Michael Douglas/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock; Book cover via RandomHouse.com
Editor’s Note: New York Times bestselling author Marc Eliot has written biographies on some of Hollywood’s biggest legends. His latest release, Michael Douglas: A Biography, has just hit bookshelves. The book chronicles the life and career of the actor-producer with the main focus of the story revolving around Michael’s relationship with his father, Kirk, throughout the years. We caught up with Eliot to talk about Douglas, the book and what’s next for the man still fighting for his life.
Word & Film: Michael Douglas is a prime example of the Hollywood paradigm that a son or daughter of a Hollywood great has simultaneously the biggest blessing and the deepest curse. It seems that someone will always take a shot and give you an opportunity – but the comparisons and expectations will make it nearly impossible to set yourself apart. Couldn’t the same be said, however, in other areas of fame such as music and sports?
Marc Eliot: If you get up and you can’t hit a ball or you can’t pitch or you can’t run or you can’t catch, you could be Babe Ruth’s uncle or son and it won’t matter. The difference in film and to a lesser extent in music is that a lot of the time nobody knows what’s good. People rely on critics, on word of mouth, on expectation, but it’s really not that difficult for the son or the daughter of a legend to do something. I think in Michael’s case the interesting thing is that the problems weren’t solved by his success, they were exacerbated because it infuriated Kirk that Michael had been able to do what he, Kirk, the Viking, couldn’t do. That’s a burden and the nepotistic end is balanced off by this burden you carry that you have to overcome. It’s like being in a race and you have to start twenty or thirty feet behind because people assume you’ve got the advantage.
W&F: People are quick to associate Kirk’s success as the reason Michael entered the industry but what role, if any, did his mother’s career have on Michael’s decision?
ME: I think the role she played was the role that any mother plays, especially a divorced parent. She becomes both parents; she becomes the home anchor and the encouraging one. But there’s a deeper reason, I think, if you look at it: The mother is on the east coast, already involved in a new guy and I think that part of what drove Michael west was to be closer to his father. Just like in typical religious fashion, you worship what you can’t see but you know is there. Michael’s father was visible; he was all over the place except home. Michael couldn’t bring the mountain to him, so he went to the mountain.
W&F: Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the section on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The story behind how this movie got made is just as interesting and entertaining as the movie itself. Knowing that his father wanted to make this movie with an obsession-like compulsion, what was their relationship like directly following the Academy Awards where the film made movie history?
ME: The first thing to bear in mind is that Michael never mentioned Kirk in his acceptance speech. Number two, Kirk wasn’t there. Number three, for the next forty years Kirk never missed a chance to remind Michael that he, Michael, had not put his own father in that film. Despite the fact that he was too old for it, times had changed, moviemaking style had changed, Kirk’s career was more or less over, he still held a personal grudge. Where does that come from? His father was the same way. His father was kind of mean, not loving, never said a good thing about his son. That passed down in a more glorified fashion to Kirk who became big and successful but didn’t want to share the spotlight and at the same time couldn’t acknowledge what his son had done. Eventually age and the passage of time alleviate a lot of that. But Michael has always searched for approval, always, and has never really gotten it.
W&F: How have Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito been able to maintain such a good friendship throughout all these years? Do you think Michael found something in Danny that he didn’t get from his father or the rest of his family?
ME: I think that’s absolutely true. The other thing is that they came up together; they lived in that apartment on the West Side. When you come up with somebody and you’re both unknowns and you make it, there’s a bond there that is very difficult to break especially when you’re both producers, you’re both well-known actors. In “Romancing the Stone,” all that stuff was created for DeVito by Michael and when Danny did “The War of the Roses” that was tailored to Michael. They knew each other, they were good friends, they understood what made them tick and that’s powerful. It does substitute, in a sense, for father-son; it also substitutes for brothers because Michael’s brothers were so different from him.
W&F: At sixty-seven, Michael Douglas is one of the younger actors you have chosen to write about. What do you think the next chapter of his career will look like?
ME: I hope there is a next phase. Right now, I think he’s teetering on this battle with cancer. I don’t think the battle with cancer is finished. There’s a five-year window that you have to get through; I think he’s about two or two and a half years through it. If it comes back, it’s much worse because you can’t treat it with radiation or any of the traditional methods, they don’t work the second time. I think he’s thrown away the mantle of meaning and is just trying to prove that he’s alive. Michael has, I think, passed the age where he can attract a big audience on film. When I think of the great actors of his generation, Michael’s not at the top of my list. Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino even Jimmy Caan, these are names that instantly come to mind for his era. However, as a producer, Michael is fantastic. Michael doesn’t have a body of work that compares with “The Godfather,” that compares with “Raging Bull,” that compares with any of those great, great films and performances. So when you look at Michael, undoubtedly his career – this is a perverse thing to say – was helped by his illness because it re-interested people in him. It strikes people on a very visceral level when this stuff happens and the curiosity factor goes up.