Interview: Michael Douglas on living with cancer and reprising the role of Gordon Gekko
Determined to beat the throat cancer caused by a life of hard drinking, Michael Douglas reflects on changed priorities, living in his wife's shadow and reprising the role of Gordon Gekko
• Michael Douglas with Carey Mulligan, who plays Winnie Gekko
MICHAEL Douglas is sitting in a small wooden cabana in the grounds of the Htel du Cap, Antibes. A playground for the rich and famous, this Riviera hangout has been the place for Hollywood stars to mingle during summer excursions to Europe for years.
"It used to be wonderful here, upstairs there at the bar," he says, gesturing towards the hotel's main building. "Great parties. Debauchery going on." The advent of tiny video cameras has changed all that, though. "Now everybody is concerned that you might find your picture on some website."
Admittedly, an embarrassing photo in cyberspace is the least of Douglas' problems right now. Just a few weeks after we meet, the actor – who turned 66 last month – announced he was suffering from stage-four throat cancer.
Ironically, it was those days of debauchery that did for him. As he told David Letterman during an appearance on his chat show: "This particular type of cancer is caused by alcohol and drinking."
With the cancer still above the neck, doctors have told him he has an 80 per cent chance of making a full recovery – though there's always the possibility he might lose that rich baritone voice of his.
When we meet, Douglas has yet to embark on the intense treatment, a two-month, five-times-a-week course of radiation, and chemotherapy every three weeks, that will leave him exhausted and, judging by recent pictures, ghostly and gaunt.
Today dressed in a light-blue single-breasted suit, pink shirt and black baseball cap firmly pulled over his still impressive mane of silvery hair, he is sprightly, his mood clearly buoyed by the early positive reaction to his new film, Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It's the sequel to the 1987 original, which won him an Oscar for his role as slimy corporate raider Gordon Gekko.
It's the second time we've met this year. Back in January, during a sojourn to Paris, he was keen to generate some early press for the film. It's no surprise. After two decades of starring in such zeitgeist-defining movies as Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction and Falling Down – usually playing contemporary white-collar males in the midst of a midlife meltdown – his career has been somewhat on the wane.
Since 2000, with the release of narcotics drama Traffic and The Wonder Boys, in which he was marvellous as a pot-smoking academic, his choices have demonstrated an alarming De Niro-like slide into mediocrity.
Hinting that his time as one of Hollywood's most urbane actors might be over, his recent CV is peppered with lame comedies (You, Me and Dupree, The In-Laws) and formulaic thrillers (Don't Say A Word, The Sentinel). But then Douglas is the first to admit he's not bothered.
"My priorities have completely reversed," he says, "from career-kids-wife to wife-kids- career." And who can blame him? In 1998, at the Deauville Film Festival, he met Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, reputedly wooing her with the line: "I want to father your children." And he did – they now have a ten-year-old son, Dylan, and a seven-year-old daughter, Carys. "If you have children at my age," he notes, "you want to be around to enjoy them."
While many scoffed when Douglas first got together with Zeta-Jones, who is 25 years his junior, the couple are set to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary next month. So what's been the secret?
"You mean, besides Viagra?" he winks. "You just have to be nice to each other. Sometimes we make such an effort to be nice to strangers. And the person that's closest to us …" He tails off for a moment. "It's nice to share interests. She's so easy. She's lovely. She's just really easy. She works hard and has a good attitude."
Douglas is more than happy to let Zeta-Jones be the main breadwinner now. "I always try to be flexible," he says. "She should do whatever she wants to do and we'll work it out as a family."
• With wife Catherine Zeta-Jones
Still, it's no surprise he jumped at the chance to slip into Gordon Gekko's slick loafers for one more time. "When this sequel idea came up in 2007, when the studio and (producer] Ed Pressman first started talking about the possibility of reprising it, I thought about it and thought it would be fun," he says. Not least because the film starts with Gekko fresh out of jail, a consequence of his nefarious actions in the original movie.
"There, Gekko was at the top of his game. Super-powerful, this and that. This one, you already have eight years of jail. He's coming out. He has no money. He cannot trade. He's lost a son."
Set in 2008, with the world's economy on the verge of implosion, much of the new film sees Gekko trying to patch up his relationship with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). So has he changed? "That's the first question everybody asks me – 'Is he better? Is he a changed man, now he's been in jail? Is he the same Gekko?'" Douglas smiles broadly, well aware this is the crux of Money Never Sleeps. "Can a leopard change his spots? I guess if he does enough jail time, he probably can. But greed must be like a drug. People just can't get enough."
He admits he's bemused by his research into the rarefied world that Gekko and his ilk live in. "They're obviously pretty isolated. Getting bonuses that they thought were fair after the ($700 billion US bank] bailout. I don't really understand it."
Of course, being worth an estimated $212 million himself, Douglas isn't exactly short of a bob or two. And, as you might expect, he's not one to say money is the root of all evil. "You can get rich without being corrupt," he says. "I'm a capitalist. I don't think the system is completely at fault. We have every right to make money. I don't think of myself as totally corrupt."
Not embarrassed by his riches, he talks freely about his wealth in much the same carefree, unselfconscious manner that he discusses most topics. "Money allows you choices," he says. "Whether I want to work or not to work. Whether we like to travel or not."
What does he like to spend it on? "Well, my wife likes jewels," he says, another wolfish smile breaking out. "I like paintings." He reels off some of his collection – some from the Hudson River School movement, some Albert Bierstadts – but admits that his true vice is land. "You can have a beautiful painting on your wall. But if you have a view out your window, before you know it, you're looking at your painting and your eyes go over to the view to look outside." As you might expect, Douglas owns a number of houses – including a sprawling Manhattan apartment overlooking New York's Central Park – around the globe.
But he'd be the first to admit he's no Gordon Gekko in real life. After years of playing the markets through the tech-stock boom, he lost close to 40 per cent of his net worth during the 2008 crash. "I say that but it did all go back," he adds. "I didn't do anything. I just looked and stared. Then it all came back – at least to where it was. Then I got out.
"I used to do my own management with money, and follow funds a little bit, and try to mix it up. Although, this last year I've decided, with my age and all that, to try to find a trustee. I don't feel very exciting, very dangerous, now. I feel very old-fashioned. No more rock'n'roll. All of a sudden I like Australian Bonds, at four per cent."
In truth, he may be forced to dip into that fortune again. In June, his ex-wife Diandra, who reputedly received a payout worth approximately $45 million when Douglas divorced her in 2000 after 23 years of marriage, filed a lawsuit claiming she is entitled to half her former husband's earnings from Money Never Sleeps. The reason? Their divorce agreement apparently qualifies her for 50 per cent of any money made from sequels to Douglas' films that date back to before their 1995 separation. While Douglas admits the lawsuit "came out of left field", he adds, simply: "I can't really comment on it. It will take its course."
What with his illness, it's appalling timing, but aside from the joy of reprising Gekko, it's been a hellish year all round. Not least for Douglas' 31-year-old son Cameron, his only child from his marriage to Diandra. Arrested last year at the Gansevoort Hotel in Manhattan, when police found 0.5lbs of methamphetamine in his room, Cameron pleaded guilty to dealing the substance, as well as possessing heroin, this January. Four months later, he was sentenced to five years in prison, a term he's now serving at a minimum-security prison in Pennsylvania.
"It's a nightmare," Douglas admits. "A terrible, terrible situation he's got himself into. Federal drug laws in the US are very, very strict. Just slightly above manslaughter."
• In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps with Shia LaBeouf
Douglas himself has struggled in the past. "It happened right after Basic Instinct," he recalls. "I was drinking too much and went away." As sinister as it sounds, Douglas simply signed up for a spell in rehab, at the Sierra Tuscon Centre. Does he drink now? "Yeah, yeah," he says. "I drink wine, vodkas and tequila." Of course, a slight drinking problem is par for the course in Hollywood. With erotic thriller Basic Instinct doing the rounds, Douglas was also branded a sex addict.
"A very smart British (tabloid] editor came up with the whole sex addiction thing – which was new at the time," he says, with a sigh. "It got great coverage. And here you are, 20 years later, still talking about it."
Before Cameron was sentenced, the judge was asked to take into consideration letters from concerned friends and relatives. Those kind enough to write included Zeta-Jones ("my stepson is a caring, considerate, worthy human being") and Kirk Douglas ("I am convinced that Cameron could be a fine actor and a person that cares for others. I hope I can see that before I die"). But inevitably, it was Douglas' own missive that was most moving. Referring to his own alcohol problems, he also added that addiction is indeed a recurring problem in his family – noting that his half-brother Eric died of a drug overdose in 2004.
While he conceded that his son was an adult and "responsible for his own actions", Douglas shouldered his share of the blame, noting: "Cameron grew up a single child in a bad marriage. Cameron found his family in the gang mentality." Little wonder, when the judge delivered his verdict, he criticised Douglas and his ex-wife for being "distant" and "problematic" parents during Cameron's childhood.
Yet, interestingly, Douglas also empathised with the difficulties of growing up in a Hollywood dynasty. "I have some idea of the pressure of finding your own identity with a famous father," he wrote. "I'm not sure I can comprehend it with two generations to deal with."
Whether there was conflict or not in his childhood, Douglas was entranced enough with Hollywood to follow in his father's footsteps. After a few sundry roles, in 1972 he landed a recurring job on cop show The Streets of San Francisco, opposite veteran actor Karl Malden – the man Douglas now calls his "mentor". After completing four seasons and 104 hours, Douglas wanted out. But at the time he was just a television actor, living in the shadow of the man who played Spartacus. Then he saw his chance, acquiring the rights to Ken Kesey's novel about a mental asylum, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Remarkably, the film went on to win five Oscars – including a Best Picture award for Douglas, who produced.
Even so, it would take another 12 years before Douglas finally emerged as an A-list star worthy of comparison to his father. In the interim, he'd had the odd hit – notably Romancing The Stone, in which he played a swashbuckling adventurer alongside Danny DeVito, his old roommate from college. But it wasn't until 1987, when he arrived with Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, a huge hit in which he played a married man whose mistress turns on him, that things changed.
"Number one, because I got an Oscar, that got me out of my father's shadow," he says, "and then the commercial success of both films changed my career."
With his father now 93, as far as Douglas is concerned, there couldn't be a better example to follow. "I admire him so much," he says. "I have a lot of love for him. How he's conducted his third act of his life …" By which he means, how he's survived. First, there was the horrific helicopter crash in 1991, in which two people died. Five years later, aged 79, he suffered a stroke. Then, after having a pacemaker fitted, he saw both knees replaced.
When we first meet in Paris, Douglas has just seen his father perform a one-man hour-and-20-minute show, which he wrote himself. "He had this show made into a DVD film," Douglas marvels. "He's really inspirational."
A messenger of peace for the United Nations, Douglas isn't just one of those celebrities you see on the news being reluctantly led through a disaster zone for a swift picture opportunity. He truly gets involved. In May, he attended the nuclear non-proliferation talks at the UN – where he led the applause for Countdown to Zero, a new documentary about the development of the atomic bomb. One observer compared it to his role in the 1995 romance tale The American President, as he told the UN representatives how the film pierced the culture of the "seven- second soundbite".
As for his day job, Douglas recently reunited with Traffic director Steven Soderbergh for Haywire, an action film in which he plays a CIA agent alongside real-life martial arts fighter Gina Carano. "It's a little scary when you're doing a scene with her," he says. "My God, the fight scenes are … she beats the shit out of these guys. It's like the real thing."
There is also talk of him starring in a Soderbergh-directed biopic of the legendary pianist Liberace, yet that remains on hold as Douglas battles his illness. And he will battle. "I'm an optimistic guy," he told one reporter in August. "Nothing has deterred me from my belief that I am going to beat this." He wouldn't have it any other way. n
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens on Wednesday
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 3 October, 2010
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