Michael Douglas: Hollywood studios didn't believe he could impersonate the outrageously camp Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. They were wrong

The veteran alpha male of American thrillers seizes the role of preening, monomaniacal showman/tyrant with relish

When the American film director Steven Soderbergh approached Hollywood studios in 2011, asking them for $5m to finance Behind the Candelabra, his film about Liberace and his five-year affair with Scott Thorson, he was startled by their reaction. They all turned him down flat. Although the cast featured two Oscar-winning actors, the film would, they said, appeal only to a gay audience.

As the world now knows, Soderbergh turned to the pay-TV channel HBO and got his film made. It premiered at Cannes and airs on US TV tomorrow night. So had the studios woefully miscalculated? Yes, but you can understand why. They simply hadn’t believed the public would buy the idea that the most outrageous homosexual of the 1950s could be impersonated by Michael Douglas. Douglas, who for 40 years has embodied the alpha male of American thrillers? I don’t think so. Douglas, the rope-swimming jungle adventurer, the corporate raider of Wall Street, the soul of beleaguered US bloke under attack from malevolent feminism? As Liberace? Don’t be ridiculous. It would be like casting Gary Cooper as Larry Grayson, or John Wayne as Elton John.

So, have you seen the trailer to Behind the Candelabra? He’s perfect as Liberace. Douglas seizes the role of preening, monomaniacal showman/tyrant with such confident relish, he practically chews the screen. He swishes, he pouts, he camps it up, he delivers the lines with head-thrown-back exultation. The film picked up a rating of 100 per cent positive from the Rotten Tomatoes website. “A quite wonderful performance,” said The Independent. “Douglas captures brilliantly Liberace’s showmanship and outrageous camp qualities as well as the darker side of his character without ever lapsing into caricature.”

What gave the film and its reaction an additional poignancy is that Douglas made it while being treated for stage-four throat cancer; he was finally given the all-clear. At the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, Douglas struggled to contain his tears: “For me this – I – because – it was right after my cancer this beautiful gift was handed to me and I’m eternally grateful to Steven [Soderbergh] and Matt [Damon] and Jerry [Weintraub, producer] and everybody who was waiting for me.”

There isn’t a dry eye in the house about this happy outcome, of course. But that tone of luvvie sentimentality is familiar to Douglas-watchers. It’s made him, in the past, come across as a little too pleased with himself, as though his life has always been destined for success, riches, sexual triumph. Can his success at playing conceited and chauvinistic roles be something to do with his actual character?

He’s the eldest of four sons born to Kirk Douglas, the Hollywood legend who played Spartacus, Van Gogh and Doc Holliday in a long career (and he’s still with us, aged 96). When Michael was six, his parents divorced; he went to live with his mother, Diana, and her new husband, and saw his father in school holidays. He met a number of famous faces at his father’s Palm Springs home – including Liberace, when he was 12: “He came out of a Rolls-Royce convertible, and the light was just bouncing off of all of his jewellery. He was very charming.”

His bifurcated childhood had an effect. “I think it’s something that I possibly inherited early on as a child going back and forth between two families,” he has said. “I have an ability to sort of fit into a lot of different situations and make people feel relatively comfortable in a wide range without giving up all my moral values. I think that same chameleon-like quality can transfer into films.” Despite his father’s discouragement, he decided in his teenage years to become an actor, and studied drama at the University of California.

Early roles in the 1960s were herbivorous, hippie types, a world away from his father’s gung-ho soldiers, Vikings and cops. But his break came in 1972 playing a college-graduate plainclothes detective in The Streets of San Francisco, a TV show than ran for five years. It made him a familiar (handsome) face and plausible leading man, and brought him a valuable mentor in the Hollywood veteran Karl Malden who played his sidekick, Mike Stone.

His first movie was a humdinger – his father passed on to him the film rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he co-produced (with Saul Zaentz) and won an Oscar. He apparently considered playing the mental-asylum hero Randle McMurphy himself, but the role went to Jack Nicholson, who won his first Oscar.

As an actor, Douglas’s career has fallen into four distinct eras. His early work was all Important Walking: in The Streets of San Francisco, in Coma and The China Syndrome, he walked everywhere with urgent authority; in Running he played a marathon runner but was at his best when limping. His second phase was Adventuring, playing Jack Colton – a more mercenary, less scrupulous version of Indiana Jones – in Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile. Set in the African desert, they involved jolly feats of derring-do in the African jungle and romance with Kathleen Turner, co-starring as a Mills & Boon novelist.

The third phase is the one with which he’s most associated. It’s the Threatened Chauvinist. In Fatal Attraction (1987,) he played an errant husband who has a passionate three-night stand with Glenn Close and suffers the consequence when his former inamorata comes for him and his family. In The Wars of the Roses, he and Kathleen Turner played a separating couple fighting each other to the death. In Basic Instinct (1992), he tried to convict, and sexually conquer, a rich and scornful bisexual writer, played by Sharon Stone. In Disclosure (1994), he played an innocent married man harassed by Demi Moore with an intimidating cleavage. Douglas became typecast as the innocently phallic modern man under threat from psychotic post-feminist sexuality, Homo sapiens in flight from vagina dentata. His embrace of such roles coincided with revelations about the actor himself.

His marriage to Diandra Luker, whom he wed when she was 19, failed; she blamed his womanising, absenteeism and failure to be “a proper father” to their son Cameron. According to a biography published last year, Diandra found him in bed with one of her best friends at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel the day before they went on holiday to Spain with Jack Nicholson and his girlfriend. After an understandably fraught holiday, medicated by drink and drugs, his wife issued an ultimatum. In 1992, Douglas was admitted to the Sierra Tucson clinic, Arizona, for a 30-day treatment for alcohol abuse and “sex addiction”, the first time the public had heard satyriasis so described. He told a group of eight other inmates: “Sex is just a wave that sweeps over me, an impulse that is overwhelming. I’m helpless. Every time.” Douglas later claimed the sex addiction story was invented by a British editor.

His son Cameron (born in 1978) appeared in a handful of movies, but has been arrested for drug offences many times since his parents’ break-up in the late 1990s. His father, on hearing his original conviction, took the blame for “being a bad father” but remarked that, without a prison sentence, his son “was going to be dead or somebody was going to kill him. I think he has a chance to start a new life and he knows that”.

Douglas himself started a new life after he and Diandra divorced in 2000. (She was awarded $45m). He met the Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones (with whom he shares a birthday, 25 September, though they’re 25 years apart in age) in Deauville. His opening line to her was “I want to father your children.” They married in November 2000 – and indeed produced a son, Dylan Michael, and a daughter, Carys Zeta.

His roles in the past 13 years have been softer, ruminative and comic, beginning with the character of Grady Tripp, a college professor and author, in Wonder Boys (2000), for which he received Bafta and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor. An extraordinary experiment, It Runs in the Family (2003), cast him, his father Kirk, his mother Diana and his son Cameron as family members. It flopped. But he always kept making movies, and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

Later years have been dogged by illness, conducted in the public eye: he announced his throat cancer on David Letterman’s show in August 2010, saying it was the result of stress, alcohol abuse and heavy smoking. In January 2011, he announced that it was gone, after he’d lost 32lb in weight. And after a succession of minor parts in forgettable films, just before the Letterman announcement, Steven Soderbergh gave him the part he first offered Douglas back in 2000, when they were making Traffic together.

What was it he most enjoyed about making Behind the Candelabra? “I got to smile,” he told fans outside Claridge’s this week. “I don’t smile a lot in my pictures. I’m always so grim.” A cause for celebration indeed.

A Life In Brief

Born: Michael Kirk Douglas, 25 September 1944, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Family: First child of actors Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill, he has one younger brother. Was married to Diandra Luker from 1977 to 2000; they have one son. Married Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2000; they have two children.

Career: Started his film career in late 1960s, appearing in minor films such as Summertree. First significant role came in the television series The Streets of San Francisco in 1972. Produced the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. Propelled to fame by 1984’s Romancing the Stone. Went on to star in films such as Fatal Attraction, Wall Street (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar), Basic Instinct, Falling Down, Traffic and Wonder Boys. He stars in the HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra which premieres tomorrow.

He says: “I do feel I get dismissed sometimes. It may be a second-generation Hollywood thing. My father was known for tough-guy parts, and I probably gravitated toward the cerebral rather than the physical to be different from him.”

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