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Douglas to be feted tonight at Wheeler

Stewart Oksenhorn

If change – in on-screen persona, role in the film world, and off-screen life – has been a constant for Michael Douglas, it is a pattern that was set early on.In 1972, a 28-year-old Douglas began playing Inspector Steve Keller in the TV cop show, “The Streets of San Francisco.” The role would eventually garner him three Emmy Award nominations. But even as he took on his breakthrough acting job, Douglas had his eye on bigger things, and a bigger screen.Douglas’ father, actor and producer Kirk, owned the rights to a script by counterculture writer Ken Kesey. But the elder Douglas had not been able to gain much traction with that script, about the rebellious, institutionalized R.P. McMurphy. Kirk had starred in a Broadway version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” that closed after six months, and he had gone nowhere in trying to get a film made of the story.But when Kesey published “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as a novel, in 1962, the times were a-changing in America, and the world was more receptive to the anti-authoritarian angle.”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.”The 1975 film version, produced by Douglas and Saul Zaentz and starring Jack Nicholson, became the rare film that earned equal acclaim with the book from which it was adapted. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” swept the five major Academy Awards, including a best picture Oscar for Douglas, then 31.In the three decades since, Douglas’ career has been marked by turns and twists that have kept him, at 60, atop the heap of film stars. Douglas has worked, as both actor and producer, in dramas, comedies, action movies and thrillers.

That body of work will be recognized at Aspen Filmfest 2004, which opens today, with the presentation of the Independent By Nature Award to Douglas in an event at the Wheeler Opera House this evening. The event will include a reel of career highlights and an on-stage interview conducted by director Joel Schumacher.Also today, Filmfest will screen a pair of Douglas’ films: “Falling Down” (11:45 a.m., Wheeler), the 1993 drama directed by Schumacher, which will be followed by a Q-and-A session with Schumacher; and “The China Syndrome” (2:30 p.m., Wheeler), the 1979 nuclear-power thriller that Douglas produced and starred in.”We like to honor people who have multifaceted careers,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest, which in past years has honored producer-director-actor Sydney Pollack, actor-writer William H. Macy and director-producer-writer Bob Rafelson. “Michael is both an actor and producer. And he seems attracted to roles that challenge him in different ways. There’s a consistency, but not a sameness.”He’s drawn to things that allow him to develop a different part of his acting persona.”Filmfest has also shown a pronounced tendency to honor filmmakers with local ties. Rafelson is a longtime Aspen resident; Macy has a strong bond to the valley through his wife, Woody Creek-bred actress Felicity Huffman.The Roaring Fork Valley can no longer claim Douglas as one of its part-time own; he sold his home in Wildcat Ranch recently. But he has a lengthy history here.First brought to Aspen by Jack Nicholson, in 1976, after the success of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Douglas became a regular visitor. In the early ’90s he helped develop Wildcat Ranch in Old Snowmass.While Douglas built a home there, he was instrumental in keeping Wildcat a low-density site. The house he built there, in fact, originally intended as a guest house, served Douglas well enough that he never got around to building a main house. Douglas has contributed his influence to the community: He serves on Filmfest’s International Advisory Council, and narrated “Jazz Colony,” a documentary about Jazz Aspen’s educational programs.

Life changes, including his 2000 marriage to Welsh-born actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and the births of their two children, have torn Douglas from Colorado.”I couldn’t justify it,” he said of selling his house. “I wasn’t getting out there enough. My new life has me more in the East and in Scotland.”Douglas’ on-screen career began in earnest with a continuation of intense, issue-oriented fare like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” There was “The China Syndrome,” which eerily presaged the near-meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, an incident that followed the opening of the film by three weeks. “Coma” and “The Star Chamber” were also thrillers that touched on contemporary society.The early roles cast Douglas in the mold of a sensitive, left-leaning, hippyish character – nearly the exact opposite of his steel-jawed father, who established his macho persona in “Spartacus” and “Lonely Are the Brave.” The younger Douglas said he intentionally chose characters that would play against his father’s public image. But he also points out that he was, in fact, following his father’s path precisely.”His dynamic was so strong, and I fell into sensitive young man roles early in my career,” said Douglas. “But my father’s early roles were not like his later roles that people know so well. Not until he took a chance on ‘Champion'” – the 1949 film that had Douglas as unscrupulous boxer Midge Kelly – “did he turn his career around.”As an actor, not till I did ‘Wall Street,’ then ‘Fatal Attraction’ two months later, did I change my career.”Prior to those two 1987 roles, Douglas had made his first stabs at comedy and action – both in the same film. In 1984’s “Romancing the Stone,” which he produced and starred in, Douglas played the wisecracking soldier of fortune Jack T. Colton. The character echoed Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but there was no denying the sense of fun and humor Douglas brought to the film.

With his portrayal of corporate raider Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street,” Oliver Stone’s iconic dissection of ’80s corporate greed for which Douglas earned a best actor Oscar, Douglas established the cocky business titan which he would revisit in “The Game.” And in “Fatal Attraction,” the megahit about an affair gone very wrong, Douglas created a character type – the careless philanderer who gets his comeuppance – that would emerge in a handful of later films. In 1993’s “Falling Down,” Douglas took on perhaps his most daring role, William Foster, the unemployed, angry white male who snaps. More recently, Douglas has returned to comedy, and of all different varieties: the slapstickish “The In-Laws,” a remake of the 1979 film; the black sexual comedy “One Night at McCool’s,” which he produced; and “Wonder Boys,” in which he gave an excellent performance as a floundering writer and professor.Conspicuously lacking from the Douglas filmography is a straight romance. There’s just one love story that Douglas has starred in, and that was the weak period piece, “Shining Through.””Maybe ‘Shining Through’ did me in. It wasn’t a really good picture,” he observed. “There’s been a fair amount of lust involved, but not much love.”All those turns have landed Douglas in a position of strength. He is now as likely and able to star in a thriller, a comedy, a dark romance. And there is still room to achieve something new, a decent love story.”I just feel for me, that’s the challenge, to try to continue to grow and take chances,” he said. “That’s the luxury you have.”Douglas’ latest chance to grow is coming away from moviemaking. He is in a yearlong hiatus from films that is giving him ample time with his young children and allows his wife to pursue her career.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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