Michael Douglas: Victim Victorious

“Improbable as it may seem, Michael Douglas currently commands a per-picture salary of some $15 million just to play That Evil White Guy You’re Always Com­plaining About.”


Well-Fed Yuppie Michael Douglas Lead Charge for Resentful White Men

“Why don’t I just be that guy, that evil white guy you’re always complaining about?”
— Michael Douglas, Disclosure

Was that a threat or a bleat? Or was it only the satisfied acknowl­edgment of a smart career move? Improbable as it may seem, Michael Douglas currently commands a per-picture salary of some $15 million just to play That Evil White Guy You’re Always Com­plaining About.

American movies are the R&D of American politics. To be a reigning male icon is to promote a social agenda — ­it goes with the territory. John Wayne personified anticommunism at home and in the ‘Nam, Clint Eastwood was the original law-and-or­der licensed vigilante, Sylvester Stallone achieved stardom as Mr. White (Ethnic) Backlash. Arnold Schwarzenegger embodied the global triumph of American capital, but the world-historic role Michael Douglas has assigned himself is something like der Arnold in reverse.

A well-fed yuppie with a face that bobs and weaves around the frame, pretending to menace the camera like a kid’s clenched fist, Douglas has perfected his ability to pro­ject a glowering sense of aggrieved, put-upon masculinity. Taking on the de­fense of home, hearth, and career against a succession of castrating women, not to mention menacing minority groups and ascendant nationalities, Dou­glas has elected himself patron-saint of America’s leading special interest group. He is the heroic, resentful, white-guy, white-col­lar, heterosexual vic­tim, the social hiero­glyph and talk-show staple we might call the Mighty Kvetch. “Sexual harassment is about power. When did I have the power?” Douglas wails in Disclosure. “When?”

AMERICAN HEROES ARE STOIC BY NATURE. As the leading protagonist of the bedroom horror genre that Fatal Attraction established, if not invented, back in the Reagan autumn of 1987, Douglas taught men to whine. The quintessential Douglas vehicle is an inverted Gothic romance in which women overcome men and bodice-ripping is a source of masculine pain — or even, in the case of Basic In­stinct (1992), death. The quintessential Douglas scene transforms a cozy home or congenial work space into an arena of mortal combat. As his godlike father Kirk Douglas battled fellow gladiator Woody Strode mano a mano in Spartacus, so Michael strips down to grapple with such harridan temptresses as the Medusa-permed Glenn Close, voracious man-eater Kathleen Turner, “fuck of the cen­tury” Sharon Stone, and big-haired Demi Moore in a custom-built Wonderbra.

A figure of fantastic, self-parodic, gangster­ish drive, the senior Douglas embodied a healthy measure of America’s post-World War II strength. Back in the ’50s, when men were men and women knew their place, he slaughtered screenfuls of Vikings, Romans, and Indians. Douglas pere was the closest thing to a Jewish John Wayne. Regularly parodied by Frank Gor­shin as a hoarse, tic-ridden, volatile neurotic, Kirk was perhaps the ’50s most aggressive action star. The younger Douglas brings his father’s (or maybe Gorshin’s) teeth-clenched, anguished in­tensity to the representation of sex-whimper­ing protests even as he’s being fellated.

American tough guys are notoriously in­expressive. In the course of his sweaty, grab-ass copulations, Douglas dramatizes every cliché about erotic torment as well as the inherent ridiculousness of (other people’s) passion. Fa­tal Attraction features Douglas and Close go­ing at each other as she perches on the ledge of a dish-filled sink. In Basic In­stinct, Douglas brings Jeanne Tripplehorn home, slams her against a wall, kisses her, rips apart her underwear, smooches her again, then pushes her facedown onto a chair and takes her from behind. (“You’ve never been like that be­fore,” she observes grumpily.) As der Arnold might tear apart a phone book, Douglas simi­larly rends the panties off Moore’s body dou­ble in Disclosure, while they clank around her high-tech office like a pair of amorous robots.

The American leading man is never thrown for an erotic loss. But Douglas always manages to win the battle and forfeit the war — invariably these actresses displace him from the movie’s center. The struggle is even biologically determined. As one guy observes in Disclosure, “They’re stronger, they’re smarter, and they don’t fight fair.” The dazed recognition that life is unequal — this is the source of Douglas’s pathos.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS’S DEMOGRAPHIC PEERS include far more talented actors: Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, to name three. Even Harrison Ford and Richard Drey­fuss exude greater screen warmth. Yet the more limited some actors are, the deeper they burrow into audience fantasies, the less apt they may be to push themselves, the easier they find it to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist.

“Charlton Heston is an axiom,” Michael Mourlet wrote 35 years ago in a once-notori­ous Cahiers du Cinema manifesto defending violence on the screen. “By himself (Heston) constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty.” Michael Douglas is likewise an axiom — even if his particular tragedy usually veers closer to farce and the beauty of his presence is a matter of some dispute.

Audiences pay to gawk at Arnold’s larger-than-life, indestructible will to power. Douglas, while no less ecce homo, more naturalistically regards his oppressors with fear and loathing, trafficking in humiliation and payback. Un­charismatic as he is, Douglas wouldn’t be any­body’s first choice as a leading man. But a true star is to some degree self-invented, having intuited a need that no one had articulated before. Indeed, it’s the sense of faintly obnoxious second-rateness that makes him such a perfect patsy for his powerhouse leading ladies.

Douglas is a selective demagogue. It appears to be part of his marketing strategy to bait women with his sexist complaints, or to pick on immigrants and the homeless, or boast of his courageously unfashionable attitudes. “You don’t have time to get politically correct,” is how he explained Basic Instinct‘s primal appeal. “Which is what movies are about, emotional catharsis.” So-called political cor­rectness has no place in fantasy — or anywhere else, for that matter. In flacking Falling Down, Douglas declared, perhaps more in sorrow than anger, that “political correctness is a state of mind, it’s a dream, it’s nirvana — and it has nothing to do with reality.”

Douglas casts himself as someone who speaks truth to power (or is it powerlessness?). While it is diverting to imagine Kirk in any of his son’s roles, as a professional Man, Michael is dearly Kirk’s heir. Indeed, before he was any­thing else, Michael was Kirk’s son — which is to say the privileged progeny of’ ’50s affluence and hypermasculine display. Kirk’s career role of Spartacus adorns the cover of Roudedge’s fashionably titled scholarly anthology, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema; self-made and self-named (he titled his autobiography The Ragpicker’s Son, boasting within that he taught his own mother to write her name), he never lost a certain class re­sentment or the sense of himself as an object. Regarding The Champion, the movie that made him a star, Douglas senior told Roger Ebert that he “was probably the only man in Holly­wood who’s had to strip to get a part.”

Kirk cast a giant shadow, at least on his firstborn. Michael Douglas first appears in the text that is Hollywood as a dutifully conflicted son. A commune-dwelling longhair during the ’60s, he broke into the movies as the would-­be Hollywood personification of the torment­ed Vietnam generation. In the supremely am­bivalent Hail, Hero! (1969), he played a hippie peacenik who secretly enlists in the army to please his World War II vet father; in Adam at Six A.M. (1970), he was an idealistic young college instructor. At the climax of Summertree (1971), draftee Michael was actually killed in battle, even as his hawkish parents contentedly made love. (The last film was produced by papa Kirk, then starring in male menopause dramas like The Brotherhood and The Arrangement.)

While falling far below the Fonda kids as a celluloid generational symbol, Douglas did successfully project a counterculture persona into American living rooms as veteran cop Karl Malden’s college-educated, idealistic-liberal protegé in Streets of San Francisco (ABC, 1972-77). In this, he earned Kirk’s approval, defined as staking out a healthy slice of the spotlight: “My father was impressed when I was doing the series because it was seen by 22 million people a week, every single week, in America alone.” Before Streets of San Francisco’s final season, Douglas quit his role as Malden’s foil. In the show, it was explained that he had left the force to become a teacher; in fact, he had retired to savor another late counter-cultural cum Oedipal triumph — as an Oscar-winning producer.

Persuading his father to give up a cherished fantasy of starring as McMurphy in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas succeeded in getting the picture made and then sweeping the Oscars. “It’s all downhill from here,” he correctly told reporters after the ceremony. Douglas nevertheless followed up by producing a second liberal hit, the meltdown melodrama The China Syndrome (1979), and rehearsing his role as the zeitgeist’s darling. The China Syndrome had the amazing good fortune to open less than two weeks before the near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. “It goes beyond the realm of coincidence; it’s enough to make you religious,” was Douglas’s com­ment at the time.

LIKE MANY A BEMUSED HOLLYWOOD liberal, Douglas missed the Reagan reformation — making nothing more interesting than two adventure comedies, Romancing the Stone (1984) and Jewel of the Nile (1985), wherein he attempted to pass for a chillier version of Harrison Ford, playing opposite a steamy Kathleen Turner. It was not until that ultimate celluloid father in the White House suffered severe image paralysis toward the close of his second term that Douglas came into his own.

Fatal Attraction (1987) was Douglas’s Spartacus — a midcareer, midlife political manifesto that remains his top-grossing ve­hicle. Cannily, he promoted it as a form of sexual backlash: “If you want to know, I’m really tired of feminists, sick of them. They’ve really dug themselves into their own grave. It’s time they looked at themselves and stopped attacking men.” For the first time, Douglas presented himself as a male advocate and, in doing so, revealed a demagogue’s knack for bringing a crowd to its feet. As was well-documented at the time, the movie inspired an extraordinary degree of viewer participation, with spectators typically exhorting Douglas to “kill the bitch!” as he defended his family against the crazed assault launched by Glenn Close’s jilted one-night stand.

As Fatal Attraction, which put adultery on the political map, presaged the fall of Gary Hart, so Wall Street ap­peared less than two months after the Octo­ber 1987 stock-market crash that signaled the demise of the boom-boom ’80s. An openly “liberal” movie, Wall Street provided Douglas with an openly villainous role. His portrayal of financier Gordon Gekko was that of an unapologetically and totally powerful white guy — the megabully that lives deep inside every whiny wimp. The part, which won Douglas an Oscar, may be closest to his heart: “I don’t think Gekko’s a villain,” he explained at the time. “Doesn’t beat his wife or his kid. He’s just taking care of business. And he gives a lot of people chances.”

Taking care of business, giving people chances. Since then, Douglas has enjoyed uncanny timing. His 1989 Osaka-set thriller, Black Rain, globalized Fatal Attrac­tion‘s sense of white men under siege. The movie, in which a typically baffled and enraged Douglas lashes out at an incomprehensibly alien (and, in some ways, “unmanly”) culture, materialized even as popular resentment peaked against the Japanese companies that — then blatantly buying up “underval­ued” American landmarks like Rockefeller Center and Universal Pictures — threatened America’s status as the world’s preeminent capitalist power. Falling Down, one of the first movies to portray Los Angeles as the new behavioral sink, was in production dur­ing the 1992 riots.

Originally asked to play Falling Down‘s heroic (but henpecked) cop, Douglas intuitively asked for the more fiercely self-pitying and demonstrative role of the laid-off defense worker known, from his license plate, as D-FENS. No less rabble-rousing than Fatal Attraction, Falling Down inspired audiences to cheer as Douglas crashed a Korean grocery (“I’m standing up for my rights as a consumer — ­I’m rolling back prices to 1965”), beat a bunch of Latino gang-bangers, dissed a homeless panhandler, and terrorized the robotic counter kids in a generic fast-food parlor.

For the benefit of the press, Douglas defended D-FENS as the personification of America’s lost middle class. What seemed lost on him was that if life in 1992 was re­ally so rough for middle-class white guys, how much worse was it for everybody else?

REVENGE FANTASIES ARE A MAJOR COMPONENT in popular entertainments, particularly those designed for the disadvantaged. In this respect, Douglas has devised a more sophisticated form of slasher film. His vehicles are all about putting the shoe on the other foot, turning victims into victimizers and vice versa. Just as immigrants and the homeless make life lousy for hardworking Americans in Falling Down, so Fatal Attraction‘s stalker and Basic Instinct‘s serial killer are female, as is Disclosure‘s rapist. Meanwhile, Douglas is persecuted, passed over, laid off, divorced, beaten up, molested, and harassed.

A successful movie star is to some degree a public servant, shoring up those cultural norms perceived to be in crisis, or effecting a miraculous reconciliation of opposing values. Douglas’s stardom depends on his capacity to project simultaneous strength and weakness. He is the victim as hero — a bellicose masochist, aggressive yet powerless, totally domineering while bat­tered by forces beyond his control (includ­ing, of course, those of his id). It’s the same rationale by which O. J. Simpson can represent himself as a victim of spouse abuse, even if it is his own.

Basic Instinct is echt Douglas — it al­lowed him to synthesize all his previous roles in the person of an arrogantly fallible cop with an addictive personality. His heightened state of deprivation, having given up ciga­rettes, booze, and cocaine when the movie opens, alludes to his offscreen life: Douglas’s media image is typically that of the licentious workaholic. Magazine profiles emphasize his tremendous, ongoing success as well as his public battles against substance abuse and “sex addiction” in the context of a long-run­ning society marriage.

Douglas asks pity for the constraints un­der which he suffers as well as for those urges that he indulges. Both are defined as Woman. But where Sigmund Freud wondered just what it was that women desired, Douglas knows only what it is they don’t: “If we followed the rules, we’d all be these sensitive, upstanding, compassionate men­ — and no women would want us.” Hence the logic of the Evil White Guy.

On one hand, men are persecuted. “Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands,” Douglas told the press while pro­moting Fatal Attraction. In that movie, Close demands that Douglas “face up to your responsibilities,” just as Moore, in Disclosure, orders him to “come back here and finish what you started!” The fear of being worked (or fucked) to death is matched by another anxiety. Basic Instinct is fascinated by Sharon Stone’s lesbian attachments, while Disclosure makes early, joking reference to a situation in which a child has two mommies. But these references seem less homophobic than misogynist — the manifestation of a male’s fear that he might be expendable. (It is an amusing footnote to the protests directed against Basic Instinct that one deliri­ous group of activists demanded, among oth­er things, that Douglas’s character be made lesbian and recast with his movieland ex-wife Kathleen Turner.)

Women define Douglas’s success as a movie star as well as his representation of life as a man. Even when women are not the primary enemy, as they are in Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, they serve to exacerbate his predicament. Douglas’s crooked cop in Black Rain needs to make extra money for child support. The vengeful loser in Falling Down is driven over the brink by a cold and rejecting ex-wife. “I have to come home,” he warns her, hav­ing just delighted the audience by telling off an uppity vagrant.

There’s an underlying sadness here. Douglas, after all, was six years old when his parents split up. Broken families are at the center of The War of the Roses and Falling Down. Black Rain and Fatal Attraction alike are haunted by the image of beleaguered pa­triarchy. Disclosure opens with Douglas’s in­effectual announcement that “I am The Fa­ther and when The Father says put your jacket on — you put your jacket on.”

You do if Daddy is Spartacus. Just as Douglas suffers the humiliation of always being the son, so he is frequently put in the position of defending something he fears may no longer even exist. Thus, Basic Instinct evinces the most pathetic longing for Kinder und Küche. Projecting an ideal future with literal man-killer Sharon Stone, Douglas goofily suggests that they “fuck like minks, raise rug rats, and live happily ever after.”

“I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?”
Michael Douglas, Falling Down

AS THE EMBODIMENT OF WHITE straight male power on planet earth, American presidents typically consort (at least in the national dreamlife) with those Holly­wood ego-ideals and doppelgängers who, like themselves, define what it is to be presumptive Master of the Universe.

Nixon identified with John Wayne, as well as the characters Patton and Dirty Harry. Underdog candidate Jimmy Carter was associated with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Reagan, in addition to playing himself, could morph into Indiana Jones and Stallone-as-­Rambo. For the overcompensating Bush, there was (by then, a kinder, gentler) Arnold Schwarzenegger and diffident Kevin Costner. For Clinton, who has been known to both whine in public and sniff around Sharon Stone, it is Michael Douglas — that is, if it is to be anyone other than Dead Elvis or (oh, the horror!) Barbra Streisand.

Although Disclosure hasn’t proved as mighty a windfall as Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct — are we getting tired of him yet — Douglas has at least temporarily sup­planted Arnold as Hollywood’s Mr. America. Junior, the latest and most radical varia­tion on the monstrous Schwarzenegger physique, tanked with squeamish audiences. (In his hubristic self-sufficiency, a pregnant Arnold made the mistake of playing both characters in a bedroom horror flick — and for comedy no less.) What, especially in the autumn of 1994, was Arnold getting in touch with his female side compared to the spectacle of the ex-hippie, glib yuppie Dou­glas rallying the troops once more — pre­vailing against another oversexed, postfem­inist, smart-assed, professional bitch? Yes!

That sort of appeal can take you straight to the top — just ask the Republicans. Indeed, as unlikable as he is, Douglas will next appear in the role of a successful politician. Wayne, Eastwood, Stallone have never gone this far. As his crowning achievement, Michael Douglas has been cast in the title role of Rob Reiner’s The American President. What’s more, it’s a romantic comedy. The Ragpicker’s Grandson, playing a wid­owed commander in chief (ding, dong, the bitch is dead), presumably ups his belea­guerment quotient by getting involved with a comely environmental lobbyist (heh heh), Annette Bening, whom his aides must smuggle in and out of the White House boudoir.

Can it work? Will the wily Bening char­acter attempt to hijack the president’s health care program? Does she accuse him of in­decent exposure? Try to steal his job? Attempt to eviscerate the D·FENS budget with an ice pick? Can the long-suffering American people forgive this well-meaning but spineless victim of his indiscretions and appetites — his basic instincts? Will we “Hail to the Chief” chump? Assuredly, providing that he asserts his presidential prerogative and puts that tricky lobby lady in her place. (Douglas should have no difficulty with the requisite flackery: Corporations are going through a terrible crisis because of environmentalists’ unreasonable demands. The greens are digging their own grave.)

Just before Christmas, gossip columns reported Douglas hanging out at the White House to absorb the presidential vibe. So was Douglas sizing up the newly chastened Bill Clinton to prepare for his ultimate ex­ercise in belligerent self-pity, heroic victimization, and protection of the realm? Or was it, somewhat more logically, vice versa? ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 20, 2020