Michael Douglas: Determined to Lick the Big C
New York—“I’m very optimistic, I’m determined to lick it,” says actor Michael Douglas with a good deal of courage, about his current, devastating bout with throat cancer. Douglas, dressed in black slacks and black shirt, has lost a considerable amount of weight, and his handsome face seems to be hardened by the harsh treatments he’s getting.
Douglas was in New York to attend the premiere of his new film, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Oliver Stone sequel to the 1987 movie, which had won him the Best Actor Oscar and has made him a household name.
He posed for photos Monday night with his wife-actress Catherine Zeta-Jones,co-stars Shia LaBeouf and James Brolin, and director Stone, but he didn’t talk to the press. I was lucky to be among them the few select journalists he talked to.
The original picture, which Stone directed in 1987, had made Douglas’ masterful portrayal of the villainous character, the ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko part of our pop culture and collective consciousness. (“Greed Is Good”). It featured Charlie Sheen as a stockbroker hungry for success, a role now played by Shia LaBeouf (better known for the blockbuster franchise “Transformers”), as Jake Moore, a smart young proprietary trader.
Set in 2008, “Money Never Sleeps” finds Gekko alone, an outsider who has served 8 years in prison for securities fraud, money laundering and racketeering. The two men meet when Jake attends a lecture at FordhamUniversity given by Gekko, who is promoting his new book, “Is Greed Good?” Gekko speech describes how Greed Is no Longer Good; It’s Legal, and how a malignancy in the financial system, with its rampant speculation and leveraged debt, is bound to doom the U.S. economy.
Furthercomplications ensue, when Gekko finds out that Jake is in love with and about to marry his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, Oscar-nominated for “An Education”), who has not talked to him since he went to jail, accusing him of the death of her brother (of drug overdose due to parental neglect).
For Stone, returining to the world he captured in 1987’s “Wall Street was not only timely, but an opportunity to explore something new. Says Stone: “I don’t think I would have enjoyed working oin ‘Money Never Sleeps’ if it hadn’ been a wholly original story (the screenplay is credited to Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff). Twenty-three years later makes a huge differnce. I was very fresh to me.”
Bth picture are timely, but in a differnet way. “What shocked me was this exponentially-growing accumulation of wealth kep going into the 1990s and 2000s. The numbers grew and grew, so the millions of dollars became billions of ollars, and the greed of Gordn gekko was swamped by the greed of the banks.”
By 2008, no more Gekkos were possible,” Stone elaborates. “That character, that kind of bucaneer, was no gone, replaced by institutions that had once formerly been regulated. In the past, a bank was a bank, and an insurance company was an insurance company. In 2008, all that changed. The firewalls between these functions were destroyed by the deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s.”
The announcement in August that Douglas has a tumor in his throat and will undergo eight weeks of radiation and chemotherapy sent shock waves in and out the Hollywood industry.
Although Douglas released few details about his tumor, it is likely affecting the larynx (voice box) or the oropharynx, near the tonsils. Larynx cancers are usually related to smoking and drinking, he says. Cancers around the tonsils are often caused by a virus called HPV.
Treatments for larynx cancer have improved greatly in recent years, which is god news and important consideration for an actor with such a distinctive voice. However, treatment is very hard on patients. Many develop painful mouth sores that require morphine-like narcotic pain relievers. Radiation also can burn the throat, making it painful to swallow.
There’s never good time to be sick, but to be diagnosed with cancer at this particular moment, is really bad. “The timing really sucked,” says Douglas, “when I got my biopsy and was told that it would be at least eight weeks of intense radiation, combined with chemotherapy, I realized it would coincide with the opening of our picture.”
The health of Douglas, one of the most beloved figures in Hollywood, was on the front of everyone's minds. "He's strong," says LaBeouf of his respected co-star. "Cancer picked the wrong guy." And Stone notes, "it's a struggle, and it's tough, but Michael is fighting. It's amazing that he's coming out, an facing the cameras, too, because he's going through hard time."
Down to earth and rational, Douglas doesn’t believe that cancer is a punishment, or a form of revenge. “Initially I said, ‘I’ll keep this to myself,’ but I really could not, because there was a large foreign tour planned, so I determined to let Fox (the studio which produced the movie) know what was going on.”
The overwhelming support he has received surprised Douglas tremendously. “First there was the cancer family, so to speak, the strangers who reached me out for me, gave me a lot of strength. When I saw the efforts people have made, I was very touched.”
However, it’s his family that proved to be his biggest source of inspiration: “You know, I come from a tough stock. My father (actor Kirk Douglas, who’s 93) is pretty tenacious and strong man, and also my mother (Kirk’s first wife, Bermudian actress Diana Dill), who’s had a few bouts with cancer herself.”
Douglas says he “had no sense of the limitations. It takes a heavy toll, you lose your energy and it gets more difficult to swallow food.” He explains: “It’s an unfortunate kind of situation, where you really can’t do anything. You have to be kind of left alone. I now believe in solitude, you gotta heal yourself. You gotta rest.”
“I’ve always felt, even when I was just a producer (the 1975 Oscar winner “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’), that it’s your responsibility to stand behind your movies. I have always supported my movies and this movie is very special. I like it a lot, I’m really proud of it. I think Oliver did a great job, it’s a stunning looking picture.”
LaBeouf calls Douglas a "wolf," noting that the pro showed no signs of weakness while making or promoting the picture. Brolin concurs: "This is a tough chapter in his life but we're all rooting for him."
Douglas recalls: “When the first movie came out, it was not a huge financial hit, but the film has taken on a complete life of its own, and became part of our culture and language.”
For Douglas, “Gekko was as good a villain as you’re ever going to find. It just goes to show that movie-goers love a villain, especially a villain who’s decked out and has all the accoutrements.”
His peer LaBeouf concurs: “The character of Gekko has resonated with audiences for so long, because he's iconic in the same way that Billy the Kidis orJake LaMotta (the subject of Scorsese’ “Raging Bull”). Those people aren't necessarily the best guys, but they're sexy."
To this day, he cannot get over “the number of people who came up to me, telling me, ‘you’re the guy that got me into this. (Levy: what he meant that people went into stock trading and Gekko became a positive role model) And I say, ‘you know Gordon went to jail.”
For Douglas, the movie offered (beginning of quote) “insights into the world of people whose only occupation is to make money. They don’t care how they do it. Nothing else is of value to them. So the whole phenomenon was a complete shock and a surprise.”
Douglas observes: “We were nervous about the new movie,” made 23 years later, “because of that image they all had of Gekko (Levy: what he means that they loved Gekko as a seductive villain), whether they would accept him starting form nothing and going up again.” (Levy: in the new movie, he begins as a demoted king, unshaven, hair unkempt, no family, colleagues or outsiders.)
The movie is personal in other ways: “I, just like everyone else who was genius (Levy: genius is the word Douglas used) in the 1990s, did play the stock market, when everything was compounding (correct quote) and it all looked so easy. I followed it pretty closely and I invested a lot myself, but then I lost a lot of the net worth. I was a humbling experience.” (Levy: he was not specific as to when or how much he lost; the point being that he, too, was swept way by the alluring game of money and power)
Douglas took his two kids to radiation so that they will understand better the process and its effects: “This kind of cancer can be motivated in large part by alcohol, tobacco abuse. Along with a certain gene that’s sexually transmitted.”
The coincidence of many of the film’s issues with his own personal life doesn’t escape him. In the film, he plays a father who neglected his children, one of whom died of drug abuse. “Sometimes art imitates life. They cut the cards you get dealt with.” His brother had died of drug overdose, and his own son, Cameron (from his first wife, Dandra Luker) serves time in prison in what became a much-publicized case.
“I have had a pretty stressful year on a number of fronts, some of which were public and some were not. I’m now having a crash education course about how nasty these cancer cells can be.”
One lesson he has learned is to “savor the moment, savor the time as it goes, and time goes fast, especially now that health issues have added importance.” Douglas has learned to “take one day, one step at a time.”
How does he choose his roles? “It’s crazy, but I’ve done only one period movie in my entire career. Every movie is contemporary. I have been obviously attracted to films about the current environment, our immediate situation. I follow current events in the news media, that’s where my curiosity is, that’s my fantasy.
Douglas says he “savors the opportunity to be able to resurrect a character that has meant so much to a lot of people for such a long period of time. It’s sort of fun to keep that whole continuity alive.”
“I’m 65, you know, so how many good parts are you going to get offered. I was happy to have two solid parts last year: “Wall Street” and “Solitary Man,” a critically acclaimed indie that few people saw. “To be asked to play this role so many years later is a form of redemption for me, as an actor and as a screen character.” (Personal: The movie gets sentimental at the end, and Gekko reconciles with his daughter and redeems himself by investing a lot of money in good causes; but we can’t tell the readers the resolution—it’s thriller of sorts).
Douglas says he’s still ”fascinated by gray characters, and that’s one of the things I love about Money Never Sleeps, in which there is no black and white, only different shades of black.” Indeed, he favors his “darkly funny” movies, such as “Wonder Boys,” “War of the Roses,” or “Falling Down,” pictures that are not obvious choices, movies that are difficult for audiences. I like the gray area, the mix, the tragic-comedic.”
With all the personal adversities he has had, Douglas says he still looks forward to making “Liberace,” to be directed by Steven Soderbergh and co-star Matt Damon. And he’s looking forward to his tenth anniversary with Catherine Zeta-Jones, in November: “I want to be clean and back up to my health. For now, we are enjoying talking about what we might do, but we have not decided yet.”
There’s a wickedly smart look in his eyes, when he observes, “there are no more safe places to live. As if enough hasn’t happened, Bermuda (where he lives with his wife and children) got a direct hurricane yesterday, but our house is O.K.”
“The timing stinks,” Douglas says, “I would have liked to enjoy this premiere a little bit more than I am now.” But he’s quick to note with a smile, “I’m looking forward to a good glass of wine as soon as I get my tastes back.”