“I’ve become the expert on sex scenes in movies.” Michael Douglas had a hint of a smile as he said this during his onstage conversation at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. He wasn’t entirely joking.
The 78-year-old actor, who for a brief shining moment in the late 1980s and ’90s became the king of the Hollywood erotic thriller, doled out advice on how to film sex scenes, likening them to shooting fights in movies. “You have to work out the choreography,” he said. “In fight scenes, you go, ‘Okay, I threw a punch, boom. You go back and you come back, you go boom.’ You start very slowly and then you work your way up to a faster pace. Well, it’s the same thing. And particularly if you’re doing a love scene, it’s important for the lady that you’re not taking advantage. So you tell them beforehand when you’re starting, ‘All right, I’m going to put my hand here. All right, you put your hand here and then we’re going to go kiss, kiss, and then we’re going to go down.’ And you start slow and then you go up, up, up. If you’re successful, it looks like it’s all impulsive. But it’s very well choreographed.”
The festival had, with great pomp and circumstance, bestowed on the Oscar-winning actor an honorary Palme d’Or at the opening ceremony the previous night. It was an interesting spectacle. Douglas has obviously been a star for ages — as the son of Kirk Douglas, he’s the very definition of Hollywood royalty — and has walked a million red carpets. He’s also had a few notable films at Cannes over the years, and in 2013 was even tipped to win Best Actor at the festival for his portrayal of Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. (The film was an HBO release, and rumors circulated that Cannes jury president Steven Spielberg balked at awarding it to an actor in a cable movie, even though the only reason the film wound up on HBO was because no studio was willing to release it in the U.S.) Even so, Michael Douglas never wore stardom easily. There was always something anxious about him, a certain overeager discomfort, which made his turns in films like Basic Instinct (1992) and Fatal Attraction (1987) so fascinating: The women — beautiful, young, unpredictable — were the ones in control. Douglas was a debased everyman, often hopelessly out of his element, a mark.
Obviously, the persona he cultivated across those movies was a carefully constructed fiction, but he did it all so well that the fiction seemed to bleed into reality. Sometimes, it even took him by surprise. Douglas recalled the intense experience of premiering Basic Instinct at Cannes in 1992. “Seeing a lot of those sex scenes at the Palais Festival’s huge screen — the biggest screen I’ve ever seen — was a little overwhelming, I think, for a lot of people,” he said. “We had a very quiet dinner afterward. Everybody was just sort of digesting it.”
To explain the appeal of his characters, Douglas likes to tell an anecdote that he also shared at his Cannes talk. “We were watching the first screenings of Fatal Attraction. I just had this affair with Glenn Close the night before, and I come back to my apartment and I get in my bed to mess it up, to look like I had slept there that night. And the audience laughed. And Sherry Lansing, my producing partner, she says, ‘I can’t believe it. The audience has forgiven you already.’ So I guess I had this ability that audiences forgave you, or at least they understood that you put the character in such a dilemma that they could understand that dilemma.” Indeed, even the people who claimed they couldn’t relate to Fatal Attraction wound up relating to Fatal Attraction. “When we came to promote Fatal Attraction in France, the French press said, ‘Well, in France we all have mistresses. This is not a big deal here,’” Douglas recalled. But the movie turned out to be a huge hit in France. “Every French wife took her husband to that movie and said, ‘Sit down here. Just want you to know this is what could happen.’”
Douglas is understandably proud of the fact that many of his female co-stars gave some of their best performances opposite him in these movies. He believes it’s because these were juicy parts that let them be villains. He remembered Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), which he produced but didn’t appear in. “Nurse Ratched was a great part, but it was the villain. And we had five major actresses turn the part down. They didn’t want to do it. Why? Because at that time, in terms of where the women’s movement was and everything, it was not acceptable for a woman to be the villain. Male actors, you always loved the good villain part. Those are the ones that really were really good to get by. And I remember going to a party after that movie with Anne Bancroft. Anne was a wonderful actress, and one of the people who turned that part down. They were all talking about the movie, it had won a lot of Oscars. And at one point, she slugged her husband, Mel Brooks. She said, ‘I told you I should have done that movie! You told me to turn that down! It was your fault.’”
Douglas explained that the way he thought about acting changed over the course of his career. “Somebody once told me, ‘The camera can always tell when you’re lying.’ So I was like a method actor, would put myself through such pain trying to get down to the reality.” Then I remember reading the Fatal Attraction script and them saying, ‘Okay, all right, you live in New York. I live in New York. You’re a lawyer. I could be a lawyer. You’re an adulterer. It’s a possibility.’ And then I just saw it and said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s about lying.’ Acting is lying! I lie every day. We lie every day.” Once he realized that acting was all about “faking it,” Douglas said, “It freed me up and made me enjoy what I did much better.”
Douglas admitted that he never really felt comfortable in leading-man roles. In this particular aspect, he saw a similarity between his career and his father’s. “My father started off playing sensitive-young-man roles. It wasn’t until his sixth movie, The Champion, in 1950, in which he played a boxer who fought his way to the top and didn’t care what happened. It was a much different role for him. I look back, and I sort of started my career playing a sensitive young man. It wasn’t until I started dealing with darker characters, not necessarily heroic characters, that I began to get a little more attention. And that led up to Wall Street.”
Interestingly, Douglas said that the character of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, for which he won an Oscar, became harder and meaner over the course of production. Director Oliver Stone, famous for being blunt with actors, chastised him early in the shoot. “We were in about the second week of shooting, and Oliver came into the trailer and wanted to talk. He said, ‘Hi.’ I said, ‘Hi.’ He said to me, ‘You okay?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You doing drugs?’ ‘No, I’m not on drugs.’ ‘Because you look like you’ve never acted before in your life.’” Taken aback, Douglas had a look at his dailies and told Stone that he thought they were okay. The director disagreed. But Douglas realized that this was partly Stone’s way of getting the right energy from his performer. “Oliver wanted just a little more meanness from the get-go and was happy and willing for the rest of the picture to have all of my anger focused at him.”
For the record, Douglas still considers Stone a friend and said that the director’s involvement was one of the reasons he agreed to do 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, despite his not being much of a sequel guy at the time. What was the other reason? “Probably greed … It was not the most inspired decision. We never quite got the script right.”