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Michael Douglas underappreciated

Ray Gustini

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by Ray Gustini
Monday, April 10, 2006

Michael Douglas has a new movie coming out this week called “The Sentinel.” From what I can ascertain, it is about a Secret Service agent (Douglas) who is having an affair with the First Lady (Kim Basinger) and is then implicated in a plot to kill the president. I am simultaneously excited and horrified by this concept — even though I know it to be inherently stupid, I find the aggressive arrogance of the premise intriguing and somewhat daring. To put it simply, I’m psyched.

Really though, the main reason I’m so interested in the movie is Douglas himself. As an actor, he takes a lot of heat. For some reason, a lot of people don’t like him, although nobody can really come to a consensus about what they dislike about him. For years, I’ve found myself inexplicably coming to his defense. Part of it is that it’s nice to defend the underdog, but there is something deeper in my admiration of what Michael Douglas does: I honestly believe he may be the best actor working today who nobody ever talks about.

Let me amend this previous statement: People do talk about Douglas, but they don’t talk about him as an actor. People talk about him as husband to Catherine-Zeta Jones and son of Kirk Douglas. Nobody ever really looks at him as his own man — we insist on defining him based on his relations with others.

All of this would be inherently tragic — the performer without identity — if it seemed like Douglas let any of this get to him. He takes everything — the questions about his marriage and his relationship with his father and the across the board swipes at his acting chops — in stride. His identity, ironically, is the actor who can take whatever gets thrown at him and pop right back up. He is game when it comes to talking about his dad or wife, which is something you don’t see a lot from people in a profession where insecurity is a defining trait.

Kenneth Branagh once said that, at their best, actors can be the greatest, kindest and most generous people in the world. Douglas strikes me as this kind of actor.

It’s a shame we don’t look more at his performances because when he’s on, he is one of the best. As a performer, nobody gives more to the audience than Michael Douglas. Every performance, even when it is misguided — the mania of “Basic Instinct” or the oddness of “One Night at McCool’s” spring to mind — puts it all out there for you to see. Part of this, I have to think, is a way to compensate for the fact that a lot of people, critics and audience members alike, go into the theater determined to dislike him.

Part of this has to do with the fact that, ever since he started out acting in the late ‘60s, he has made it a point to deviate from what the world expected from him. When he was first starting out, everybody wanted him to be his father and play the all-American heroes. But the son was influenced by the times and took roles in quiet, introspective movies like the intriguing 1970 offering “Adam at Six A.M.”

OK, fine — so he wants to be one of those soulful actors. Fine, people thought. Let him be one of Those Actors. But then he changed again and became a born again action hero, with spirited performances in bombastic thrillers like Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” and “Basic Instinct.” During this period during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, his performances were invariably more interesting than the movies themselves.

Then, in the late ‘90s, he got religion, as it were. His real strength — what he was put on this earth to do — wasn’t in playing action heroes or hippies but in playing average, everyday heroes. He was the isolated everyman in “The Game” and “Falling Down” (two underrated performances) and your favorite professor in “Wonder Boys.” He even played the president in — what else — “The American President.” For some reason, the public didn’t really respond to these roles, even though the movies did well and critics begrudgingly admitted that, yup, Michael Douglas is pretty damn good.

His performances speak for themselves. If you look at the last 30 years, he has very quietly become one of our best actors. He does this without playing any showy roles, which, as any actor will tell you, are the easiest ones to play.

His peers among baby-boomer actors are De Niro and Pacino, two terrific actors who, along with being immensely talented, couldn’t do most of Douglas’ roles. They don’t have his humanity and grace when it comes to performing on screen. Looking over Douglas’ recent filmography, I find it doubtful that either Pacino or De Niro, as much as I enjoy both actors, could have pulled off some of Douglas’ recent performances.

Part of this, I think, is that from the beginning, Douglas has been an actor who performs on the screen. Unlike many of his peers who came to Hollywood from the east coast theater world, Douglas is and always has been a screen actor. His gestures and body language are perfectly suited to being on film, which, believe it or not, is something that is difficult for an actor to do.

His shuffling walk in “Wonder Boys” is a perfect example. It’s the kind of subtle move that would never play on the stage — it’s too nuanced. On screen, though, where director Curtis Hanson could linger on how he meanders his way across Pittsburgh, it only contributes to his portrayal of a wounded literary prizefighter.

In the end, the reason a lot of people have visceral reactions to Michael Douglas is the fact that some people, for whatever reason, dislike people they see as lucky. I guess for some, having a distant guy like Kirk Douglas as your dad makes you lucky. I guess having your work maligned and laughed at for more than three decades qualifies you as lucky. I guess having your marriage of more than 23 years break up and having to go out and remarry makes you lucky. Yeah, he’s a lucky guy.

Maybe we’re the ones who are lucky. Lucky enough to have an actor like Michael Douglas who, very quietly, has given himself over to audiences for the past 30 years. Some people just can’t quite see that, though — they’re too caught up in all that other stuff. But for those of us who value actors who value their work and challenge themselves and audiences, well, we already know all about Michael Douglas. In the words of Grady Tripp, he manufactures our drug of choice.

Ray Gustini is a freshman majoring in history and political science. Wanna talk film with him? Direct questions or comments to

Anonymous (April 10, 2006 @ 11:32am):

My first crush ever was on Michael Douglas. "Romancing the Stone" anyone???

He is an excellent actor, but I don't know if I would say underappreciated. I think he has just the right amount of fame and fortune - enough to allow him to live a pretty great life outside of the limelight.

Pauline Ching (April 11, 2006 @ 1:43am):

Don't forget Michael's 2 oscars. Very few actors can expect such a great career.

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