OUTLOOK - Wednesday 26 January 2005

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Michael Douglas back in the limelight

One of Hollywood's leading men reflects on his decades as a celluloid aristocrat


Hong Kong directing icon Wong Kar-wai demonstrated his knack for analogy when he referred to his films as an enjoyable meal _ a combination of various tastes, albeit indistinguishable.

Surprisingly, he was not the only Bangkok International Film Festival guest to opt for culinary comparisons, nor even the first.

"You know, movies are expensive. I'd like to think that I can offer more than just two hours of entertainment," Michael Douglas, 61, said of what motivates him to take part in any project. "Entertainment is of course my first responsibility, but it can be like a good meal, rather than just a hotdog you eat to fill yourself up."

Douglas's recent visit to Bangkok was partly a humanitarian mission. One of the most bankable actors in Hollywood, he paid a personal visit to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at government house to present a one million baht donation for victims of the tsunami disaster, the proceeds of a Hollywood fundraiser.

He also attended the Bangkok International Film Festival to honour director Joel Schumacher, with whom he worked on Falling Down (1993). He handed a Career Achievement Award to the versatile director at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre last Friday.

Born into a film family, Michael Douglas cast his mind back over his Hollywood career, which started with an assistant editor job during his high school holidays on Lonely Are the Brave (1962), starring his father Kirk Douglas and Gena Rowlands.

Douglas's early acting career was viewed with scepticism, a cliched situation for a child of a Hollywood icon. He proved himself worthy of recognition by fostering his own screen identity. Whereas his father, Kirk, is best remembered for his heroic roles, Michael's talent shines through in roles where he plays shady yuppies _ one unpleasant incarnation of the Baby Boomer generation _ be it his Oscar-winning performance as a devious broker in Wall Street (1987), or as a doomed husband in a dysfunctional marriage in The War of the Roses (1989).

"The only thing I found out is all my movies are contemporary," said Douglas, trying to find a unifying characteristic of his body of work. "I did only one picture in my entire career that's epic. The others are all contemporary. Beyond that, I seem to be attracted to the grey area, the ambivalence of good and evil, how people struggle to do the right thing."

Douglas is also one of the few actors of his era _ along with Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen _ who successfully pulled off the trick of switching from television to the big screen.

"I give all my respect to my time in television because, you know, we made a 52-minute movie in seven days. In those days, we'd do 26 episodes a year, on location in San Francisco, and it was six days a week. So you're turned into an animal. You'd develop [while] working on the scripts. You'd finish [one] and then you'd go right into another. So you quite really learned everything."

Even though Douglas was typecast as a misogynist, with many self-absorbed, womanising screen roles during the '90s, the new millennium sees the Hollywood star more settled, even laid-back and enjoying his role as a father to Dylan Michael and Carys Zeta Douglas, the two toddlers he has with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, 25 years his junior. While Zeta-Jones's 2003 Oscar triumph has made her schedule one of the most packed in Tinseltown, Douglas is seen less and less on screen.

"It's by design," he said of his and his wife's reversed career charts. "Catherine, you know, has two children in the prime time of her career. Last year we knew she was doing Ocean's Twelve and The Legend of Zorro back to back, which were big, long, location films. So I chose not to work, you know, [to] hang out with the kids, learn the computer, and improve my golf game and my Spanish. It's by design really, and I guess having a 25-year difference in age for me now, I'm happy to say family kind of comes first."

"Family-oriented" has somewhat defined Douglas's choices of films during the past couple of years. From the role of troubled writer and English professor in the tender drama Wonder Boys to the Douglas-family drama It Runs in the Family, Douglas's new millennium looks set for comedy and drama, and there's little hope for his involvement in the Basic Instinct sequel.

"No, I never wanted to [do that]," he said adamantly. "They had the script for about six or seven years, and it's a good script, but we did it really well. It was a good movie, but I don't want to do that again. Bless Sharon, she looks great at 45, though I'm not really sure how old she is."

She's 46, going on 47, sir.

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