“When you’re making pictures out of heartfelt passion, it hurts when someone calls them a calculated business move.“—Michael Douglas
American actor Michael Douglas has received critical and commercial success for his brilliant performances in films like Romancing the Stone and Wall Street, among others. He is the recipient of multiple honours including two Academy Awards, five Golden Globe Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, the Cecil B. DeMille Award, and the AFI Life Achievement Award.
Apart from acting, Douglas also uses his platform for political activism and humanitarian efforts. He is an advocate of nuclear disarmament, a supporter of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, sits on the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and is an honorary Board Member of the anti-war grant-making foundation Ploughshares Fund. In 1998, he was appointed UN Messenger of Peace by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
“Well, the pricks are the best roles,” Douglas concluded. “You know, my dad (Kirk Douglas) played a bunch of sensitive guys early in his career. Then he plays a prick, and he wins an Oscar!”
He recalled, “Yeah. I had to get a major in college when I was a junior, so I thought, “Well, what about theatre? Mom’s an actress, Dad’s an actor.” I thought it would be easy. You know, I didn’t know what else to do. I had terrible stage fright when I first started performing.”
On his 76th birthday, we take a look back at some of Michael Douglas’ best film performances as a tribute to one the leading talents of his generation.
Michael Douglas’ 10 best films:
10. The Game (David Fincher – 1997)
David Fincher’s complex psychological thriller stars Douglas as rich investment banker Nicholas van Orton. Nicholas is given a birthday gift by his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) of participation in a game that Conrad swears will change his brother’s life. The game ensures that Nicholas slowly loses control of his life and descends into chaos.
“I think it has to do with the structure,” Douglas said of the genre. “I tend to be interested in real-life stories. When you’re doing [them], you don’t necessarily have big explosions and big special effects. One of the things I find fearful is losing control of your life, of your direction or losing confidence. I think that’s an international message…that allows you to explore new areas of psychological thrillers.”
9. The War of the Roses (Danny DeVito – 1989)
Danny DeVito’s 1989 black comedy is about an attorney Oliver Rose (Douglas) who finds himself in an increasingly difficult divorce case with his wife Barbara (Kathleen Turner). Douglas does brilliantly to blur the lines between comedy and tragedy. For his performance as Oliver, Douglas received his third Golden Globe nomination for acting.
The actor said, “I had these great ideas that it was going to be easy and nice schedule, since most of War of the Roses was going to be on a stage but we have a very definitive director with very definite ideas.”
Douglas joked about DeVito, saying, “He’s a terror, you know. I mean, he looks like a nice guy but the truth of the matter is he’s a very sick man and he needs a lot of help.”
8. Traffic (Steven Soderbergh – 2000)
Steven Soderbergh’s multi-layered story about the war on drug features Douglas as a newly appointed national drug czar who finds out that his own teenage daughter has become addicted to crack cocaine. Douglas uses his own history with substance abuse to make the performance feel honest. For Traffic, Douglas earned his first Screen Actors Guild Award for Ensemble Cast.
“I thought it was great,” Douglas said. “I thought it was a very complex screenplay because it had three separate stories that were kind of woven together. It was a great screenplay on a very important subject.”
7. Romancing the Stone (Robert Zemeckis – 1984)
Zemeckis’ 1984 box-office hit features Douglas as Jack, an exotic bird handler who teams up with romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner). They embark on a wild adventure as Joan tries to find her kidnapped sister. The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
“Michael came to me,” Zemeckis recalled. “Michael was always a champion of mine. He really kept saying to the studio, ‘I really want the energy that’s in Used Cards to be in this movie.’ There was a sort of feeling of we were all on a mission.”
“There was an innocence about the production with all of us,” Douglas added. “It was a kind of location that no studio wanted to come down and visit. We were on our own.”
6. Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven – 1992)
One of the most iconic films of the ’90s, Verhoeven’s sexual thriller’s undoubted star is Sharon Store. She delivers a magnetic performance but Douglas’ work cannot be written off either. His character, detective Nick Curran, strikes up a compelling on-screen chemistry with Catherine (Stone).
While speaking about the film, Douglas said, “Fatal Attraction was a picture close to home for a lot of people because you could identify with those characters.
“It was a reality tale, while Basic Instinct is like a detective novel that people like to read in the privacy of their homes. It’s almost Gothic. It’s certainly more dramatic. And the real question here is: Is anybody really worthy of redemption?”
5. The China Syndrome (James Bridges – 1979)
This 1979 thriller, about a nuclear meltdown, made the front page on most newspapers because twelve days after it opened, the exact same thing happened at Three Mile Island, PA (now called the Three Mile Island disaster). Douglas helped his two co-stars, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, earn Academy Award nominations with his performance but he ended up being snubbed.
“The script got me excited,” Douglas said, “because I saw it could be suspenseful. It was basically about a documentary film crew filming an accident at a nuclear plant. I found this parallel with Cuckoo’s Nest — individuals caught in a corporate or social structure that forces them to make a moral decision at the sacrifice of losing their lives. It’s an effort at what is basically Greek tragedy — classic drama situations.”
4. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson – 2000)
Michael Douglas stars in Wonder Boys as Professor Grady Tripp, who teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh-area university. Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel about academia follows the story of the pot-smoking novelist-turned-college professor who deals with writer’s block by having an affair. For his performance, Douglas earned his fifth Golden Globe nomination for his acting.
Douglas really wanted the role, a welcome change of pace from his usual glamour roles “I was in the market for a romantic comedy role,” he told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “Something a little offbeat.”
3. The American President (Rob Reiner – 1995)
One of the most memorable roles in Douglas’ illustrious career, Douglas is fantastic as President Andrew Shepherd, a widower who is preparing to run for another term. He finds unexpected romance when he runs into environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening).
“Basically, we’d wanted to do a political film set in Washington for quite a while,” the director said. “I remembered a project Robert Redford had approached me with in ’89 — he’d been developing it for a long time — called ‘The President Elopes.’ It was more or less a pure 30’s-40’s screwball comedy set in the White House.”
Reiner added “We purchased the rights from Universal. We basically bought the idea of a single President having to date, and we took it from there.”
2. Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne – 1987)
Adrian Lyne’s erotic thriller stars Douglas as lawyer Don Gallagher, a conflicted man whose self-destructive habits (including marital infidelity) threaten to consume him. It was largely due to Douglas’ performance that the film earned six Oscar nominations (a deserved one for co-star Glenn Close) and huge commercial success.
“I never realised, 30 years later, people would still be talking about bunny boilers,” the director said. “It’s nice if your movie lasts beyond dinner of the night people watch it in the theatre.”
Douglas added, “There were some complete rip-offs. They helped remind us how well we pulled it off. I haven’t seen anything that achieved the level we did.”
1. Wall Street (Oliver Stone – 1987)
Undoubtedly Michael Douglas’ most iconic role, Douglas’ brilliant portrayal of Gordon Gekko epitomized the predatory culture prevalent in the financial sector. Gekko’s motto is: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” For his performance as Gekko, Douglas earned his second Academy Award (and his first for acting) and his third Golden Globe Award (his second for acting)
The actor reflected on the impact of his role, “That one was sort of a challenge, and we were very proud that we kind of captured the zeitgeist of that moment. But that was one where yes, I get identified with that the most. People love Gordon Gekko.
“You know, if I get one more drunken Wall Street guy coming up, ‘You’re the man, you know, you’re the man.’ And I said, ‘Hey, I was the villain. Remember? I went to jail.’ ‘Oh, nah, nah, nah, nah.’ And so all of a sudden you realize that — I thank my costume designer — they like the clothes, they liked whatever it was and didn’t see through. So that one sort of surprised us all.”