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Michael Douglas on 8 of his greatest roles, from Gordon Gekko to Liberace

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From a greedy corporate hustler to a gaudy Las Vegas showman, Michael Douglas has explored the charisma of complex modern men with a uniquely zeitgeisty aplomb. Upon the release of his new movie, the desert thriller Beyond the Reach (out April 17), we asked the screen legend, 70, about eight of his favorite roles ever.

Wall Street (1987)

“I have been shocked by how many guys look me in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, man, I went to business school because of you,'” says Douglas of his iconic, Oscar-winning role as Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko in Oliver Stone’s film. “It’s scary, but people love somebody who’s confident and charming and seductive—yet completely amoral. That’s the joy of playing a great villain. I remember we had our premiere in New York, and a lot of Wall Street types were there. They never thought that they—or rather the essence of them—could be caught on screen. And they were stunned after the movie.”

Wonder Boys (2000)

In Curtis Hanson’s ebullient comedy, based on Michael Chabon’s book, Douglas plays a weary, blocked novelist. “Humor doesn’t come naturally to me, so I was so drawn to this shaggy-dog, quirky part, where I got to be big and slovenly. The movie came out early in that year and never quite hit, but it’s a lovely, beautiful picture. It’s got a great heart.”

Romancing the Stone (1984) and The War of the Roses (1989)

“I’d done my sensitive-young-man roles, so I loved the chance to play a rascal in Romancing the Stone,” says Douglas. It was a tough shoot on location in the jungle, and Kathleen [Turner] deserves a lot of credit. We established a comfort factor that came in handy when [costar and director] Danny DeVito asked us to be in War of the Roses. What a wonderfully sick picture that is, showing how divorce really turns people into animals. When Danny gave me the script I said, ‘They’re gonna make us change the ending, right?’ But Danny has that dark, sick sense of humor, and he pulled it off. It’s one of the great, dangerous, on-the-edge comedies I’ve seen.”

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Douglas won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a SAG award for his dazzling, humane portrayal of Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s HBO biopic. A brief encounter with the megafamous singer informed his performance. “I was in Palm Springs with my father when I was 14 or 15, and this Rolls-Royce convertible drove by. ‘Kirk!’ he said. ‘Oh, hi, Lee,’ my dad said. ‘How are you?’ The top was down and he had all this gold reflecting off him. He was like from another planet. But he had a perfect smile, such a gentleman, and I remember how likable he was. When I was preparing to play him, I watched all his old shows and absorbed the fact that he was successful because of how much fun he was having. Audiences looked past his gayness and saw the fabulous showman who loved to perform.”

The Game (1997)

Douglas’ role as a lonely, depressed millionaire in David Fincher’s puzzlebox of a thriller was a subtle critique of his movie persona. “He was the ultimate preening perfectionist, dressed perfectly, so aloof, so above it all. Untouchable, man. It’s a movie I absolutely love. But it was a hard, tough shoot. David, as you might know, is the yang of Soderbergh’s yin. He does a large number of takes and I think we shot more than 90 days, mostly at night. And sometimes you really don’t know what you’re doing another take for. There are times when it was exhausting, but I was so proud to be a part of it. I mean, take one look at his body of work. It’s extraordinary, visionary.”

Falling Down (1993)

“This one was all about the haircut,” says Douglas. “It came to life when the film’s hairdresser came up with that idea. It was something she was thinking about and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’ And the shirt was a bit too tight, sort of bursting at the buttons a little bit, giving the impression that this guy was about to explode.” The film’s fight-the-power attitude resonated deeply with audiences. “It was edgy and humorous and people were uncomfortable to laugh at it. But I still get it brought up to me a lot. I remember I got a call from Warner Bros. to come down to the office because the Korean Grocers Association were there and they were pissed. So we had a conversation and I told them, ‘Look, I’m very sorry, but there’s a reason the screenwriter picked certain things to put in the film.’ After that, they got a bunch more of those ‘Smile’ buttons for their grocers to wear.”

Beyond the Reach (2015)

In his newest film, Douglas plays a corporate tycoon and big game hunter. In the Mojave Desert, an accident leads to a deadly game of cat and mouse with his young guide (Jeremy Irvine). “We wanted to do this in a smaller, more indie style and find some way to maintain the tension in broad daylight. And not just daylight, but 120 degrees. My character, yeah, he has a Gekko following. More of the Pimco, San Diego variety, West Coast bond companies. You go look at these guys and they love to have trophies on the wall. All the things they’ve bought and all the things they’ve killed.”