On DVD: Michael Douglas, an American Icon of Male Menopause
The new-to-DVD indie Solitary Man is a sharp-witted, resonant portrait of an aging all-American bird-dogger approaching his autumn years, and it'd be fine even without Michael Douglas, but with him, it has the tone of a social elegy. Not many actors grow careers with themes attached, but Douglas has -- it only took him a while to find his subject. He acted for years, doing TV in his 30s, and had a medium hit with Romancing the Stone when he was 40. But he was nothing much of interest then, and could have been swapped out for any number of other actors. What changed?
It was only a few years later, as he entered middle age and fell into Fatal Attraction (1987), that Douglas became the stand-in not only for every Reagan-era family man afraid to get caught pants-south, but the American man in general: boiling underneath, troubled by greed and self-indulgence, and confused as to why life isn't paying off like a slot machine the older he gets. He is that film's beating heart and bulging pants, and his vulnerability and persecuted privilege is what made it a monster hit.
That same year, Wall Street (1987) added to the portrait Douglas was building, diving into the role of Gordon Gekko like it was a stagnant cave pool. The darkness was already there; Oliver Stone wrote Gekko, but he didn't write the bulging skull, the unblinking self-satisfaction, the leathery luxuriousness. This was our dark side, and the fact that generations of money-grubbing finance mavens have grown up quoting Gekko's market-economy bull as if it were gospel is all the sign we need that Douglas hit a nerve, and the nerve continued to throb.
The modern man's relationship with women and family is a major bone of contention in the Douglas canon, and so The War of the Roses (1989) is still the most vicious divorce comedy ever made, as the embattled couple of the title (Douglas and Kathleen Turner) arms themselves to the teeth, each determined to hang onto the house they both dearly love. Spoiler: everybody dies, and they die still hating each other. Basic Instinct (1992) takes it further: In this ludicrous hothouse of a movie, Douglas is all rampaging erection in a world of ambiguous bisexual women and mystifying murders. The best way to read this movie (besides just regarding it as a campy, veins-in-the-teeth spoof of itself) is as a picture of man's swinging-dick helplessness in a world rule by desire. As the maneater, Sharon Stone briefly became a star, but Douglas is the movie's engine, the set of testicles maddened into blue-ness by frustration and manipulation.
After that, Falling Down (1993) may seem like an about-face, but it's just another facet of the Lost American Man Facing Retirement, as Douglas plays a buttoned-down office geek who gets stuck in interminable traffic and explodes. It's loaded with cathartic set pieces, beginning with Douglas's conservative defense-firm worker abandoning his car in a freeway jam, and running from there through his unmoored, increasingly violent confrontations with road construction pointlessness, Korean storeowners, fast-food rule-keepers, gang bangers, bigoted militia-men, golfers (!), and so on. The only thing missing, in fact, is the hero's seemingly obligatory attack on his workplace and boss. The movie can be senseless, but that doesn't mean we all didn't know how the guy felt.
No one but Douglas could have been considered for the sexual-discrimination combat of Disclosure (1994), and it could have been another resonant chapter in Douglas's generalized gender wars if it didn't suck. Better is David Fincher's The Game (1997), which, without spoiling it, could be regarded entirely as an affluent middle-aged man whose world inverts from untold luxury to complete identity-theft, action-movie chaos. Again, the spectacle on hand is Douglas, beset by our worst collective nightmares, because he has everything to lose.
Wonder Boys (2000) could be his masterpiece, exploring yet another venue for contemporary lost man-ness: academia. Douglas is a middle-aged lit professor and faded star author facing a life collapse: his wife leaves him, he's having a disastrous affair with his boss's wife (who also happens to be the chancellor of the university), and his editor is coming to town expecting a finished manuscript that he's barely started. Michael Chabon's novel of midlife crisis is wisely centered in the academic milieu: is there any more constant reminder that you're past your prime than spending 24/7 surrounded by the flush of youth? However effervescent and hilarious (and underseen -- rent it now) it is, the movie revolves on a sad hub of menopausal loss. Other actors try to ignore their slide into the abyss, but Douglas has made a study of it, movie by movie.
As a man in power who can't even control his own junkie daughter, Douglas was the hottest flame in Traffic (2000), and by this time we understood that if he was present, a certain slice of American male prerogative was what's for dinner. In the last decade, as his star power faded with his looks, Douglas has been largely dallying with relatively light-hearted indies befitting a man in his 60s, but Solitary Man takes up the gauntlet again, as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) undoubtedly will, with no sentimentality, just as Douglas battles cancer in real life. His journey has been our own, like it or not.