Michael Douglas has fought all his life to step out of his father’s shadow, but now, says James Mottram, the WallStreet star faces a darker foe
Published 01/10/2010 | 05:00
When Michael Douglas arrives, dressed in a powder-blue jacket, pink shirt and black baseball cap, which covers his thick mane of silver hair, one word springs to mind: Gekko. Douglas's slimy corporate raider -- Gordon to his friends -- is back.
It has been 23 years since Oliver Stone's Wall Street, yet "of all the movies I've done, Gekko is one of the parts people talk about the most", he says. Usually, it's drunken city boys that collar him. "He's like a rock hero ... They come up and go, 'You're the man. You're why I got into this.'"
When we meet, Douglas is fresh from the Cannes première of Stone's sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and he's buzzing from reprising Gekko.
"Life ... I take as much as I can get," he says. His actress-wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is on Broadway, in a Tony-nominated role in A Little Night Music, and their two children, Dylan (10) and Carys (7) are happy in school.
"We are waiting for the summer," he smiles. Of course, as anyone who follows celebrity news will know, the summer didn't quite turn out the way Douglas intended, after he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
Judging by the pictures of him looking pale and gaunt last week at the film's US première, just days before his 66th birthday, his chemotherapy treatment is taking its toll. But the very fact he defiantly stepped out to support the film shows just how much Gekko means to him. While he'd previously won an Oscar for producing 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the role of Gekko won him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
"It is my only Oscar as an actor," he says, "and it meant a lot to me -- because my father does not have an Oscar." A broad grin crosses his face, as he relishes a chance to tease his 93-year-old actor-father Kirk Douglas once more.
Quite why Douglas is so identified with Gekko is something of a mystery, though. He has had more controversial roles -- from his detective in notorious sex thriller Basic Instinct to his gun-wielding, white-collar worker in Falling Down. And he has certainly had bigger roles -- much like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Gekko is on screen for just 26 minutes.
But for all of the morally dubious men he's played -- from his philanderer in Fatal Attraction to his soulless exec in The Game -- Gekko remains the most iconic. A lasting testament, perhaps, to an era when greed, for lack of a better word, was good. Which all makes it a rather interesting time to bring Gekko back for Money Never Sleeps. Is he a relic in an era of recession; an anachronism in an age of austerity? And will audiences care?
"Ah ... well, it's a whole different ball of wax, isn't it?" says Douglas. "I know it's a little more complicated. I don't have the joy of being Gekko at his height."
True enough. The film's prologue sees him emerge from an eight-year jail spell. "He can't trade. Got no money. Lost his son. It's a whole different set-up for him." So how will the traders feel, I ask Douglas, now their hero is a broken man? "I couldn't give a shit," he replies.
It's this sort of frankness that makes Douglas a highly entertaining interviewee. Does he ever feel guilty that his character might have inspired the greed culture that exists today in some way?
"I'm making movies," he says, throwing his hands in the air. "Please. Talk to Goldman Sachs. Oliver and I, we both shake our heads when guys with MBAs thought Gordon Gekko was the greatest thing in the world. Those are the guys who are probably the head of Goldman Sachs now. I don't know. It's ridiculous. Nobody learned anything. It was a very, very clear picture about greed. But greed has just got worse."
He doesn't hold back when it comes to the topic of re-uniting with Stone either. "It's always tough with Oliver. I say that with the greatest respect. He's a wonderful director. But he's tough. He's a complicated guy. You never quite know -- he's unpredictable. He does 10 things at the same time. You don't know if the girls on the sets are hookers or not. You don't know if he's working on his documentary about Chavez. Or he's going out with Courtney Love that night ... and he has been up all night. And he pushes you and he tests you. But at least I had the advantage this time of knowing his MO [modus operandi]."
While the film features a younger villain, in the shape of Josh Brolin's alpha-male billionaire hedge-fund manager, Gekko's journey is a far more personal one; not least as he tries to make amends with his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who hasn't spoken to him since the suicide of her brother. It's a theme that must resonate with Douglas, not least regarding his own son, the 31-year-old Cameron. As he told People magazine in 2003, when his son was growing up: "My career was my priority. I did the best I could with Cameron, but there were absences."
Yet Douglas must have felt pangs of guilt this year when Cameron -- the product of his 23- year marriage to his now ex-wife Diandra -- was sent to jail for five years after pleading guilty to possessing heroin and dealing methamphetamines. "It's a nightmare," he admits, sounding a little choked. "A terrible, terrible situation he has got himself into. Federal drug laws in the US are very, very strict. Just slightly above manslaughter. And it's painful and a very difficult situation."
What with Diandra, whom he divorced in 2000, filing a lawsuit demanding 50pc of Douglas's earnings for Money Never Sleeps, it's doubtless why the actor calls the past 12 months "a very nasty retirement-age year". Yet it's clear he has evidently learnt from his past.
"My priorities have completely reversed, from career-kids-wife to wife-kids-career. Catherine being 25 years younger, in the prime of her career ... all of that, I always try to be flexible. If you have children at my age, I like to be around to enjoy them."
It all means a natural slowing down for Douglas, a move that will doubtless be continued by his illness. He will next be seen as a CIA operative in Haywire, a "very well-written action movie" that will reunite him with Steven Soderbergh, who directed him in the drugs drama Traffic. But what of their long-gestating project, a biopic of the flamboyant pianist Liberace? Douglas says he's held back on getting too involved until it's green-lit. "It was one of those projects that was on-off-on. You don't get committed, you don't fall in love, until you know you're going to do it."
Whether it will ever get off the ground, given Douglas' health problems, remains to be seen. Yet there can be no better example for him than his father when it comes to fighting for recovery. Surviving a brutal helicopter crash in 1991 when he was 74, Douglas Snr followed it five years later with a stroke. After also having a pacemaker fitted, he then had both knees replaced when he was 88. "I admire him so much," says his son. "I have a lot of love for him. How he's conducted his third act of his life ... he's inspirational. Really inspirational."
It wasn't always like this. One of four sons, Douglas rarely saw his father during his East Coast childhood because he was frequently away filming -- a trait that would be echoed with his own offspring Cameron. Yet, now it's different with his father.
"The truth is, we get along pretty well," he says. Still, if there's a reason the original Wall Street means so much to Douglas, it's that he was finally able to step out from underneath the enormous shadow his father's legendary career had cast over him. Before that, aside from his Cuckoo's Nest Oscar triumph, Douglas was best known for his role on TV as a cop in The Streets of San Francisco, a series he eventually left to start producing. "I was a producer and a television actor trying to make it in movies," he says. While he had some level of success -- notably with his cut-price Indiana Jones-style effort Romancing the Stone -- it wasn't enough to raise his profile. It was only when the double-whammy of Wall Street and Fatal Attraction arrived in 1987 that he was able to move on to the A-list.
Even now, while he hasn't lived in Tinseltown for more than 20 years, he's proud of that status. "Would I be happy being a C-list personality in Hollywood? No," he cries. "Who wants to be a C-list?"
As far as he's concerned, his record speaks for itself. "I've always gone for the material ... I'm very old-fashioned. I like three-act structures. I just make sure the piece is well structured. But it has to grab you, make you laugh, scare you, make you hot ... something. And I never worry about the part."
Perhaps greed is not always good after all.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens on Wednesday