Profile: Do we love him when he's angry?: Michael Douglas, up there doing it for urban man

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas, the actor who runs the gauntlet of every modern trauma, is one of those films that provoked many column inches of priceless controversy in America. It is about to come to a cinema near you. Its protagonist, D-Fens (after the acronym on his customised licence plate), a redundant defence industry worker, roams the mean fast-food joints and ethnic neighbourhoods of a Los Angeles sunk in crime, drugs, traffic, pollution and economic recession. D-Fens is furious at what modern life confronts him with; a decent man unhinged by urban angst, white middle-class male under siege. Humiliated and frustrated at every turn, he picks up his baseball bat, automatic rifle and grenade launcher and goes on the rampage. He gives beggars a verbal savaging, goes nuclear with a Korean shopkeeper, is at dirty war with the wife.

And did it get the monster treatment in the American media? Did it not? Debates raged: is this bad stuff to put on the screen, or is this truth? Is it bang on the button issues-wise, setting out the fears and failings of hard-pressed modern society, or is it just an exploitation movie pandering to racist, sexist prejudices? Should the punters picket the cinema? Or get stuck into the popcorn?

Who knows? Just count the column inches.

The star stands his ground: 'If Koreans don't like it, I understand, I truly do. Unfortunately, I'm not making it up. So I'd put it back to the Korean Americans and say, 'you've got a problem - a public relations problem'. '

Michael Douglas has no doubt. He knew the row was coming and he loves it. For the past six years, most of his films have struck a raw nerve, drawing audiences half ashamed and half salivating to see extreme behaviour brought to the silver screen: naked greed, blazing guns, boiled pet rabbit. In the guise of urban man Douglas has been through a lot. Remember Fatal Attraction? Husband and father starts a casual affair and finds himself in the grip of something worse than his worst nightmare; woman unhinged is coming up his safe suburban family path with a knife - destroying the family, threatening life and limb, killing the children's pet. Is this metaphor, morality or just a good old Eighties trashy horror movie? In 1988, his character had a slightly better time of it. It was Wall Street and Douglas was Gordon Gekko, an Eighties Everest of avarice, a kind of Richard III of high finance. He gave us some good catchlines ('Lunch is for wimps]') and won an Oscar. Douglas himself said of Fatal Attraction and Wall Street: 'I'm proud they dealt with the two main issues of the Eighties; lust and greed.' But were they acceptable entertainment? If you are looking for American political correctness in street language, Douglas is your man.

Let us consider Michael Douglas's own life story; in fact, let's buy it as a property; it has all the makings of a Michael Douglas film. It may be a bit over the top, but then that's how it is when modern life becomes a Hollywood movie. Our story is about interaction between men: how a boy comes to terms, or doesn't, with being the son of a very famous, very macho father.

He fights his way out of the shadow and becomes a world star; but at what cost? Is this man genetically programmed to fight his way up the Hollywood ladder? And it is about men and women: a hectic story, with lots of short parts for glamorous women and one for a sorely tried wife. Ambition, success, infidelity - key modern issues. But dare we make our character a hero to applaud, or would that be too much for the feminists and religious fundamentalists? And how will it play with the gays and Koreans?

Born 49 years ago, Michael is the eldest of the four sons of Kirk Douglas, a Hollywood star of magnificent physique, and outsize, domineering personality. He was a man who never lost the rage that powered him from abject poverty to stardom. His personality was by far the fiercest and most dangerous of his generation: even when he played heroes, they were characters with violent tempers and brooding intensities. Meanwhile, off-screen, as he revealed in his autobiography, unusual in its frankness, Kirk Douglas combined a clannish pride in family with rampant womanising.

Michael was going to be different. His mother, the British-bred actress Diana Dill, was divorced from Kirk when Michael was six. The boy was brought up in New York; he was supposed to be the soft one, the polished one, the charming, easygoing one, the one without much ambition, growing up far from his father and Hollywood and their manic drives. He resented the long shadow of his father except when it helped him to get work. He drifted into Hollywood in the late Sixties on the strength of the name and his own good looks. When his early films such as Summertree and Napoleon and Samantha flopped, he drifted over to television, where once again he was rescued by an old friend of his father's, Karl Malden, who got Michael hired as his sidekick in the series Streets of San Francisco. He was never much more than competent as an actor (most people thought him 'dull').

And so it went on, well into his mid-thirties. This was a boy who might live and die hidden in long paternal shadow. Then the genes came into play: energy and ruthlessness, first of all as a businessman. In 1976, he bought the film rights to Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest from Kirk, dumped his own father from the leading role and replaced him with Jack Nicholson. The film, which he co-produced, was a huge critical and commercial hit, making Michael Douglas an independently wealthy man. Nor did his father, so we are told, resent Michael finessing him out of the role, though he thought it would be the part of a lifetime.

It was the kind of macho, street-smart move that goes down well in the Douglas family; it brought father and son closer together (though how this aspect of our biopic would go down with the critics is hard to guess).

Then Michael took a wife, and his father approved. In 1977, still savouring his Cuckoo's Nest triumph, Michael spotted a young girl from an haute-Spanish family at a Washington reception. He married Diandra eight weeks later when he was 32 and she was 19. He had previously lived for seven years with an older actress, Brenda Vaccaro, who was rather more famous than him.

The marriage has become one of Hollywood's longest-running soap operas, on- again and off-again, with intervals when the show travelled out of town and back again. Although Douglas does his best to ride out the reports, and most people, including most reporters, genuinely like him and would protect him if they could, he's been unable to conceal his attitude to women, copied from his father. The Douglases expect their women to put up and shut up.

They both married Europeans (in Kirk's case twice - his second wife is French) for their class and docility, but what worked in Kirk's day hasn't been so easy for Michael. No matter how often he says he 'couldn't cope' with a wife who had her own career and that he hates tough, independent women, Diandra has shown distressing signs of wanting her own life, and at the same time of refusing to turn a blind eye to her husband's activities. Outsiders have wondered why they don't divorce. But there has been pressure from the clan to keep the family together. (The portrayal of the wife in this biopic will need careful treatment. On the one hand, any whiff of woman as victim could be seen as a nod in favour of chauvinism; but it would certainly get people arguing.)

Then there is Cameron, their son. As a victim of his own father's divorce, as well as Kirk's patriarchal style as a parent ('I never saw him as anything but a tower of strength'), Michael has been very concerned to be a good father. He refuses to discuss rumours that he entered a clinic to treat his 'sex addiction', or that he has sought therapy with Cameron, who showed signs of becoming disturbed over his parents' rocky relationship.

Michael surely is Kirk Douglas's son, except on camera, where he was wimpish by comparison. No blazing-eyed Cinemascope-filler here. This boy couldn't inspire a slave rebellion or put down his brushes and cut his ear off like his dad. He was just a bland, all-purpose leading man in forgettable films such as Running, A Chorus Line or Coma. His dad had a torso that could launch a thousand Viking ships, whereas when Michael showed his all in Basic Instinct, Bite magazine, which is interested in such things, complained about his 'poor little pancake-flat butt'.

His reputation in Hollywood rested on Cuckoo's Nest, the hit he produced. The Douglas drive came through in his wheeler-dealings as producer. Take Kathleen Turner: he became very close to the actress on Romancing The Stone, the hit film that he produced and starred in in 1984, but when Turner had second thoughts about appearing in the sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, he didn't hesitate to sue her into compliance. He strives to be kind and easy-going but can't conceal his intense drive - for money and success, certainly, but also just to be occupied, to be busy (the same drive fuels his romantic career). For Kirk Douglas that drive had a different purpose, to pull himself out of poverty. For Michael, the drive is just there, revving away, an unappeased and unappeasable hunger. Once he let it show on screen, audiences recognised it in themselves and made him a star.

But there is a lot of Kirk Douglas, the old lion, in all of this, albeit more smoothly packaged in the son. There is a lot of Kirk also in Michael's sudden swoops into coarseness and the fact that, for all his sophistication, he is at bottom a lightly educated man whose chief intellectual interest is watching sports on television. If Kirk famously has his demons, Michael has what he calls 'my crazies'. Anger and resentment fuel most of his achievements: first, anger at his father for divorcing his mother; later, more anger at the people who rejected him as an actor or producer in Hollywood. He may have got mad; he has certainly got even; he may have allayed some of his demons. According to him, his father says he's a nicer man these days.

Meanwhile, on screen, hell hath no fury like a frustrated, screwed-up, put-upon middle-class American surrounded by traffic jams and muggers and fast-food operatives who won't serve you a micro-second after closing time. And publicists have no dream that excels like the good old political-incorrectness-as-seen-down- your-local-multiplex debate.

And should you really see a film made by a man who has not been entirely satisfactory in his conduct towards his wife?