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The family plot

June 19 2003
The Sun-Herald

Father and son Kirk (left) and Michael Douglas at the Los Angeles premiere of their film It Runs in the Family in April. Photo: AFP

In a new film, Michael, Kirk and Cameron Douglas play members of a warring dynasty. They do it well, and why not? Their whole lives have been a rehearsal, writes Phillip McCarthy.

Let's think about this for a minute. You're casting a Hollywood movie. Characters include a patriarch and his seemingly midlife-crisis-prone son who has inherited the family business but still can't quite win the old man's approval. The son's eldest son is a DJ in New York clubland and small-time drug dealer who runs into a spot of legal bother over his marijuana crop. Who you gonna call?

"You know, the director has the final say on casting, even when a family is involved," says Michael Douglas, who plays father Kirk's screen son in the soon-to-be-released It Runs In The Family, a fresh variation on the blur between real lives and reel lives. "Fred Schepisi probably thought I was done when I had convinced him to accept three generations of Douglases. But after he agreed to let Cameron play my son, there was the question of Kirk's wife, and I said, 'Well, Fred, you gotta meet my mum.' He probably thought he had heard everything."

Hardly. The Douglas family tree, in three generations, has produced enough branches through divorce and remarriage (and the headlines that go with them) to keep a small pulp mill running. But when Michael Douglas pours on his Gordon Gekko-style charm - the unforgettable Gekko was his magnetic, smarmy financier in 1987's Wall Street for which he won one of his two Oscars - who could possibly resist?

"All families have their points of friction, their dysfunctions, and we're certainly not different from anyone else," says Michael, who produced the film (and got his mum, Diana, the gig, incidentally). "It's just that ours attracts a lot more attention than everyone else's. But that's not why we did the picture. It's mainly that my father and I have wanted to make a picture together for years. But he's 86 and has had a stroke and we both realised that time was running out. The rest of it, well, it just took on a life of its own."

The Douglases - screen legend Kirk, consummate Hollywood all-rounder Michael, the still glamorous Diana and neophyte Cameron - and veteran Australian director Schepisi have gathered in a Los Angeles hotel to talk to reporters about their tailor-made tableau of art imitating life.

In 1950, actor-producer Michael was six when Kirk - a leading man for more than five decades who has played everyone from Spartacus to Van Gogh - was divorced from Diana, his first wife.

The resulting father-son bonding time was, as both attest, not very good. For his part, Michael stayed married to his first wife, Diandra, for more than 20 years, but he readily admits to spending more time on his roles as actor, producer and player than as a spouse, father and nurturer.

An amateur Freudian could speculate that Michael's first son, Cameron, now 24, might have come out of all that history sufficiently disillusioned to turn his back on the family trade for quite a while. And until recently his name was usually preceded by the adjective "troubled" as he pursued a livelihood spinning records at New York nightclubs and was also charged with cocaine possession in 1999 (the charge was dismissed after he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge).

"You think long and hard about taking on a project like this because, while the family connection obviously adds another layer of texture to the piece, it comes with a lot of potential baggage, too," says Schepisi, whom Michael Douglas lined up to bring some outside perspective. (Schepisi has a record of films that play off family dynamics, such as Six Degrees Of Separation and the recent Last Orders.) "In the end, there are some parallels, but the actors are not these characters. I mean, actors pull on their own experiences, the sense-memory thing. And, wow, in this case all the research has been done over a lifetime or two."

In It Runs In The Family (to be released in Australia in August), the business is law, not movies. But given that Michael's current wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, won an Oscar for Chicago, a musical that suggests a courtroom is just another stage for some reality-based showbiz razzle-dazzle, the context even blurs that difference.

And that's not all. Faced with his own mortality, Kirk's character, Mitchell Gromberg, has recently re-connected with his Jewish roots. One of the film's pivotal scenes happens at a Passover dinner. And in real life also Kirk has rediscovered his Judaic heritage. His parents were illiterate Russian peasants - straight out of Fiddler On The Roof, he says - who came to America to escape poverty and anti-Semitism.

Yet for the Douglases the idea of merchandising their privacy, often for a hefty price tag, has become as much a part of the DNA as the cleft chin. Kirk's 1996 stroke, with its resultant speech impediment, has been worked into his career as an added layer of gritty determination befitting the characters he plays.

And Michael and Catherine almost seem to have a business plan ready whenever a milestone in their personal life approaches: a reported $US1 million ($1.5 million) for firstborn Dylan's baby photos, $US2 million for wedding snaps to defray the costs of their wedding at New York's Plaza Hotel in November 2000.

Their successful, high-profile legal wrangle with the UK's Hello! magazine over unauthorised pictures was probably less about privacy invasion than copyright infringement. Gordon Gekko would love the couple's panache.

Diana, Michael's mother and Kirk's ex-wife, plays Evelyn Gromberg, Michael's on-screen mother and Kirk's still-devoted wife whose role, as it might once have been in real life, is the peacemaker. (Last year she wed widower Donald Webster, her third husband, but appears as Diana Douglas in the Family cast.) The bit about the DJ son (Cameron Douglas) and his substance-abuse problems was, everyone swears, in the original script, written before it became about Douglas family values. The part about Kirk's character being a stroke survivor was added to give context to his speech impediment.

Schepisi wanted to spend time with Kirk to make sure he was up to an arduous shoot and also to see whether speech therapy for his stroke-diminished voice had restored sufficient clarity to make it soundtrack quality. Having assured himself on both counts, the next challenge was Cameron. Would an intensive round of acting coaching bring him up to scratch, dramatically, so he could share the screen with "two of the most polished actors in the business"?

"You've got a family working together, you've got a guy who's had a stroke and is now 86, you've got a kid who's never done it before, and the other main actor is the producer as well," Schepisi says. "If it was an Olympic event, you would get an immediate 10 points for the degree of difficulty. But it was a chance to make history. Because, really, how often do you get a chance to work with three generations of a really famous family. If you do it right, then it's really something."

Bermuda-born Diana, 80, was a young starlet when she met Kirk in 1942 just before he interrupted his career to ship off to war. They married in 1943 and she has remarried twice since then. But she and Kirk remain close and, with her current husband and his current wife, socialise like old friends. "The four of us often have dinner because we all live in Los Angeles," she says. "We're better as friends than we were as spouses.

"I didn't do this for any sort of catharsis. It was all so long ago. So, no, it wasn't like getting closure or anything like that. I know it would sound more dramatic. I liked the idea of appearing in a movie with my family. I mostly brought up Michael, and I spent a lot of time raising Cameron."

Are the Douglases trying to reveal something about themselves as well as elucidating their characters? To have an audience trying to decipher the codes here is quite a selling point, which two old producers such as Michael and Kirk doubtless savoured. (Michael's brother, Joel, also worked on It Runs In The Family as a producer.) The film, after all, hits another redemptive note above and beyond them finally working together: the third generation is going into the family business.

"It's true that I steered clear of acting on purpose," Cameron explains. "It was something I wasn't comfortable even thinking about. I was interested in music and that was how I made my money. But I had dabbled in acting once or twice and I realised I had this curiosity about it. So when my dad mentioned this film to me, it seemed like the right time to take it seriously, studying with a coach, and you can't do that if you're working in a club in the middle of the night."

It Runs In The Family, which opened in the US in April, does have a couple of non-Douglases in the cast, such as Broadway star Bernadette Peters as Michael's wife and Rory Culkin as his younger son.

In one way, it's the movie that Kirk and Michael have been waiting 27 years to make. The film that was supposed to kick off their collaboration, but didn't, has become one of Hollywood's most admired movies. The year was 1975 and Michael, in a fairly impressive debut as a producer, got the green light for Milos Forman to bring One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest to the screen. He and Kirk had been trying to make the film since Kirk acquired the rights to the Ken Kesey novel. Kirk had played the protagonist, Randle Patrick McMurphy, in a stage adaptation of the piece.

But by the time the project was finally a go, Kirk was too old. The part went to Jack Nicholson. Just about everyone in it won an Oscar that year: it collected five, including Best Picture, which Michael, as one of the producers, got to accept, and Best Actor for Nicholson. Kirk didn't get an Oscar until the Academy gave him an honorary one the year of his stroke, 1996.

In his career as an author (he's written half-a-dozen books including his autobiography, The Ragman's Son), the man who was the Thracian revolutionary Spartacus has done a children's book on biblical heroes. Perhaps it's inevitable for an actor of his age, but Kirk seems to be saddled with retrospective stories. He went from It Runs In The Family to The Illusion, in which he plays another once-powerful, now-ailing father trying to reconnect with his estranged son. Probably like any public figure, an actor no less than a politician, the stroke and a near-fatal helicopter crash five years before made Kirk think about his legacy.

"That's the worst thing about a stroke," says Kirk. "In my case, what is an actor who can't talk? He waits for silent pictures to come back? I mean, you get so depressed. I had suicidal impulses. I wrote about them in my book My Stroke Of Luck. I'm lucky, I'm really lucky. I think my speech is much better now than when I first had my stroke, but I don't think I will ever be cured completely. I don't write because I had a stroke. I write because I want to express something."

Indeed he did and despite the upbeat title, he recalls in that book, that at one point - in late 1996, when his body seemed to him like it belonged to someone older and frailer - he felt so despondent that he loaded a gun and put the trigger in his mouth. But the gun barrel hit a tooth, he realised that he didn't like pain and he had second thoughts about the whole venture. Now, the hard-charging Kirk says he has mellowed. And Michael agrees: "He had much less patience before, a hot temper ... it's a whole new chapter, really, that I see."

And with a family that has had its run-ins with addiction - including Cameron's drug issues and Michael's stint in rehab, for alcohol, in the mid-1990s - Kirk recently wrote about one of his own in The New York Times. He recalled that his own father died aged 72 from lung cancer. Kirk himself had never smoked until 1946, when he played Barbara Stanwyck's husband in his first film, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers. The director wanted him to play a scene with a cigarette and soon he had a two-pack-a-day habit. A few years later, with tobacco companies supplying cartons every month, he quit cold turkey when he thought about his father.

"My father was a bit of a brute," he says. "But I learnt from him long after he was dead. So, sure, long after I'm dead I hope Michael or Cameron, or one of the other grandchildren, might see this movie and have an introspective moment. There's something to be said for taking a pause and deep breathing." Even while having your close-up.


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