Michael Douglas: The World on a String

Michael Douglas is going to remember 2000 for all kinds of happy personal and professional reasons. Here he talks about life with Catherine and Dylan, the two acclaimed films he made this year -- Wonder Boys and Traffic -- and the remarkable career that led to his current peak.

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Michael Douglas sits in a plush, oversized couch in the mahogany den of a huge apartment with a spectacular view of Central Park. His soon-to-be wife, the gifted, gorgeous actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, is in the other room attending to their newborn son, Dylan. He and I are about to discuss the two impressive movies he's starred in in 2000, either of which might be the occasion for an Oscar nomination for him. If there were theme music playing underneath this scene, it would have to be the Frank Sinatra tune "I've Got the World on a String."

Ever since Douglas emerged from his famous father's shadow years ago with a Best Picture Oscar for coproducing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he's been interesting to watch on- and offscreen. While continuing to be a savvy producer--his credits, not counting movies he himself has starred in, include Flatliners and Face/Off--he also distinguished himself as an actor. He didn't merely give skillful, inspired performances like the one that earned him a 1987 Academy Award for Wall Street, he became the only top-earning star with the stones to play deeply flawed or outright villainous characters in hot-button films like Fatal Attraction (1987), The War of the Roses (1989), Basic Instinct (1992), Falling Down (1993), Disclosure (1994) and A Perfect Murder (1998). But Douglas's 2000 marks the kind of year few people in any walk of life ever see. His romance with Zeta-Jones resulted in enduring love, a baby boy and now a wedding, and his on-screen work hit new heights. In director Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys, which was released early in the year and is now, in a gutsy move by Paramount, being rereleased for Academy consideration, he gave perhaps his most winning performance ever as a slightly overweight, slightly over-the-hill college professor who smokes pot, sleeps with the college chancellor, mentors a screwed-up kid who's the writer he'll never be, and somehow manages to redeem himself. In director Steven Soderbergh's Traffic he plays the U.S. drug czar who's trying to stem the cocaine trade while dealing with his crack- and heroin-addicted daughter. Few if any of the other actors in Douglass league would have gone near either of these roles, and none would have been likely to do them better.

When you're wealthy from two decades of good business decisions, and you're at the top of your professional game, and you're about to marry the jaw-droppingly beautiful screen sensation who put her meteoric career on hold to bear you a son, you can look like you don't know what trouble is. But one of the interesting things about Michael Douglas is that a very short time ago he most definitely did, as he tells me.

MICHAEL FLEMING: A few years back, your career hit a lull, your marriage ended, your son went into rehab and your father had a stroke. Now you're in love with a beautiful, talented woman, you have a new baby, and you've done two of your best movies ever. Did you imagine life could get this good again?

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: No. For a while, I did feel like the line in that song, "I've been down so long, it looks like up to me." They were a tough few years. I lost my stepfather in '92. My dad had that helicopter crash, then he had the stroke. There were the marital issues. Obviously I had issues with my son. And my mother had problems with cancer. It was coming at me pretty much every which way for a while. It gives you a deeper appreciation for when things are good.

Q: When this interview appears, you'll be just about getting married. Who's called the shots on this wedding?

A: Whatever Catherine wants, that's what she'll get. We discuss things, but nothing has come up that's totally insane. She's not an outrageous spender. Whatever makes her happy, she'll have it.

Q: You got married pretty quickly the first time. Did having been through one marriage temper your hopes, or are you going into this head over heels, too?

A: I don't think there's a choice; you have to be. I take this stuff pretty seriously. Nobody was holding a gun to my head, saying, You have to get married. Certainly Catherine wasn't, even with the fact of having Dylan.

Q: You and your new family have been a newspaper staple over the last several months, and it was reported you sold photos of the three of you for a ton of money. That seems odd.

A: It seems odd, I guess, for the United States. But Catherine is an international star, and in England the paparazzi become like bounty hunters and go to extraordinary extremes to take a photograph they can sell. When you spend your whole life protecting your name and likeness, how do you deal with these people? I've been really open about it, saying, Look, you want to take a photograph of me and sell it? We'll split the money, and I'll give my half to charity. When we were going to have a baby, we knew a bounty hunt would happen. So when we were contacted by a magazine about their doing a layout, paying us for it, then syndicating the photos--a fairly common practice in Europe as opposed to here--we simply saw it as a way to build financial security for our new son and control what was going to be a madhouse. I'd rather do that than have some guy harassing us, though that happens anyway.

Q: Catherine has discussed how much she was maligned early in her career by the British press. You've had your scraps, too, haven't you?

A: I've gotten along pretty well with the press. I've been outspoken about tabloid journalism and I'm always disappointed how it creeps in to our mainstream press. When I went to rehab, someone came up with this sex-addict thing, and that's been carried along, despite being totally untrue, for like 10 years. The tabloids did that. But I've had a good relationship with legit media. I talk straight and I'm usually happy with the results.

Q: Did you realize how talented Catherine was when you first met her or did you just see her beauty?

A: Well, I first just happened to see her in a screening of The Mask of Zorro, and went, Who the hell is this? As I've said before, Julie Christie was probably the last time I saw somebody that striking. Now that I've gotten to know her, the Cheshire cat smile I wear is because nobody has any idea yet of her talent. It's extraordinary. And this is from somebody who was never going to be involved with an actress, ever.

Q: Why did you make that past vow? Was it the insecurity of actresses?

A: I'm sure this is a chauvinistic remark, but there is an insecurity and a self-centeredness that's really hard to deal with. But Catherine has discipline. She started when she left home at 15, with her parents' permission, and spent two and a half years performing 42nd Street on the West End. On "The Streets of San Francisco," we did eight and a half months straight of six days a week, 14 hours a day. You develop a muscle, and Catherine has that. She's going to kick some serious butt, and I think people are going to be really surprised at the kind of range she has. She's got a great voice, and she's a great jazz tap dancer. One of my big thrills is to beg her to put on those shoes and do it. She's great.

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