Michael Douglas: Wonder Boy

The AFI Life Achievement Award recipient has a slate of intriguing projects in the works

"It's all downhill from here."

What else could a 32-year-old actor-producer say on the night that his film -- the one even his famous Hollywood father couldn't get produced -- wins all five major Academy Awards? In 1976, that's just what Michael Douglas said to Milos Forman, the director of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

It's the sort of statement that might end up haunting a man when, 33 years later, he begins receiving lifetime achievement awards, as Douglas will today from the American Film Institute. But over the phone in early May, from his home in Bermuda (where he was convalescing from knee surgery), Douglas declared he isn't the reflective type. He's not taking this award -- or a bum knee -- lying down, and though he accepts both gracefully, he says he's not fading away: "I fly without a net. I have a risk gene. All you're looking for at this point is stretching yourself and working with good people."

To that end, Douglas is loading up on a slate of tantalizing projects that put a new spin on a particularly productive phase of his career, the 1980s, when he was churning out movies (1984's "Romancing the Stone," 1987's "Fatal Attraction" and "Wall Street") that often satisfied audiences and critics alike. (Which isn't to say he wasn't doing the same before, with 1979's "The China Syndrome," or since, including 1992's "Basic Instinct," 2000's "Traffic" and "Wonder Boys").

Although he sounds content to shuffle around his home and make French toast for his two young children with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones ("I never anticipated starting another family," he says, almost dreamily, "so it takes a lot to get me out of the house"), Douglas is developing a script that will reteam him with his "Romancing the Stone" co-star Kathleen Turner where he'll play the villain, while Turner gets a younger lover. But what's most fervently anticipated is a recently announced sequel to "Wall Street," bringing Douglas back together with director Oliver Stone, who sees an opportunity in the recent economic meltdown to look at how "so much has changed," Stone says. "Not just Gordon Gekko. The world, too."

Douglas recently finished shooting "Solitary Man," directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, in which he plays the lead character, who is "almost like the guy from 'Fatal Attraction' -- 20 years later," says producer Steven Soderbergh, who suggested Douglas for the part. "And things haven't worked out."

Also on deck: A second turn with Soderbergh at the helm, who directed Douglas in "Traffic." Soderbergh appreciates how his actor "understands the macro of every project, and he wouldn't dream of making your life difficult," he says. "One of his best qualities is you don't see him acting. He doesn't tart it up. Sometime you get overlooked because you are not being showy, but the good news is that we're going to have the opportunity to give him something very showy."

Soderbergh alludes to what may be Douglas' most daring role yet: a planned biopic of Liberace that's been gestating since the director first mentioned the book, "Behind the Candelabra," on the set of "Traffic," prompting Douglas to do an improvisation of the entertainer that was "side-splitting," the director says.

And yet, playing Liberace (with Matt Damon as his younger lover) might not be the total departure it appears to be, when one considers how his characters have often been on the wrong side of an ice pick or aggressive sexual advance. "I very much believe in the animus and anima," he says, referencing Carl Jung's terms for the masculine and feminine in each person's unconscious.

"You have no idea how far up his alley, pardon the expression, that is," says Danny DeVito, who enjoys busting the chops of the actor and friend he first met in the mid-'60s, when the two were doing summer stock theater in New England and both shared a love of motorcycles and "herbology."

The two lived together in New York, and then Douglas moved to California, where he starred in the television show "The Streets of San Francisco," beginning in 1972. DeVito fondly recalls his friend being a "babe magnet," and though Douglas confirms that era "was a lot of fun, if you can remember it," he suggests that he had an uphill climb, being the son of Kirk Douglas. When talking about the budding acting career of his own son Cameron (with his first wife, Diandra), the proud father says, "He's really good, but acting is about creating your own identity. And the genes come through and so it takes a little longer to establish yourself."

The success of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which Douglas produced after his father gave up on adapting the story, matured him considerably but, he says, it wasn't until he won the Academy Award for best actor in 1988 for "Wall Street," that he really turned the corner. "For me, getting the Oscar was important as a second-generation actor," he says. "Getting over the hump. And success breeds security. It's hard to act when you're insecure."

In Stone's view, once one gets over the physical similarities, the father and son are distinct; "Michael evokes another generation, as much as Kirk Douglas does his own," Stone says. "Where the father represents a first-generation immigrant American dream aspirant, Michael stands in for the owner class, a shaper of that dream."

It's something Douglas may have first come to by birth, but he has succeeded at it though hard work. He's known for his professionalism, says Soderbergh; "And that's a word I take very seriously. Others take it as pejorative, suggesting there's a lack of passion. For me, it's the opposite; a professional does it to the best of their ability."

It doesn't hurt that it all seems to come to Douglas so effortlessly. Soderbergh says Douglas "seems like the least-bothered person I know. He seems very centered and always happy."

A whiff of that seeps through the receiver, as Douglas shares stories of "the joy of raising two children," talking about his 8-year-old son, Dylan, doing a "mean impersonation" of Elvis and his 6-year-old daughter, Carys, memorizing all the lyrics from "Mamma Mia!" He wouldn't be surprised if his younger kids take to acting, too, and is open to the possibility, considering both their parents are in the profession, as well as several of their grandparents (Kirk Douglas recently put on a one-man show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.)

But Douglas is ready to leave his oasis (his mother's family dates back 380 years on the island) to take on the role of Gordon Gekko; production begins in August. Douglas says he looks forward to shooting in New York, and he hopes to see his wife, Zeta-Jones, taking on a musical there.

The prospect of working with Stone -- not exactly known for being the least-bothered director -- isn't at all daunting to Douglas' sense of calm. "I like people who put their heart and soul into it," he says. "Of course, there's nothing wrong when those opportunities come to make a buck," a reference to his recent part in "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," for which he says he was "treated well and well compensated."

As for whether the next "Wall Street" will be for love or money, Douglas leaves little question; "There will be blood," he quips.
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