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What Was It About Michael Douglas?

As the go-to fall guy in erotic thrillers, the actor represented the ultimate boomer avatar: the male ego under siege. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Shutterstock and Courtesy of Studio

Michael Douglas likes to tell a story about an early screening of his 1987 hit Fatal Attraction. A little over half an hour into the picture, his character, Dan Gallagher, returns home from a torrid, adulterous weekend with Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest and musses up the bed to make it look like he has slept in it before his family comes back from a weekend in the country. At this point in the screening, the audience, many of them female, apparently began chuckling. Whereupon the film’s producer, Sherry Lansing, leaned over to Douglas and whispered, “I can’t believe it. They’ve forgiven you already. You are blessed with the gift of charm.”

Fatal Attraction was the first of the trio of erotic thrillers Douglas starred in after becoming an unlikely box-office draw in his early 40s. (He had been acting since the late 1960s, but he gained acclaim mostly as a producer before striking gold as an actor with 1984’s romantic action-adventure Romancing the Stone.) Douglas only made three erotic thrillers — Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct (1992), and Disclosure (1994) — but somehow the actor’s persona became synonymous with the subgenre. Odd, perhaps, for a Hollywood that was at the time more obsessed with youth, surface beauty, and physique than it had ever been. As far as leading men were concerned, we were fully in the Age of the Hunk. But Douglas was middle-aged, graying, odd-looking, even a little jowly — by industry standards, practically a schlub.

Of course, he wasn’t really a schlub at all. But what Douglas did have was harder to quantify. There was a certain malleability to his persona: With that anxious downturn to his mouth, that too sharp chin, and those hungry, watchful eyes, he could express just about anything with a minimum of effort. He could be convincingly cocky, confident, brilliant, ordinary, awkward, lost, pathetic, silly, extreme, mild, or idiotic, all while essentially remaining himself.

These impulses played out in layers across his face. Peel back one layer and you could see a slightly aging version of an ’80s yuppie (this was, after all, the man who won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko). Peel back another and you could see a recovering hippie (which Douglas had been in his youth). Peel back one more and there was Old Hollywood staring back at you in the physical echoes of his movie-star father, Kirk. (You could also hear it in his voice, Kirk’s distinctive tough-guy cadences sneaking through Michael’s reedier delivery.)

Basic Instinct’s hotheaded cop-with-a-past Nick Curran is in many ways the ultimate Michael Douglas role, in part because it’s the most ridiculous, jam-packed with psychoses and backstory. (The only competition is his wild turn in David Fincher’s 1997 thriller The Game, a movie that combines all his many personae into one.) It’s hard to buy that someone who looks and acts like Sharon Stone’s rich, sexy, conniving, possibly murderous crime novelist Catherine Trammell would ever be taken with a man like Nick, let alone come to care for him. But that’s also what keeps Basic Instinct dancing on a knife’s edge of uncertainty. We know she can’t possibly be serious about Nick. She says repeatedly she’s only interested in him as a potential character in her next novel (even though nothing the two of them do together would qualify as “research”).

Onscreen, however, their energies match perfectly. Or rather, they mismatch perfectly: She’s a gorgeous tornado of come-hither glances and double entendres and assorted predatory provocations both physical and psychological (and Stone herself brings untold wonderful layers to the part), while he’s completely in thrall to her even as he tries to play the tough cop. Look at the self-importance, the goofy stoicism, the performative studliness with which he struts into the film’s notorious club scene and then starts gyrating with her on the dance floor. The serious look on his face doesn’t read as intense, or sexy, or cool. It reads as stupid; he looks absurd. (The disbelief on her girlfriend Roxy’s face while Nick and Catherine dance is one of the film’s most relatable moments.) One can’t help but think that director Paul Verhoeven, a go-for-broke satirist working between the lines of hot-shit scribe Joe Eszterhas’s overbaked script, is fully aware of the lunacy of this scene. Douglas’s Nick is, in these moments, a perfect mark — totally vulnerable, but also totally incapable of expressing any vulnerability.

These movies all undercut their male lead in fascinating ways, a key requirement of any self-respecting erotic thriller. In Fatal Attraction, Alex’s obsessiveness reveals itself fairly early in their dalliance, but Dan is so unaware of this that the film could have tipped into comedy were it not so cruel toward her character. In Disclosure, his tech-manager protagonist, Tom Sanders, is seemingly emasculated early on when Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore), an old flame, returns to his life thanks to a company merger and immediately gets the coveted leadership position Tom had been angling for, thereby becoming his manager. In that sense, Meredith’s subsequent sexual assault of him reads not so much as a shocking transgression as just another in the series of indignities visited upon this middle-aged white guy. The tension within Douglas — between a modern-day softness and an old-school machismo — is what makes all these cinematic humiliations so compelling. Here was the ultimate boomer avatar: the male ego under siege, both from others and from itself.

But this was Hollywood, and the family had to win out in the end. And that’s where Douglas’s ordinariness came into play. What Lansing called “charm” was perhaps something else: a predictability, a harmlessness. The audience forgave him because it understood on some basic level this man posed no danger, that despite nearly flushing his life down the toilet he’d ultimately always slip back into the role of husband. Which he did, over and over again.

Even when he didn’t need to. Consider the (still silly) finale of Basic Instinct, in which Catherine, writhing in bed with Nick, begins to reach for the ice pick she has hidden under the bed. But their exchange seems to convince her otherwise. “What do we do now, Nick?” “Fuck like minxes, raise rug rats, live happily ever after.” “I hate rug rats.” “Fuck like minxes, forget the rug rats, and live happily ever after.” Seemingly overcome with love, she decides not to stab him to death and instead throws herself into his arms. The scene is designed for suspense — will she or won’t she? — but within the context of the movie, it also suggests a future for Catherine with this somewhat pathetic man, who up until this point has mostly been a dupe for her seductive wiles. It’s a pastiche of a happy ending, but it is a happy ending. The scene wouldn’t work if you played it solely for laughs, even though it is hilarious. It also wouldn’t work if you played it solely for drama because it’s, well, insane. For a film as unabashedly sleazy as Basic Instinct to end with domesticity triumphant, such a finale has to be at once both totally serious and totally ridiculous. And that was the nature of Michael Douglas’s charm. Try to imagine any other actor making that work. I dare you.

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What Was It About Michael Douglas?