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In retrospect: Michael Douglas

The best-selling author Michael Crichton helmed a film in the 1970s that proved rather successful in Bangalore. Titled ‘Coma’, and based on a novel by Robin Cook, it ran for many months, prompting a newspaper article about how much hospital-phobia it had spurred. I remember the many conversations, arguments and fanciful speculations that the film caused in our corner of the Cantonment, among people who were hypochondriacs, and indeed among others whose social lives included a fortnightly saunter to some doctor in the neighbourhood. I was too young to watch ‘Coma’, but it stayed in my head, and I caught up with it several times, on VHS, on cable, and in the many other ways that became possible later.

So thus it was, somewhere in the middle of this long-standing fascination with the grand-daddy of organ heist films, that I came to dwell on the one slightly more familiar face among actors from another time. Michael Douglas, who plays a satellite-type good guy orbiting the curiouser-than-necessary Genevieve Bujold, is an unrecognisable presence if you are travelling back in time from the roles that he lent his frame to in the 1980s and the ’90s. In this film, he’s a travelling toothbrush, necessary but ordinary, missable only when he’s not there and because you want him to get to the action on time.

It can’t have been easy emerging from the shadow of a father such as Kirk Douglas whose screen presence and vitality blazed forth across several decades. Some sense of this being a hard act to follow may have influenced his lateral entry into cinema, first as producer, then as almost-hero, and the several reinventions that followed.

The 1980s saw him reinvent his screen persona twice over: Once in films like ‘Romancing the Stone’, and in another way altogether in films like ‘Fatal Attraction’. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but all of Bangalore then was quite taken by the chemistry between Douglas the raffish doer of many deeds and Kathleen Turner in ‘Romancing the Stone’ and its sequel ‘The Jewel of the Nile’. After having watched both films more times than is healthy for any one person, the abiding memory I am left with is of Turner’s long legs waggling in the air as she screams through some new escapade while the somewhat more soberly dressed Douglas works his facial muscles in silent accompaniment to the lady’s screams.

That innocent idyll with the cinematic and larger-than-life was constructed by space operas like the ‘Star Wars’ series, and by the ‘Indiana Jones’ films, and completed in yet another bouncy way by this set of films. When ‘War of the Roses’ arrived, it inverted what felt like a genre in the making, but it was delicious to watch simply because it flipped the bird so many times at that traditional comfort of screen romance.

I am a little more suspicious of the other idea that he lent himself to — that of the flawed, straying man in a film like ‘Fatal Attraction’. The arc that began with this film stretches out into later films like ‘Basic Instinct’ and seems to be part of a Hollywood apologetics that tells us that boys will be boys, after all, but women who want more from the world are either psycho or dangerous.

There are films that stand apart from these directions, and among them my personal favourite is the Ridley Scott film ‘Black Rain’, which ships the cop-buddy routine with Japan and the yakuza. It took much effort to find this film, and I watched it many times when I finally located a video library that had a copy. It’s a stylish, good-looking film that perhaps does not age well, but it gave a whole lot of us the tingles. It doesn’t work quite the same way now, but it left me wanting to see more of urban Japan, and initiated quite a few of us from that time into venturing beyond Kurosawa.

‘Wall Street’, directed  by Oliver Stone, is a powerful, hard-hitting film, and Douglas finds within himself the capacity to direct a social indignation in his essaying of the Gordon Gekko character. The other film where Douglas seems to find himself in playing a lost, damaged person is the celebrated ‘Falling Down’ from the 1990s. The characters he plays become a kind of inkblot test of their times, capturing much for their viewers in a lasting, unforgettable way. 

I don’t know what Satyajit Ray would have to say about a lifetime achievement award to Michael Douglas, but the capacity for graft and staying power he has displayed over a long career are definitely things to remember.

(Published 27 October 2023, 21:27 IST)

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