Film: Basic instincts of the president's man

Michael Douglas has played some of the defining cinema roles of recent years. He's always used the screen to air his views. Now he's decided to stand up and have a go at the Establishment
Who is Michael Douglas? Son of Kirk, and movie producer/actor we acknowledge. Just over a decade ago, he unwittingly stood as the symbol of America in the Reagan years. In Oliver Stone's Wall Street, his portrayal of corporate raider Gordon Gekko, which bagged him the only Best Actor Oscar of his career, was a definitive moment.

Blessed with the uncanny ability to put his finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist, Douglas has fashioned himself as an icon for our age. Whether embroiled in adultery (Fatal Attraction); a boardroom battle of the sexes (Disclosure); playing the white-collar worker on the rampage (Falling Down), or "the fuck of the century" cop (Basic Instinct), Douglas has come to represent the angst and paranoia of late 20th century America, most satisfactorily expressed in last year's under-rated The Game.

But slowly, Douglas, who turns 54 tomorrow, is re-fashioning himself as a humanitarian and philanthropist, both within and beyond cinema's glitzy domain.

Last month, he was honoured at Deauville's Festival Du Cinema Americain, in Normandy, with a retrospective of his work (a sure sign that the sell- by date is past).

Standing at his well-attended press conference, Douglas was Gekko once more. Their politics may not coincide (Douglas is a fervent Democrat), but when questioned about the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, he was just as oleagenously persuasive. Dressed in a polo shirt and dark suit, his power as a "celebrity" was enforced, receiving spontaneous rounds of applause.

"I hope that we are not witnessing a tragedy. It's difficult to comment because, as we speak, they are deciding if the Starr report is going to be on the Internet worldwide, which I have a very big problem with.

"It seems to me that if you are accused of a crime, you are allowed a moment to respond before the entire world responds," he said. (Note the use of "you", here.)

Later, in an interview, he expanded his point, openly admitting that he has contributed to the President's legal defence fund. "I, like so many people, am hurt that he lied, not only to the American people, but to the people he worked with closely.

"Did he make a tremendous mistake? Yes. Do I think the Republicans made a horrendous mistake by releasing the Starr report on the Internet unabridged and unedited? I believe they thought it had tremendous political opportunities for them, and I think they made a tremendous mistake.

"The President's approval rating is still relatively high, Starr is still relatively detested, and I think people want this all over with. We'll see how much Congress drags it out. The public feel the President has been humiliated beyond any reason of doubt. He has had to grovel, and I think anybody fair-minded doesn't want to witness this anymore."

That Douglas makes no apology for using "an entertainment press conference", as he calls it, as a platform for discussing world issues, rather makes a mockery of the official reason for his visit: to discuss his role in A Perfect Murder, Andrew Davis's forthcoming silly remake of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, in which Douglas sets out to kill his unfaithful trophy bride Gwyneth Paltrow.

That Douglas has been friends for years with Paltrow's father Bruce, that Douglas was undergoing a divorce from Diandra, his wife of 20 years, during shooting, should put a spin on things. It doesn't.

A few provocative remarks about Paltrow aside (he knew her as a child and describes her short-skirted, schoolgirl self as "every man's fantasy"), he seems fantastically uninterested in the whole subject. Maybe it's because "forced" contact with a woman half his age takes him deeper into Clinton territory than he wants to go.

Recently appointed a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations, by Secretary General Kofi Annan, Douglas has become a figurehead, an elder statesman of cinema turning away from the medium as a means of expression. "Movies are a licence to do whatever you want to", he says. "I am an adult, but get paid for being a child."

His recent works, as producer, from the Ted Danson/Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America to Ghost and The Darkness (in which he also featured) to Face/Off and The Rainmaker, while all commercially viable products, are just this: child's play. Gone are the years when Douglas would initiate such vital social critiques as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a project which his father failed to get off the ground and for which Douglas Jr collected a producer's Oscar for Best Picture), or The China Syndrome.

Instead, focusing primarily on issues of disarmament, Douglas has recently chosen to join the board of Cease Fire, the organisation for control of handguns, even making a Public Announcement film for them.

As he points out, the US, along with France and the Soviet Union, are the world's leading arms' dealers, responsible for 80 per cent of the 44 million civilians calculated to have died in conflicts since the Second World War. "Our armies may be getting smaller, but civilians are arming themselves," he notes. "I am a citizen of our planet, and I am in conflict with my own government on many issues relating to the UN. That the wealthiest country in the history of Western civilisation will not pay its dues to the United Nations, is very disturbing to me."

For those still unsure of Douglas's new image, President Andrew Shepherd, in Rob Reiner's The American President, (made before it was fashionable to pay homage as in Primary Colors) provides something of a template. In that syrupy affair, Douglas played a humanitarian, scrupulous liberal, determined to woo Annette Bening's virtuous environmental lobbyist. The dream (if a dream it be) is a popular one. The American President helped cable TV in the US achieve its highest recorded ratings when it premiered on the eve of Clinton's grand jury testimony.

But what is it about the smooth, reforming role that so appeals to Douglas himself? He has not signed for the Basic Instinct sequel ("I don't see any way to improve upon the movie. For me, it has no interest, other than financially, and that's not important") does indicate a level of integrity, but one suspects persistent rumours of his "addiction" to sex may be more of a factor.

More to the point, the past two years have been tough on Douglas. His father has struggled with the effects of a stroke; his 18 year-old son Cameron entered a clinic for substance abuse, while his half-brother, Eric, was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. If that were not enough, recent reports have indicated that he is being sued by a fellow golfer for swinging a ball into a man's testicles. The man was particularly furious that Douglas attempted to pacify him with an offer of an insulting $60.

With this, and his divorce (which echoes that of his own parents', when Douglas, the eldest of four sons, was just five), the man is viewing his work in retrospect. The firebrand has faded; the morally entangled Everyman figure will no longer wash... But Douglas the noble diplomat - now that sounds good.

"Most movie actors have a certain image, or look, or role, [but] they've just allowed me to fit into the movies," he says of his career. Carrying the demeanour of a leader as he leaves the room, I wonder just how content he is with filling in.

`A Perfect Murder' is released on 16 October