Michael Douglas was not afraid to share a few of his worst reviews Saturday at the TCM Classic Film Festival's key annual Q&A at the Montalban Theatre in Hollywood.
His very first critical notice came from his father, Kirk, who drove up to see him play his first theatrical role, a small part as a messenger in a 1960s UC Santa Barbara production of Much Ado About Nothing.
"Dad came back and said, 'Michael, you were terrible,' Douglas related. "He was so relieved. He said, 'Thank God, I don't have to worry about my son going into this business.'"
Then, a couple more accomplished decades later, there was the review he got from Oliver Stone, two weeks into shooting Wall Street.
Douglas said he got a knock on his trailer door: "Oliver said, 'How are you feeling?' I said, 'I'm feeling good.' 'Michael, are you doing drugs?' 'No, I'm not doing drugs!' He says, 'You look like you never acted before in your life.'
"When I'm acting, I don't look at dailies, but I said, 'I guess I better take a look,'" Douglas continued. "So I go in and I look at the work. You know, I'm not bad … but Oliver wanted just a little bit more of that Kirk Douglas sort of repressed anger … and was willing to forgo our relationship to get that performance. And I went to town and worked my ass off after that conversation."
Ironically, it was that somewhat self-conscious evocation of his father's onscreen bristling that helped Douglas finally escape feeling like a celebrity scion, thanks in part to the awards attention that resulted from Stone's tough love.
"The year that I won the Oscar for Wall Street (1987), and Fatal Attraction opened two months before - it was a good year. And it was that acknowledgement that allowed me to step out of my father's shadow, and allowed me to act with real confidence and not be bothered by comparisons. It was," Douglas added wryly, "about the same time I began to look more and more like my father."
With true survivors of the Golden Age of Hollywood harder and harder to come by as TCM Fest guests, a second-generation star like Douglas represents the best of all possible tributees: able not just to tell tales from the boomer-dominated '70s and '80s (or, as TCM viewers think of it, fairly recently), but also to hark back to the network's core era with family lore.
Douglas is certainly the rare subject who can share stories from the sets of both The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) - where he got in minor trouble for entering his father's eye line during a makeout scene with Lana Turner - and Ant-Man (2015) and its forthcoming sequel, which the actor considers "really fun, because I never did any greenscreen pictures before."
Prior to joining TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and 400 passholders for the epic Q&A, Douglas, 72, had come from his 100-year-old dad's Beverly Hills home, where he stays in an apartment over the garage when he visits Los Angeles by himself. Mankiewicz got the junior Douglas to give up the pair's customary joint breakfast menu: a mixture of gluten-free granola, yogurt and fruit, mashed up together. "So Kirk and Michael Douglas eat the same thing as my 4-year-old daughter," Mankiewicz quipped.
Inevitably, the father/son disparity over 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest arose, with Douglas describing developing the movie as a producer after his father's two decades of thwarted attempts to make it with himself as star.
"Now here's where Kirk's and my story digress," Douglas said. "In his version, 'Yeah, sure, Michael gets the project, takes a year, sets it all up and doesn't cast me in the part!' If he were here right now, that'd be the first thing he'd want to tell you. … My version is that I started before I started Streets of San Francisco, so I basically worked about five years on it. It's been, what, 20 years since my dad did the play on Broadway … his career has changed a little bit. And our director, Milos Forman, says Kirk is a little old for the part. Dad's version is, I rejected him. … We know the end results. I like to tease my father, because I gave him half of our producing deal, and he made more money off that movie than any movie he ever did."
Douglas described the unusual equanimity co-star Karl Malden and producer Quinn Martin showed him when he asked to be let go from the TV series Streets of San Francisco after four seasons - only to find himself essentially un-hireable as a film actor.
"If you had done television, they didn't even see you," he said. As a producer, he was able to cast himself as the third banana in The China Syndrome, but it wasn't until Romancing the Stone - another of his own productions - in the mid-1980s that he became a successful leading man after name actors turned down the part.
On Fatal Attraction, "This is where I learned something about myself," Douglas said. "First of all, why do I like to play these gray-area characters or these darker characters? And for some reason, audiences forgive me. We were watching the movie [at a test screening], and I had just cheated on [his screen wife, Anne Archer] and I've run over to make my bed look like I slept in it, and the audience clapped, and Sherry Lansing, the producer, said, 'I can't believe this - they're forgiving you already.'"
But Douglas was fine with taking the movie less dark when test audiences revolted against a Madame Butterfly ending that had Glenn Close's character setting up Douglas for her own suicide.
The actor gave his own version of the tale recounted in Lansing's new memoir, Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker. Close "did not want to change it at all: 'You can't make me. I'm not going to shoot this,'" she said, according to Douglas. "And I reached out and I basically said … 'When you do a play and they take the play out of town and based on audience reaction … in doing it you find what works or what doesn't for the whole experience of the play, and you do rewrites accordingly.' Movies get criticized all the time for showing it to an audience and then changing the ending. Why not? So I said, 'Glenn, no character is bigger than the whole piece. I understand for you individually as an actress that this is so rewarding, but you have to look at this whole picture together.' And she was wonderful and she got it then and said, 'Let's go for it,' and it made for a more entertaining ending and a more successful movie."
Douglas' most indelible role in the 21st century, as Liberace in HBO's Behind the Candelabra, came after the actor's bout with stage IV cancer.
"I was wondering, would I ever work again?" Douglas said.
His enthusiasm for the script was dashed against the rocks when "Steven [Soderbergh] says, 'I've got one kind of commitment I've got to do before,' and Matt [Damon] comes up and says, 'I've also got a picture. So, let's hold onto it and let's do it in a year.' My heart sinks. I think, this is not going to happen. What of course I don't realize, because I'm just happy to be alive, is that as well as I think I might be, I'm still underweight, and these guys have all taken a look at me, and I'm not ready."
The year he believes they gave him under the guise of being otherwise occupied gave him time not just to recover further from the cancer, but to learn the piano, absorb the script and become Emmy-worthy. The TV stigma that created an eight-year gap between the end of his Streets of San Francisco run and his first smash leading movie role is "gone," he said.
"It's fantastic. All the streaming and this whole cable area - I'm in love with it, because I had a period where I had two or three of those indie movies where you get paid nothing, and they promise you you're going to have a marketing budget" - which, Douglas says, usually turns out to be based entirely around his ability to get on talk shows.
"And if you're lucky, it runs for one week in the theater, and then it goes off to streaming anyway," he continued. "So I had a couple little pictures I really liked - Solitary Man, The King of California - that nobody saw. Beyond the Reach - nothing. But [with cable and streaming], you have a built-in audience of anywhere from 4 million to 18 or 20 million seeing it, and you're still able, if you want, to show it theatrically in other countries around the world … and they pay equitably to what feature films pay."
A conversation that began with Mankiewicz asking about Douglas' parents' amicable divorce in 1951 inevitably came back around to the son's own seeming near-brush with the same in 2013, when he and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones announced a separation, then reappeared as a couple before the year was up.
"You've both got to want to make it happen," said Douglas. "Every marriage has got its issues … and if one is going out the door, no matter how hard you try, [a split] is going to happen. But I think if you're fortunate enough to take a look and you want to make it work, then I think you can succeed … and it makes you tighter than before. We're [together almost] 17 years now."
The conversation between Douglas and Mankiewicz will air on TCM later in the year.