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Why Michael Douglas Is Way Better Than Everyone Thinks

Believe it or not, Michael Douglas is still underrated - it’s time to bow down to the star of Behind the Candelabra.

Why Michael Douglas Is Way Better Than Everyone Thinks

The trick to great acting, the theory goes, is to never be caught doing it. Truly gifted performers disappear into their roles to the extent we are hardly aware they are there: only the character remains. That’s the trick to great acting, then, but it’s clearly not the trick to acting that makes everyone think you’re great. 

Because the actors we applaud the loudest are actually the least self-effacing, the most likely to draw attention to their performances, the ones who embrace artifice most wholeheartedly, all the while claiming to be seeking authenticity.

When we pay to go to the movies, we don’t really want to see actors who immerse themselves so completely into their roles that they erase their own personas. We want the scenery munchers. We want to see Acting, with a capital A.

We worship the huffing and puffing and hoo-ha-ing of Al Pacino, the who-me? twinkle of Robert DeNiro, the wolfish mugging of Jack Nicholson, the crazy tics of Dustin Hoffman, the vein-bulging grandstanding of Sean Penn. We want to see big, barnstorming performances by circussy showpeople.

That’s why Meryl Streep’s funny accents and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s creepy weirdness and the preposterously plus-sized performances of Daniel Day Lewis are the ones that tend to win the Oscars, while quieter, less showy stars are overlooked. Streep and Day Lewis and Seymour Hoffman are always a thrill to watch, of course. But they are towering talents. The never knowingly understated Joaquin Phoenix? Hmm.

A couple of weeks ago New York magazine ran a terrific interview http://www.vulture.com/2013/05/michael-douglas-on-liberace.html with Michael Douglas. (The Sunday Times subsequently published an edited version, with much of the good stuff removed and without Martin Schoeller’s remarkable portrait). The piece made me think: for all the awards and the accolades he has won in his long career, Douglas is underrated as an actor.

As with Robert Redford and George Clooney, to name just two, his smooth charm, his winning looks and his dialed down charisma – his refusal to pander to audiences, his lack of neediness, his unadorned style – count against him. It’s not that he is not valued – his Gordon Gekko, in Wall Street, is acknowledged as one of the essential performances of the Eighties – but he is rarely spoken of in the same breath as peers like those mentioned above.

This week Douglas makes his most eye-catching appearance in years, as Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, opposite another refreshingly unpretentious leading man, Matt Damon, as the outré star’s lover, Scott Thorson. Had Soderbergh chosen to cast more mannered, more attention-seeking actors in these parts (imagine Penn, for example, as Liberace, and Phoenix as the younger man) the film might have been insufferable. As it is, both Douglas and Damon relish every moment without for a second overplaying the melodrama. The result is funny, touching and dramatic.

The son of Kirk Douglas, one of the biggest stars of the Fifties and Sixties, Michael could have been a spoiled Hollywood brat. But he has worked his way up, acting in TV (The Streets of San Francisco) and beginning an extraordinary career as a producer (aged 31 he won Best Picture for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) before he was able to win leading roles. In the Eighties and Nineties he embodied a complicated, conflicted masculinity in films including Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Falling Down.

He’s had personal troubles in recent years – his son Cameron is in prison; he is still recovering from stage-four cancer; his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones, has recently suffered ill health – but Behind the Candelabra is a welcome return to frontline movie-making. Next up he’ll play an American figure even more emblematic of the Eighties than Gordon Gekko: President Ronald Reagan, in Mike Newell’s Reykjavik, with Christoph Waltz as Gorbachev.

While we wait for that, here is Esquire’s list of five Michael Douglas classics, in order of greatness, all available to rent, buy or download, and all deserving of your full appreciation.

1 Falling Down (1993)
The quintessential LA film of the Nineties (yes, even better than Michael Mann’s Heat), Joel Schumacher’s movie casts Douglas as William “D-Fens” Foster, a middle class, middle aged, unemployed divorcee pushed over the edge and into violent criminality by the myriad frustrations of life in the City of Quartz. Right-wing vigilante fantasy or psychogeographic meditation on the inhumanity of urbanity, as indebted to Reyner Banham as Dirty Harry?

Either way, this viewer finds it hard not to cheer when our man, immaculate in short sleeves, tie, flat-top, accessorized with briefcase and submachine gun, returns his Whammyburger: “See what’s wrong with this picture?”

2 Wonder Boys (2000)
A warm, witty, twinkle-eyed turn as a crumpled, shambolic, pot smoking English professor in this splendid adaptation of Michael Chabon’s college novel about frustrated ambition. LA Confidential director Curtis Hanson’s film has fine supporting work from Tobey Maguire, Rip Torn, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes and especially Robert Downey Jr, but Douglas’s Grady Trip more than steals the show. He is selfish, solipsistic, unreliable, feckless, lazy and loveable. Douglas’s performance is without any vanity and all the better for it.

3 Fatal Attraction (1987)
Sexual politics were clearly as febrile as the Eighties turned into the Nineties as they ever were and Douglas was in the thick of the debate with three movies – “the sex trilogy” he calls them – in which his characters have rather fraught (but glossily photographed) sex with somewhat domineering women. In reverse order: Disclosure (1994) was a schlocky sexual harassment drama with Demi Moore; Basic Instinct (1992) was a hilariously silly, controversy courting whodunit that made a phenomenon of Sharon Stone; and Fatal Attraction, while equally deliberate in intent, had the distinct advantages of a genuinely terrifying female protagonist – Glenn Close as the original bunny boiler – and a made-you-jump ending (or endings). Douglas’s turn as the Volvo-driving Every-yuppie in way over his head was released just three months before Wall Street made him an A-list star.

4 Traffic (2000)
In Behind the Candelabra director Steven Soderbergh’s masterful drugs war expose, Douglas is the Washington drugs czar whose own daughter becomes addicted to crack cocaine. An unflinching performance from a man who has had his own struggles with addiction (in his case, alcohol) and whose son, Cameron, has had serious drug problems since he was a teenager. A quiet, affecting portrayal of a decent, reasonable man who discovers that decency and reason aren’t enough.

5 The War of the Roses (1989)
In the Eighties Douglas produced and starred in a trio of riotous, crowd-pleasing movies with leading lady Kathleen Turner and sidekick (and former real-life roommate) Danny DeVito. This pitch black comedy, directed by DeVito, was the third after Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile. It’s Divorce, American Style, with Douglas and Turner as the psychopathically embittered couple locked in a fight to the death. The final shot, in particular, is killer.