Career shows knack for 'getting' nation's mood

No sooner was Michael Douglas named the recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Cecil B. DeMille award than it was noted that his father, Kirk, had won the prize in 1968. It makes the son the first second-generation winner of the award named for one of Hollywood’s first genuine director-producers, but it also underlines how hard it is for a second-generation star to stand apart from the glow generated by the father.

Even when Douglas won (with then-producing partner Saul Zaentz) the 1975 best picture Oscar for the first movie he had set up and produced — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — it was hard not to notice Kirk, who had originally purchased the film rights to Ken Kesey’s novel and then spent a futile decade trying to get it made, and who even complained that he may have been better casting than Jack Nicholson. (As time passed, Kirk admitted that he was wrong about this latter take.)

But it would be a grave mistake to compare the son and father’s careers, even if both became producer-stars. Each are as different as — and even precisely reflect — the contrasting eras they developed in, with the 1950s more conducive to a swaggering, sometimes cynical, sometimes forthrightly heroic individual of action and force, while the 1970s through the 1990s suited Douglas’ tendency to create men of moral ambiguity, frequently settled into a kind of affluence only to see their settled lives ripped to shreds by outsiders.

After paying dues in the theater and studying with Sanford Meisner and Wynn Handman, Michael Douglas slogged through TV series after series in mostly guest slots like any other struggling thesp, but unlike many of them, he made the most of his big break: Cast opposite Karl Malden on the smartly turned-out “Streets of San Francisco” in the early 1970s.

His desire to produce at 30 hinted at a man of major ambitions, confirmed by getting Zaentz to back “Cuckoo’s Nest” with his own money. In fact, the casting of Nicholson, plus the selection of Milos Forman as director, suggested that Douglas might actually have a greater career as producer than actor.

This impression was reinforced four years later when Douglas grabbed the story rights to “The China Syndrome” and produced and starred in a movie about nuclear meltdown released at the exact time of the Three Mile Island nuke catastrophe.

Douglas seemed to have a sixth sense for being involved with movies that captured the mood of the moment, but he soon proved that this was true of his acting choices as well. His fine, overlooked performance as a rather madly determined marathoner in “Running” (1978) now plays like a semi-autobiographical study of an intensely driven guy.

The desire for escapism in the 1980s was perfectly caught by his two romance-adventures with Kathleen Turner (“Romancing the Stone” and “Jewel of the Nile”). Nothing more firmly nailed Reaganomics ethics than his Oscar-winning portrayal Gordan (“Greed is good”) Gecko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987), just as AIDS-era sexual paranoia found its hysterical voice in “Fatal Attraction” the same year, and five years later, in Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller, “Basic Instinct.”

In “The War of the Roses” (1989), Douglas not only confirmed that he could play in a vividly contemporary comic vein opposite Turner, but also solidified his friendship with director Danny DeVito, who had his pre-“Taxi” break as a part of the “Cuckoo’s Nest” ensemble, and with whom Douglas has worked with in various ways since.

In the 1990s, between “Basic Instinct,” his unhinged post-Reagonomics everyman in “Falling Down” (1993), his alluring “The American President” (1995) and his befuddled and rattled businessman in David Fincher’s “The Game” (1997), Douglas served up as wide a range of voices and manners as any American movie star during that time. Such repertory-style range made it easy to miss that he was just as busy at producing: “Starman,” “Flatliners,” “Radio Flyer,” “Made in America,” “Sabrina,” “Face/Off” and “The Rainmaker,” to name a few.

Still, it took his wonderfully woozy portrayal of idea-blocked professor-novelist Grady Tripp in Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” (2000) for Douglas to gain that extra layer of artistic respect (earning him the actor prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.), immediately followed by his distressed father and drug enforcement official in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic.”

He hasn’t enjoyed such a commercial-artistic one-two punch since, and some worry for Douglas these days, as he’s gaining fewer headlines for his work and more as one part (with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, now herself an Oscar-winner) of one of showbiz’s top power couples.

Even his long-sought movie project for Kirk and himself, “It Runs in the Family,” was something nobody will hold for posterity. Still, his company Further Films has several projects cooking. Besides, Douglas, along with every major player in Hollywood, has had these dips before, and his proven versatility in front of and behind the camera gives him a rare stability at a time when most of his peers from the 1980s are either gone or forgotten.

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