Icons / May 2017

Michael Douglas: Wonder Boy

An establishment maverick with a genuinely exceptional talent, Michael Douglas is a rare Hollywood son who transcends his family name.

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, 1987. Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

“There is in his eyes, his jaw, his hairline, and his voice the memory of his father. But there is also something like his horror at being so like Kirk. What fuel for an actor!” It is a double-edged sword, as film critic David Thomson observed, to have Spartacus for a dad. But like Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Douglas is a rare Hollywood son who transcends the family name. A genuinely strange screen presence, his slinky swagger and reptilian good looks have straddled the decades: lush mane, pursed cheekbones and a sarcastic whine-rasp as close to Jack Nicholson’s as his father’s.

Michael’s actor parents Kirk Douglas and Diana Dill split when he was seven (Douglas has suggested the contrast between his mother’s home in Connecticut and his father’s in LA honed his ability to shape-shift). He rejected Yale for the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he befriended Danny DeVito. By Douglas’ own admission, producer success came early, actor success late. As a producer, he combined contacts with taste and ingenuity, particularly when he paired Czech iconoclast Milos Forman with Jack Nicholson for the adaptation of a Ken Kesey novel to which his father owned the rights. Shot in an Oregon mental hospital with certain patients hired to work on the crew, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest remains a highpoint of post-war American cinema and one of only three films to win the “big five” Oscars.

Building on the fearlessness of the plainclothes cop he played in seventies TV show The Streets of San Francisco, he swashbuckled with old friend Danny DeVito in jungle-romp Romancing The Stone (1984), a performance in the vein of Kirk’s. But he defined and refined his persona in the eighties, a decade of paranoia and kitsch excess. Douglas cornered the psychosexual thriller, one of the prevailing genres of the time, and fell for vivid anti-heroines in two of the era’s most iconic films, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. Glenn Close boiled his bunny; Sharon Stone was his “fuck of the century” (her appraisal of him was more restrained).

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Ed Cripps

Ed is a screenwriter and journalist. His TV CV includes Episodes, Fresh Meat and Made in Chelsea (his first series of which won a BAFTA). In 2016, his piece on The South Bank Show came second in The Observer's Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. In addition to The Rake, he has written for the TLS, MR PORTER and Little White Lies.