with The Sentinel and You, Me, and Dupree, both of which were almost universally panned. (Ironically, the same year he wisely declined to reprise his role opposite Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2.)

Those two movies in 2006 marked my last sightings of Douglas on the big screen, because by the time The King of California arrived in very limited release in 2007, it wasn't clear whether Douglas was still taking acting seriously. Either that or nobody recognized him in a wild-eyed, bearded role as an estranged father living in a mental institution. The movie earned moderately positive reviews but did little to revive his acting career, which may not have been his motive in the first place, since in recent years he has been an advocate for nuclear disarmament as well as an announcer for the NBC Nightly News.

Which brings us to 2009, where Douglas has just played - this is unbelievable- a supporting role to Matthew McConaughey in the ridiculous Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Roger Ebert deadpanned in his review, "Michael Douglas is widely said to have modeled his hair, eyeglass frames and general appearance on the noted womanizer Bob Evans, but actually he reminded me more of Kirk Douglas playing Bob Evans. It's an effective performance either way you look at it." Meanwhile, my neighborhood critic Colin Covert observed that "Michael Douglas, as the playboy uncle who raised the orphaned Connor, returns from the dead, introducing the spirits that will teach his nephew a cautionary lesson. Douglas, radiating an arid narcissism, does look as if he was recently exhumed. Whether this is a deliberate makeup choice or unfortunate lighting is hard to guess." The movie comfortably holds a 28% on RT and 34 rating on Metacritic.

What is Douglas doing in these movies? We can't be entirely sure, but if not for Oliver Stone it nearly would have been time to completely write off Douglas' career from this point on. Stone, who directed Douglas in his Best Actor-winning performance in 1988's Wall Street, has recently announced plans for a sequel titled Wall Street 2 (originally Money Never Sleeps), due out in 2011. Douglas will reprise his role as Gordon Gekko, with Shia LaBeouf (man, I'm getting so good at spelling that) and Javier Bardem in supporting roles.

Hopefully it will be a return to form for Douglas, even if his character is a complete weasel. As Gekko, he boasted, "I look at a hundred deals a day. I pick one." Douglas himself could have said the same thing 10-15 years ago, but sadly, these days it doesn't appear those deals are landing on his desk very often.


  1. I think you're underestimating the CZJ factor here. Not that she's a Yoko Ono or anything, picture this scenario: After a decade or so of playing the misogynist jerk, you put yourself out there with a movie you're deeply proud of (Wonder Boys) that got ignored for the most part and around the same time you marry one of the sexiest women ever to walk the earth.

    Now, I won't go so far as to say that men and women only do the things they do in order to attract a mate, but I do believe success in that department can have a cooling effect on creative energy. Your priorities change. Plus they spawned, right? So that's one more distraction.

  2. CZJ could have been one of the factors, to be sure. She definitely appears to be an upstanding woman who would want the father of her children to play respectable characters, but that seems to go out the window with Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (which I shouldn't have to confirm that I haven't seen, but I'm confirming it).

    But the two kids with her could have been another factor, like you say. Also, Kirk Douglas had a stroke in the late 90's and I would imagine Michael focused his attention to his dad's health as well.

    But despite these reasons I'm still unsure of the reason behind the three year break between 03' and '06. Those two movies in '06 (Dupree and The Sentinel) definitely weren't very good, but they also weren't bad because of him. It's almost like he found the right roles again but in the wrong movies, when he'd always correctly made that match earlier in his career.

    I also saw - and this is really venturing into tabloid territory here - that he recently had hip surgery or something, so that might sideline him for a while. He has a couple things in the pipeline right now but nothing of great public interest until the blandly named Wall Street 2 (as if they had to keep the name to capitalize on marketing familiarity, even though you have the same actor and director and now the addition of huge supporting stars?).

  3. Yeah, I'm with what you both have said here in the comments - I think his priorities shifted wildly after hooking up with CZJ, and especially after having some kids with her. I just don't think he cares that much about his "lead actor" career at this point; it's not like he had much to prove, anyhow.

    Still, he's missed, and could easily regain relevance were he to get some plum roles, I'd think.

  4. We're really making it seem like she (CZJ, as in Catherine Zeta-Jones for those just joining us) completely changed him, or he completely changed because of her, but I still don't know if it's that easy. His character in The Sentinel was a little weasely and even One Night at McCool's (which I didn't see) appeared to be pretty crass comedy.

    I don't know, you could speculate all day but the point is that this guy used to be great in movies (and those who like but haven't seen it really need to check out Falling Down) and there's been nothing of substance going on a decade now.

  5. You're right, there has been a streak of similarity in all his famous roles like Basic Instinct, Game, Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, Wall Street, Traffic, etc. Nonetheless, I liked him as an actor - his gravelly voice, the explosive volatility of his character, the outwardly-cocky but-inwardly-fragile portrayals, a sort of misanthrope even - these made him the perfect guy for dark, psychological thrillers. I hope the sequel to Wall Street will change things for the better for this compelling actor.

  6. Really excellent description of his typical character, Shubhajit. Not necessarily somebody you'd like to cozy up to in real life, but yet an excellent character for stories involving greed, corruption, temptation, deceit. Here's a stretch, but he's kind of like Philip Seymour Hoffman in a way - many of his characters are repulsive, yet for the sake of the films they are pitch-perfect. Another example is the late J.T. Walsh, as discussed in the Breakdown post.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts.


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