Saturday, June 24, 2006


Is Michael Douglas a Male Chauvinist Pig?

By Josh R
Did that get your attention?

When Mr. Copeland enlisted me as a contributor to this forum, he probably didn’t anticipate a post such as this — I think I’m supposed to be more informative than confrontational (trusting sort that he is, he overestimates my better instincts). Well, I can’t always take the classy route. This piece may contain some actual information, but it’s mostly just an old-fashioned hatchet job. Sometimes I like to get up on my high horse and kick up a little mud in people’s faces, especially when I feel such a response is merited.

I guess we’re at the point now where we can legitimately (if somewhat grudgingly) refer to Michael Douglas as a Hollywood legend. So maybe the guy doesn’t have the acting chops of a Dustin Hoffman or a Robert De Niro — or the sex appeal and glamour of a Robert Redford or Warren Beatty. Perhaps he can’t rival any of these gentlemen in terms of old-fashioned movie star charisma. OK, he definitely can’t. Still, one can make the fair argument that he’s earned his place in the pantheon. He is an Academy Award-winning actor and producer whose career spans more than 30 years. In a business where the careers of many actors of his generation have fallen by the wayside, he has weathered an unusual number of flops and misfires to retain his status as an A-List marquee attraction. His résumé also has included its fair share of hits, of both the critical and commercial variety. If the bulk of his work hasn’t demonstrated much beyond a solid professionalism, he has, on occasion, shown himself to be a talented and resourceful actor. He is a mainstay of Hollywood social circles, a mover-and-a-shaker, son of Kirk, and husband to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Whether you like the guy or not, he is, without question, a star.

Which is why it may come as something of a surprise that the man has been rejected by more women than any other man in the history of Hollywood.

It’s not his love life I’m referring to — in fact, reputation holds that he’s done fairly well in that department (to the point that his pre-nuptial agreement with Ms. Zeta-Jones is known to include an infidelity clause). The rejection that Mr. Douglas has suffered at the hands of Hollywood’s female acting elite has been of a professional nature — and, on at least three (and possibly four) occasions, it appears to have been deserved.

The lead role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, produced by Mr. Douglas and for which he received the Academy Award for best picture, was turned down by (in alphabetical order) Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Colleen Dewhurst, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, Jeanne Moreau and Geraldine Page. Most of the actresses cited personal reasons for their refusal, ostensibly because of the nature of the material.

Ken Kesey’s novel had ignited a firestorm of controversy upon its publication in 1963, mainly due to its depiction of the character often referred to only as "Big Nurse," the sadistic ogre who presides over a mental ward populated by male patients. In Nurse Ratched, whose ugly countenance was described in almost as much detail (if not as frequently referenced) as her large, fleshy tits, Kesey had fashioned an interpretation of the female authority figure as an emasculating control freak, with no attempt to understand or get to the root of her behavior. As written by Kesey, critics observed that the character had about as much dimension as the Wicked Witch of the West. Since the novel’s debut on the best seller list coincided with the advent of the women’s movement, feminist activists had a field day denouncing what they (correctly) perceived as a monstrous disservice to the cause of women’s advancement in the professional arena. At the end of the novel, Ratched is raped by McMurphy — as imagined by Kesey, the assault is less an act of violence than an act of justice, retribution for her "rape" of the inmates in her charge. It’s a rape that the reader is supposed to cheer for.

Needless to say, by 1975, this wasn’t going to fly, so Douglas and his collaborators had to soften the material considerably. The character’s fiendish, subhuman bullying (with accompanying grunting) was replaced with a more subtle form of villainy, and the rape was jettisoned in favor of strangulation. Nevertheless, no major actress of the period was willing to go anywhere near it — some demurring politely, others expressing indignation that the film was being made in the first place. Joanne Woodward was never offered the role of Nurse Ratched — the story goes that she’d already taken herself out the running with a preemptive strike before the production team had even had the chance to approach her. Having gotten wind of the fact that her name had been bandied about in a casting session, she reportedly told Douglas that not only had she no intention of taking the role, she had no desire of even seeing the finished product. The role eventually was filled by an unknown, Louise Fletcher, who won an Academy Award for her performance before promptly returning to obscurity. The previous year’s winner, Ellen Burstyn (who had been among the first to take a pass on the film), went on television and asked Academy members not to vote in the best actress category to protest the lack of good roles for women. Fletcher later related to The New York Times, in reference to a conversation she’d had with Burstyn after the latter’s comments, “She hadn’t even seen Cuckoo’s Nest because she thought it would be too painful an experience. I told her that I thought it would have been nicer if she’d said what she said in a year when she had been nominated.”

Fatal Attraction is perhaps Mr. Douglas’ best-known and most influential film as an actor — for you young’uns out there, it’s about a basically decent guy who cheats on his angelic, idealized homemaker wife with a high-powered cosmopolitan book editor who turns out to be a raving psychopath. General chaos ensues — knives are wielded, children are kidnapped, cars are splashed with acid and beloved household pets are tossed into the crock pot. The role was turned down by Isabelle Adjani, Barbara Hershey, Miranda Richardson and Debra Winger. Richardson, a relative unknown whose involvement with the film might have propelled her to stardom, publicly stated that she found the script “regressive in its attitudes.” While the LA Reader’s John Powers was among those who saw the film as being “about men’s fear and hatred of women,” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael went a step further in declaring “the film is about men seeing feminists as witches, and the way she’s presented here, the woman is a witch…she parrots the aggressively angry, self-righteous statements that have become commonplaces of feminist fiction, and they’re so inappropriate to the circumstances that they’re proof she’s loco.”

Unlike Cuckoo’s Nest (and Basic Instinct, which I’ll discuss presently), the producers didn’t have to resort to drafting an unknown actress to fill their star role. Glenn Close, who found herself in a bit of a career cul-de-sac after being typecast as the virgin mother (The World According to Garp), the nurturing, all-giving earth mother (The Big Chill), and quite literally, a glowing Madonna (the living embodiment of goodness and decency in The Natural), was desperate to break out of the holding pattern. She aggressively courted the role in a calculated risk that paid big dividends, earning an Oscar nomination for the performance. She’s been happily playing bitches ever since.

The impetus for this piece was seeing Basic Instinct again fairly recently — Douglas’ next monster hit after Fatal Attraction. I’m not sure what I was expecting, although it seemed diverting enough way back in good old 1992. For anyone who hasn’t had the “pleasure,” it’s basically the same deal as Fatal Attraction, only with an S&M twist and a cold-blooded gal who has no ability to love instead of a pathetic one who loves too much. Once again, audiences encountered a high-powered professional woman (in this case, a best-selling author) who is a sexual predator and sick as all get-out. Sharon Stone deservedly became an overnight sensation on the strength of her performance as Catherine Tramell, the ice-pick-wielding loony/white-hot fuck machine who inspired a thousand beaver jokes, thanks to the infamous and oft-parodied scene where director Paul Verhoeven invites the audience to rubberneck his leading lady’s privates. The actress had been knocking around Hollywood for many years, getting regular work without getting anywhere in particular, until she landed the role that would vault her into the bigtime.

As good as she was, her casting probably represented the last resort of an increasingly desperate production team. Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, Meg Ryan, Virginia Madsen, Lena Olin, Greta Scacchi and Emma Thompson all said no — whether their reluctance had more to do with the copious amount of female nudity the job required than the quality of the script and the nature of the character remains to be seen. In any event, the film became the subject of much protest as the result the character’s sexual orientation — which could be more accurately described as pansexual than bi. The film’s detractors claimed that the filmmakers not only viewed bisexuality as a perversion, but went so far as to equate it with sociopathic behavior. Gay and lesbian activists picketed while the film was shooting on location in San Francisco, requiring the deployment of police riot squads, and the controversy had already gotten a great deal of coverage before the film had even opened.

Having seen the film again recently, I do not find that it is offensive to gay people. I believe that it is offensive to all people. Not surprisingly, given the participation of Mr. Douglas, it is particularly insulting to women, particularly of the white-collar working variety. In addition to its insistence that there is something inherently evil about female sexuality, the film presents us with a secondary female character, a psychologist played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, who is not only completely incompetent in a professional capacity but a total doormat in her off hours. Her irrational attachment to Douglas’ character, who treats her like shit even when he’s making love to her (if that’s what it can be called, given the rough and graphic nature of their sex scenes), not only overrules her judgment and professional code of ethics, but leads to her eventual demise. And, yeah, turns out she also swings both ways. Dude…it’s hot!

If these three films provide us with a virtual who’s who of Hollywood actresses (at least in terms of who had the good sense not to bite), they don’t represent the only contribution Mr. Douglas has made to advancement of women’s rights during his long tenure as a leading man. As far as I know, Demi Moore was the first choice for the lead in Disclosure, which would serve to reason given her status as the top female box office attraction of the early '90s, after Julia Roberts. As such, there is no list of conscientious objectors to report, which might create the false impression that the film’s content is of a less incendiary nature than the other films discussed here. Actually, it’s probably the most corrosive of the bunch. Barry Levinson’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel plays to the popular male paranoia that not only are women trying to take away their jobs, they want to rip off their balls in the process. Once again, Douglas plays a basically decent guy who is passed over for a promotion in favor of the castrating bitch essayed by Ms. Moore, who becomes his new boss. Prowling through the corridors of power in stiletto heels and leaving a tiny trail of stab wounds in her wake, this dragon lady has no sooner started lashing the whip than she initiates an aggressive campaign to get into Mr. Douglas’ pants…much to his discomfort and embarrassment. It’s an exercise in role reversal that actually serves to trivialize the issue of workplace sexual harassment rather than shed any new light on the subject. The scene in which Ms. Moore throws Douglas up against a desk and starts shoving his cock in her mouth above his protests would be ludicrously funny in a high-camp way if it didn’t leave such a foul aftertaste (no pun intended).

The tenor of this piece might suggest that I nurse a deep and abiding hatred for Michael Douglas — as both an actor and as a member of the human race. This is not the case — I have nothing against the guy. He has made some highly enjoyable films — Romancing the Stone and The War of the Roses always have been particular favorites of mine — and his turn as a rumpled professor experiencing a midlife crisis in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys probably represents his best acting work to date (although his performance as greed incarnate in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street still commands a devoted following). I’m not really even trying to suggest that Michael Douglas actually is sexist. Putting aside the content of these films, there really isn’t anything to indicate that, as a private citizen, the man has a lack of respect for women and isn’t sympathetic to the issues that affect them. In his defense, it should be noted that he also produced The China Syndrome, which showed a strong, sympathetic female protagonist who refuses to accept the limitations imposed upon her by the powers-that-be, and proves her mettle and her integrity as a journalist.

That said, there’s no denying the fact that Michael Douglas has been involved with some of the most blatant exercises in anti-woman propaganda that the modern cinema has produced. I’m not one of those watchdogs who goes into a tizzy over any perceived instance of political incorrectness — frankly, I think most people are waaaay oversensitive about that kind of thing — but when you look at the kinds of films Michael Douglas has done, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going on in his head (beyond “Damn, I’m married to Catherine Zeta-Jones!”). If he had made just one of these films, I probably wouldn’t think much of it, but the fact is, he was involved with all four of them — and you’d be hard-pressed to find any four films made in the last 30 years which provoked more outrage on the part of feminist advocates. Whether this particular feature of Mr. Douglas’s career is the result of bad judgment or simply bad taste is open to debate, but in any event, it does seem to indicate a certain level of insensitivity (or at least lack of consideration) on his part. He seems to have been on his best behavior for the past decade or so…maybe Catherine managed to get some veto power to go along with the infidelity clause.

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Interesting article. I hadn't really put together that sequence of films. It makes you think. Also interesting that Greta Scacci turned down Basic Instinct. Maybe also her role in Presumed Innocent influenced her decision?
As you know Josh, I was pretty anti-Michael Douglas for a long time (even in his non misogyny films like Black Rain and Falling Down.) He always seemed to me to play someone who gets what he deserves. Then came Wonder Boys, which was not only a great adaptation of a great book but presented a Michael Douglas performance I never could have expected. He was great.
You know -- you forgot one other example, which I assume you didn't see because I didn't either -- A Perfect Murder, that pseudo-remake of Dial M for Murder with Douglas in the Ray Milland role and Gwyneth Paltrow as Grace Kelly.
It's interesting, and noted within each movie in the article, that 3 of the 4 roles produced either a Best Actress Oscar or nomination. Goes back to the whole feeling that unless a woman plays a crazy "bitch" or a whore, she can't win an award.

I've often felt this for a long time but I think I've also always attributed the misogyny that it seems like he is always playing older guy who very attractive younger women seems to want to be with. But then again, that is a typical Hollywood thing....
I didn't see A Perfect Murder, for reasons I am sure you can well imagine. However, since I'm familiar with the original and know the story, it wouldn't really lend itself to the argument I was trying to make. Cuckoo's Nest, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure all revolve around basically decent, sympathetically portrayed male characters being victimized by demonic psycho-bitches (all of whom happen to be accomplished, white-collar professionals - since as we all know, a woman can't really be successful in a man's world without there being something wrong with her). In Perfect Murder, it's the other way around - Paltrow's character is the sympathetic victim, while Douglas is the villain.
Very interesting. I guess I feel pretty much the same about Michael Douglas. I'm a big fan of his pops though. Could all this be like the director who remakes the same movie over and over - a star, perhaps unconsciously, gravitating towards the same themes again and again? For example, for a while it seemed like every Tom Cruise character had a dead father he was trying to live up to. If you are really trying to build a case that answers the title of this post in the affirmative, I'd have to ask if that actress turndown rate (it sure seems awfully high) is normal, cuz I don't know. Michael Douglas does seem to have a knack for choosing projects that become zeitgeist-y. I would add Falling Down, The American President, and that cultural watershed Napoleon and Samantha. I felt out of step with a lot of these. I remember seeing Fatal Attraction at an early radio screening, and afterwards, when the film built up critical and box office steam, I thought "Is this the same movie I saw months ago?" Sort of the same with Basic Instinct. I barely remember it. All in all, I see a larger pattern of victimhood roles. The Game was one I liked. And oh yeah, that poster for Disclosure cracks me up.
What a riveting piece! I was glued to that the whole way through.

As Edward noted above, the films sport what were considered by many (at least at the time) to be strong female roles. What's even more interesting (perhaps) is that the three he acted in featured some of his weakest performances/roles - a manipulated dupe across the board.

Given the exposure those women got from those films, one could argue that he did great things for actresses by agreeing to play the schmo. Maybe the real question is, "Why is he so often willing to play the boob?" and what does that say about Douglas? Many A-listers avoid that like the plague.

I'm not a gigantic fan by any stretch, but I do especially dig him in WAR OF THE ROSES & also THE GAME (Fincher's best...anyone?.. Bueller?). I even have good memories of his work in FALLING DOWN - but I haven't seen it since the theatre way back when.

Anyone here seen the Kirk/Mike doc from HBO? I've got it, but it's kinda just been sitting here, unwatched.
I did see the Kirk/Michael doc. It was interesting, but nothing special. Also note to Ross: It was BlackJackk who made the observation about the strong female roles, not me.
Oops! My apologies to Blackjackk.

I was pretty intoxicated when I wrote that - surprised it came off making any sense at all. (Maybe it didn't?)
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