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Douglas faces the issues

Stewart Oksenhorn

Michael Douglas takes a realist’s view of his profession. A movie, he says, “is a pretty expensive two hours of entertainment.”But that dismissive perspective lasts barely a moment before the idealist in Douglas shines through. Douglas is aware of how 120 minutes or so in a movie theater can crystallize a social issue, capture the spirit of the times, and even add a prominent voice to the communal discourse. So in addition to providing that two hours of entertainment – what he calls “your first responsibility” as a film actor – Douglas feels an equal obligation to take on roles with a measure of social value.”I feel some responsibility to deliver the goods,” said Douglas, who will be presented Aspen Filmfest’s Independent By Nature Award at Filmfest 2005. “Like a good meal, if I can walk away from the table with a good aftertaste, something to think about, so much the better. Movies can be like fast food, where you eat it, then don’t think about it again. I like to deliver a movie that offers food for thought.”

Douglas, who has been a regular visitor to Aspen since the mid-’70s and had a house in Wildcat Ranch until recently, will be given the Independent By Nature Award in a ceremony on Filmfest’s opening night, Wednesday, Sept. 29 – four days after his 60th birthday. The event, at the Wheeler Opera House, will feature a clips reel and an onstage interview conducted by Joel Schumacher, Douglas’ director in the 1993 drama “Falling Down.” The awards event will be followed by a benefit dinner.While Douglas followed in the career footsteps of his father, Kirk, also an actor and producer, much of the content of that career he owes to his mother, Diana, in whose house Michael was primarily raised. “I grew up in a household that was pretty politically aware,” said Douglas. “Back East, in Connecticut and New York, there was a lot of discussion and debate on issues with my mother and stepfather.” That engagement with the world around him didn’t end when he left home; Douglas attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, through the mid-’60s, when California campuses were the center ring for American protest.Douglas’ serious side

When Douglas made his first splash in the world of socially significant movies, it was a big one. But it was a coincidence of good fortune and good timing as much as artistic ambition that led Douglas to serve as co-producer of the landmark 1975 film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”Douglas had already made a name for himself as an actor – albeit on the small screen – for portraying Inspector Steve Keller on the cop show “The Streets of San Francisco,” a role that would earn him three Emmy nominations. But Douglas had his eye on the big screen and a project his father was associated with. Kirk Douglas had owned the rights to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” before Ken Kesey’s era-defining novel was even published. In 1960, two years before Kesey’s story of the anti-authoritarian asylum patient R.P. McMurphy appeared in book form, the elder Douglas starred in a less-than-successful Broadway production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” After the play’s six-month run, Kirk tried to make a film of the story, but Kesey’s depiction of rebelliousness was ahead of its time.”Six years later, though, it was required reading in every American Lit class, and popped up off-Broadway everywhere,” noted Michael. “My career was going slow. I asked my father if I could set it up.”Douglas, working with co-producer Saul Zaentz, worked several years on getting “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to the screen. (Douglas briefly considered taking the role of Billy Bibbit as well, but relinquished it, realizing “I had my hands full as a producer.”) When the film arrived, in 1975, it was instantly hailed as a classic, becoming the first film since 1934’s “It Happened One Night” to earn all five major Academy Awards (including best actor for Jack Nicholson, best actress for Louise Fletcher and best director for Milos Forman).

The film, a sharp depiction of Vietnam-era American discord, kicked off Douglas’ string of issue-oriented works. “When something turns out well like that, it gives you confidence to do those things,” he said. In 1979, he produced and co-starred in “The China Syndrome” (to be screened as part of Filmfest’s Spotlight on Michael Douglas series). At the time of its release, the film about a near-meltdown at a nuclear plant was an effective, cautionary thriller, notable for Jack Lemmon’s magnificent performance as a plant executive (and to a lesser degree for Douglas’ turn as an activist TV news cameraman). But when Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant had a partial meltdown two weeks after the film’s release, “The China Syndrome” seemed prophetic.When Douglas first became involved with the film, the prospect of a nuclear accident seemed a worthwhile, but hardly urgent issue. “It was like a monster movie. The nuclear power plant was like a monster,” said Douglas. “It was a very palatable way to deliver an important message.” After the Three Mile Island incident, which had some eerie parallels with “The China Syndrome,” Douglas’ view of his production changed dramatically. The film, which he calls “the most prophetic experience of my life,” spurred Douglas to adopt the antinuclear issue as a favorite cause. His involvement with the No Nukes movement led to a position in the push for disarmament; as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, he has spoken in Sierra Leone and Albania about disarmament.

Douglas would continue to seek out roles that allowed him to explore weighty areas. In 1995’s transparent but likable “The American President,” Douglas – playing the president of the U.S.A. – exposes the backroom dealings of American politics. The more complex, nuanced 2000 film “Traffic” had Douglas as the nation’s drug czar – and a father with a daughter addicted to heroin. In “Falling Down” – also to be screened at Filmfest – he gave a vivid portrayal of white male angst, playing a laid-off employee at a defense contractor. The role of William Foster reflected a reality Douglas had witnessed in Southern California.”It came at a crucial time, right after the end of the Cold War,” he said. “Southern California’s biggest industry – everyone thinks it’s entertainment, but it’s defense. After the Cold War, there were a lot of men who were given pink slips all of a sudden. I thought the script captured the life of a guy who was falling apart.”Foster, the central character in “Falling Down,” was a different kind of part for Douglas. The disillusioned, even delusional Foster was the antithesis of the in-control alpha male he had played over and over. But in Foster’s dishevelment, down to the dorky glasses covering beady eyes, Douglas found escape and comfort.

“When you put on the flattop haircut, put the angry face on, a character like that is like painting a face on,” said Douglas. “It’s like armor and lets you do whatever you want. It’s freedom.”Harder are the parts where you have to strip yourself and trust yourself. That kind of exposure is toughest for most actors.”Most iconic of all, and most emblematic of an era, was Douglas’ portrayal of corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” The 1987 film, released in the wake of Wall Street’s insider-trading scandals, powerfully addresses the morality of the go-go ’80s. Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech comes as close as any movie moment to encapsulating a historical moment. But the actor wonders if the message got through.

“If I have one more drunken guy come up to me at dinner and say, ‘Greed is good,’ ‘You’re the man,'” Douglas says, before his voice dies off. “I was supposed to be the villain. But so many people see him as a hero. I think, ‘Don’t you see what happened there?'”The indelible performance earned Douglas his one best actor Oscar. (He won a best picture Oscar for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”) For this, he reflexively gives credit to his director. “Almost every actor who has worked with Oliver Stone has given his best performance in Oliver’s movie. He pushes people so well,” said Douglas.On a lighter noteDouglas hasn’t limited himself to merely the serious and significant in his film career. After a handful of dramatic roles, Douglas changed course for 1984’s “Romancing the Stone,” and proved himself surprisingly adept at both comedy and adventure. (He might have stopped there; a sequel, “Jewel of the Nile,” couldn’t match the inspiration of the original.) In 2000, Douglas defied expectations again, earning critical applause for playing Grady Tripp, a writer-professor in a life and career crisis in the comedy “Wonder Boys.” Of late, Douglas has turned for the first time to broad comedy, appearing in the black comedy “One Night at McCool’s” (which he also co-produced), and a remake of “The In-Laws.”

For someone who prides himself on handling a variety of roles, however, Douglas has come dangerously close to being stereotyped in one breed of film: the romance turned ugly. It began with the mega-hit “Fatal Attraction,” a film that probably did more to prevent extramarital relations than all the country’s therapists combined (and which opened three months before “Wall Street”). From 1987 to 1998, Douglas starred in “War of the Roses,” “Basic Instinct,” “Disclosure” and “A Perfect Murder,” all films where love – or, more likely, sex – leads down a violent path. In fact, for a man considered the epitome of the attractive older man – and who, in real life, is married to actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, the epitome of the hot woman of any age – Douglas has starred in exactly one straight romance.”Maybe ‘Shining Through'” – his 1992 period spy romance with Melanie Griffith – “did me in. It wasn’t a really good picture,” said Douglas. “There’s been a fair amount of lust involved, but not a lot of love.”

Douglas’ next film isn’t likely to alter that course. In “The Ride Down to Mt. Morgan,” based on the Arthur Miller play and scheduled for release next year, Douglas plays a hospitalized man whose situation is complicated by visits from both of his wives. But based on the recent past, which has seen the actor stretching in various directions, one shouldn’t expect Douglas to repeat a stretch of similar roles.”I just feel for me, that’s the challenge, to try to continue to grow and take chances,” said Douglas, who is in the midst of a yearlong acting hiatus, which allows his wife to work and him to spend time with the couple’s two young children. “That’s a luxury to have. Comedy, for instance, is something I’m glad I tried. “The best compliment I ever hear is when people say, ‘I see your name and I don’t know what the film will be, but I know it’s going to be good.’ I love hearing that.”

Aspen Filmfest 2005 runs Wednesday, Sept. 29, through Sunday, Oct. 3, with events in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.In addition to An Evening with Michael Douglas, special programs include Fahrenheit, Fries, Fox and Fairness: The New Political Documentary (Saturday, Oct. 2), a panel discussion about the new wave of sociopolitical documentaries with directors Morgan Spurlock and Robert Greenwald, and producer Jeff Gibbs; and the Festival Centerpiece “The Best of Youth,” a six-hour epic tracing the last 40 years of Italian history, that will be screened in two parts (Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 2-3).

Documentaries to be screened are “Born Into Brothels,” “Tarnation” and “Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America.” English-language features include David O. Russell’s “I Huckabees,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin; the biopic “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” starring Geoffrey Rush as the late actor and misanthrope; and “Stage Beauty,” with Billy Crudup as a cross-dressing actor in 17th-century London. Foreign films include the French period piece “Les Choristes” and “Travelers and Magicians,” a mystical fable from Bhutan.For a full Filmfest program, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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