The Michael Douglas scandal
The Michael Douglas scandal -- The star of ''Basic Instinct'' responds to the controversy surrounding his work
Michael Douglas has just snuck out the back door of the premiere screening of his new, highly controversial film, Basic Instinct, at Sony Studios. And while his big-name friends and colleagues sit there in the theater watching the movie’s opening scene — you know, the one in which an unsuspecting rock star is brutally stabbed with an ice pick by an unidentifiable naked blond still rocking on top of him — Douglas is hunkered down in the corner booth of a favorite Italian restaurant on Pico Boulevard, polishing off his first Absolut on the rocks.
He’s telling me about a moment in the film — one that didn’t make it into the R-rated version — when Sharon Stone’s character, who may or may not be the blond mentioned above, has two healthy orgasms right on top of each other, the second of which sends Douglas’ character into the sexual stratosphere. To help illustrate his story, Douglas’ green eyes suddenly roll back in his head, his body stiffens, and he begins to vibrate like a guy who has plugged a sensitive part of his anatomy into a light socket and finds that he likes it.
It’s at just this moment that a tall, thin, and cartoonishly obsequious waiter appears at the table, his arms laden with plates of unordered antipasti, and interrupts Douglas’ performance with one of his own: ”These are the shiitake mushrooms,” he says with a flourish, discreetly ignoring the vibrating man, ”and a selection of grilled vegetables.”
Without skipping a beat, the savvy movie star is back, smiling, nodding, beaming, saying, ”This is very, very thoughtful of you,” while the waiter, actually bowing, says, ”Oh, sir, on the contrary, it’s very good seeing you.”
The dance of decorum over, Douglas politely orders another Absolut and then dives, unapologetically, into his food. But there’s more on Michael Douglas’ plate right now than a pile of vegetables: There’s the fact that the National Organization for Women has just issued a statement calling Basic Instinct misogynistic; that demonstrators from militant gay/lesbian groups are outside the premiere at this very moment, protesting what they feel is the film’s negative portrayal of homosexuals; that people like Faye Dunaway, Teri Garr, and Michael Keaton are inside that theater taking a good long look at Douglas’ naked, 47-year-old butt and watching him very convincingly smoke, drink, fornicate, kill, and generally commit the most protracted flirtation with sexual suicide since Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
Worst of all for Douglas — maybe even worse than the thought of taking his wife, Diandra, to see Basic Instinct at a local Santa Barbara theater over the weekend — is the thought that after all the trouble and all the hype, his high- profile movie, which reportedly cost $43 million to make, could fail to become an absolute killer at the box office. (He can begin to relax on the last point: Basic opened March 20 to a dizzying $15 million first weekend.)
Michael Douglas says he’s never been in psychotherapy, and he doesn’t engage in self-analysis. It’s not that he’s naive, it’s that he’s lived his life by a combination of instinct, ferocious tenacity, and ambition — a rare sixth sense that has consistently led him to projects articulating the anxieties of their times in a boldly commercial way. Think of his production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and his roles in The China Syndrome (1979), Fatal Attraction (1987), Wall Street (1987). Along the way, he has become one of the most powerful, sought-after, and well-respected actor-producers in the business. But he has never been involved in anything quite like Basic Instinct.
Right from the start, the movie was a magnet for trouble. The much- ballyhooed $3 million sale of the Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance, Jagged Edge) script to Carolco Pictures (a company insiders estimate is now close to a half billion dollars in debt) in June 1990 became an instant symbol of Hollywood excess. What many didn’t know was that the deal included another million dollars for the producer of Eszterhas’ choice, the venerated Hollywood veteran Irwin Winkler (Raging Bull). In turn, Carolco head Mario Kassar got to choose the picture’s director and star. He chose Paul Verhoeven, the 53-year-old Dutch filmmaker whose Total Recall had raked in $292 million worldwide for the company in 1990, and Douglas to star. It seemed like a perfect fit. Douglas had been looking for a sexy thriller and was a big fan of Verhoeven’s Dutch films, including Spetters and The Fourth Man.
The problems started as soon as Kassar, Winkler, Verhoeven, and Douglas met to discuss Eszterhas’ script in late July 1990. Winkler and Verhoeven didn’t hit it off. Winkler, who says he felt he had been ”mugged into Verhoeven,” liked neither the director’s plan to add a lesbian love scene to the movie, nor, he says, Verhoeven’s wish to show ”various body parts in different states of excitement.” And Douglas had reservations about the script, the story of a San Francisco detective’s dangerous fascination with a murder suspect. The ending was problematic, he felt, and his character far too passive. ”He was always being a device unto her,” says Douglas. ”Catherine Tramell delegated all the moves.”
Two weeks later, the whole thing ”imploded,” as Douglas puts it. After a & second meeting with Verhoeven, Winkler and Eszterhas both pulled out of the project, taking their $4 million with them, but leaving the script behind. Verhoeven decided to push on with script revisions himself, with the help of writer Gary Goldman.
With Verhoeven’s promise to take care of the script’s problems, Douglas flew off to Europe to shoot Shining Through. When he returned, however, he found that Verhoeven, after three unsuccessful rewrite attempts, had decided to go back to Eszterhas’ original. Douglas went nuts. But after a long and difficult meeting with Verhoeven, in which the director went over the script line by line and explained what he was going for, Douglas relented. ”That was the first reckoning,” he says.
The next battle was finding an actress to play Catherine, a dangerously sexy crime novelist with a taste for both boys and girls. From the start, Verhoeven wanted Sharon Stone, the icy femme fatale he’d directed in Total Recall. Douglas wanted a bigger star. ”I thought, all right, I’ll handle this, but I want somebody of equal stature to share the risks. I don’t want to be up there all by myself on this one,” he says, laughing.
But most of the major names that Verhoeven met with — actresses such as Geena Davis and Ellen Barkin — passed. In the end, to Douglas’ dismay, ”none of the ladies would go for it,” he says, probably because of the nudity. ”I guess they just got scared off. You know Paul,” he says, imitating Verhoeven’s Dutch accent, ”’Yah, yah, there is nud-it-ty, nud-it-ty, yah, show your breasts.’ He’s like an X-ray machine.” Finally, partly by a process of elimination, partly by dint of a strong screen test with Douglas, but mostly because of Verhoeven’s persistence, Stone won the part.
In his office at Carolco, Paul Verhoeven, a shaggy, snaggletoothed, mischievous wolf of a man in a pair of black jeans and a gray button-down shirt, suggests that the combination of himself, Stone, and Douglas was occasionally charged. In one crucial scene, where Douglas’ character, Nick Curran, enters his apartment to find Stone’s Catherine Tramell waiting for him, the director faced a minor mutiny. Verhoeven, who prides himself on precisely visualizing every scene before it’s shot, told Douglas to take a step toward Stone. Douglas refused. Still rankled over his character’s passivity, he had reached his breaking point. “I had to put them together,” Verhoeven recalls with a laugh, “but nobody wanted to make the first step.” The debate raged for hours until Douglas finally agreed to take a half step toward Stone, at which point she would take a step toward him. The camera rolled, Douglas made his half step, and Stone turned away.
“I couldn’t handle it at all,” says Verhoeven in an accent that sounds very much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. “I don’t know if it was the tension or the power between Catherine and Nick, or if it was Michael and Sharon, and I was caught in the middle.”
From Stone’s perspective, she was the one who was caught. “It was certainly interesting to be sitting in the middle of these two very territorial, very intelligent, very successful, very sexual men,” says Stone. “Each demanded a different thing from me. It was a lot like tap dancing.” For his part, Verhoeven admits that working with the supremely attractive and assertive actress had its difficulties. “Because she’s tough,” Verhoeven says. “She’s charming, she’s exciting, she’s sexual, she’s very personal, and it’s challenging. I mean, in the relationship, it’s difficult. Likable difficult.” When he recently described his feelings for Stone as “a love-hate relationship,” she shot back, “Yeah — he loves me and I hate him.”
Was something going on between them? “I’ve stayed out of this soap opera the two of them carried on,” says Douglas. “It was sort of strange — love-hate, I don’t know. But it’s a good story — you should try to find out. Then explain it to me.” He laughs.
The tension grew particularly acute during the arduous filming of the Douglas-Stone sex scenes. “Paul could really see the entire film, scene by scene, shot by shot, rhythm by rhythm,” Douglas says. “It was frustrating for him that he could not have total control. When it came to the sex scenes, though, it had to be me.
“If he could,” Douglas continues, “Paul would have given himself a part.”
“Your part?” I ask.
“My part,” Douglas smiles.
Sucking on a sour cherry drop in his spartan, high-tech office, Verhoeven says, with his customary disregard for any sort of delicacy, “Most men know how women f—, but they don’t know how other men f—. So when you do a sex scene, as an actor or an actress, you do probably what you do at home. Now, somebody might really dislike that. The director might say, ‘Oh, my God, I cannot stand that. What are you doing there?'”
The so-called “f— of the century” scene in Basic Instinct, which, because it was edited for an R rating, American moviegoers will only see in part, took five days to shoot. “The sex is all choreographed,” Douglas says, though he is concerned enough that the audience might think otherwise to add, “I swear on the Bible and my son’s life that we [he and Stone] have never been intimate.”
“You talk and talk about the sex in the scene beforehand — about what you want to accomplish,” Douglas continues. “And then you break it down into beats: This, this, that, that, boom, boom. ‘You start here, you go there.’ You do it with your clothes on in rehearsals. It’s an exhausting process, because it’s a 10-hour day, and you do it for four or five days. I mean, see, you have to worry about light, shadows, shadowing somebody, your heads — it’s like a fight sequence, you always have to maintain eye contact.”
Except, of course, when your head is elsewhere. “I think when we did the oral sex scenes,” Verhoeven says, chuckling, “I was pushing it — yeah. I said, ‘Perhaps you can go a bit…'” Verhoeven mimes nudging someone closer to something not quite safe. “After we shot it, we were looking at the tape, and Michael started to laugh: ‘We won’t get away with that,’ he said. Well, he was right. Not in the United States.”
When the scene was finally completed, the results left everyone feeling satisfied. “I think that when you cut to him afterwards,” Stone says, “he should be smoking an entire pack of cigarettes.”
But while Douglas complained that Verhoeven’s direction was sometimes intrusive during the sex scenes, much of the rest of the time he felt ignored.
“Contrary to the amount of direction he was giving the ladies,” he says, “I just didn’t really feel like I knew what was going on. He didn’t talk to me a whole lot, so there was a kind of buildup.” Eventually the director and star squared off yet again, near the end of filming. At the peak of the argument, Verhoeven’s nose, frequently subject to nosebleeds, began to hemorrhage; he ended up in the hospital and the production shut down for a few days.
As far as Douglas was concerned, the nosebleed couldn’t have come at a better time. “Everybody was exhausted — it was a difficult, very tense shoot. And I mean that in the best sense in terms of Paul — because he lives and breathes the picture. And he was obsessed.” But he makes no apologies for his decision to confront Verhoeven. “I had no equal costar to share the — ” he makes a gesture that somehow communicates all the risk involved in making this film. “And I was with a very talented but wacko Dutch man who we ultimately didn’t know — ” another gesture that somehow communicates all the unknowns about whether Verhoeven could pull it off. “I had a career, and I was taking a chance with a man who I knew wanted to push the envelope.” A director can fail in this kind of picture, Douglas believes, and walk away relatively unscathed. “But as an actor, you can look like a total asshole. I tried to do what he wanted with this movie. But I still didn’t know. You know? I was out there.”
How committed is Michael Douglas to his movies? Kathleen Turner tells a story about something that happened while filming 1984’s Romancing the Stone in Mexico. She says it rained so torrentially that the roads to the sets were continuously washed out. Douglas, both the star and producer, found a way around the problem: He brought in a fleet of gravel trucks, which were lined up at three every morning, ready to build new roads wherever they were needed.
“We called it ‘Douglasland,'” Turner says. “He made roads wherever he thought he had to go. I mean, this is the man’s indomitable spirit: He’d just say, ‘Oh, is the road gone? Then we’ll make one.'”
In a way, this has been the story of Michael Douglas’ professional life. As the studio system gave way to independent production companies, Douglas was one of the first young actors hustling to develop his own projects for the screen. He left the very popular television show The Streets of San Francisco to concentrate on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which he produced with Saul Zaentz), a project that even his father, Kirk, a successful producer as well as a star, couldn’t get off the ground. He developed the scripts for The China Syndrome and Starman, and didn’t give up when the studios told him they were not viable. Then, when the studios green-lighted the scripts, he didn’t fold when told they were not interested in him as the leading man. “I was not on the accepted list for actors at that time,” he says, simply.
Finally the breaks started to come. The biggest came in 1987, when, at 43, Douglas found himself with leading roles in two hugely successful films — Fatal Attraction and Wall Street. “The pleasure of acting came very late for me, as late as Fatal Attraction,” he says.
Oliver Stone recalls seeking out Douglas for Wall Street because he’d heard of the actor’s reputation for being financially savvy. “I figured, he knows money,” says Stone, “he knows that world — use it.” Not, Stone adds, that Douglas doesn’t have his gentler side. “I thought that to take Mike, who is sort of the übersoft, and make him into a Wall Street sharpie, was an interesting innovation.”
“So what is übersoft?” I ask Douglas.
“Very soft,” he says. “Ubermensch is very strong. Ubersoft is very soft — a sensitive young man. I think Oliver’s probably right, but he’s so full of s—. I love him dearly, but he lives for confrontation. The man lives for confrontation, you know, because his life is überhard.” Douglas smiles.
“The big disadvantage for me — both the advantage and the disadvantage — of being second-generation Hollywood, was learning to conduct yourself in a decent way,” Douglas says. His concern about the influence of Hollywood has led him and his wife, Diandra, to try to insulate their son, 13-year-old Cameron. The family spends much of every summer on their farm in Spain where, 34-year-old Diandra says, their son can get “out of this milieu, and get a better grip on reality.”
“You know, I grew up seeing my father’s insecurities, and seeing my father’s friends’ insecurities. So on one side you learn to conduct yourself in this mature kind of way, but, on the other side, you lose the magic of really succeeding, as if it were special, rather than what’s expected of you.”
Maybe this is why Douglas would do a film like Basic Instinct — to raise the stakes, to push the boundary of that success ever further into new terrain. Basic Instinct‘s Nick Curran is another, blacker shade of the darkness that has colored his most successful roles, from Fatal Attraction and Wall Street to Black Rain. “You do parts where you show your flaws, but the audience understands,” Douglas says. “They’re willing to go with your struggle for redemption.”
This time, though, he’s worried the audience may not go with him. Protesters have dogged the project since it began shooting in San Francisco (one group on opening night stopped traffic in Los Angeles with placards of Douglas’ face stamped “misogynist” and “homophobic”). Certainly, they couldn’t care less about Nick Curran’s redemption.
Through all the controversy, Douglas has turned his coolest, most professional face to the cameras, repeating “I can’t be politically correct” like a mantra. But deep in some übersoft corner of his soul, the criticism bugs him. “I got in shape and I just wanted to do a sexy, cop psychothriller,” he confesses. “The gay issue really took me by surprise. I don’t see anybody in the movie being upset because anybody’s bisexual or gay or anything else. Catherine’s bisexuality was just an interesting twist. If you’re going to deal in this detective genre, which has been done to death, you have to look for different twists.”
But his frustration with the protests runs deeper. “This is a difficult time right now — a time to get closer,” he says sadly. He seems to be groping, trying to sketch out the dialogue he wishes he could have with the movie’s detractors. “Rather than trying to point out our differences, we should be trying to find out what our similarities are. Be kind to each other…”
“This is what’s depressing to me,” Douglas finally says. “This is a detective smut novel, this thing is. That’s all it is. Listen to this bulls —. Jesus, give me a break.” The whole project is too trivial to justify the protesters’ passions, he seems to be saying, or perhaps, to justify his own. Yet he knows that Basic Instinct, like many of his other films, is hitting a nerve so newly exposed that we don’t quite know where it is, or what it means. And this time, he’s not sure he likes it.
The poised, charming movie star has vanished. “I don’t know if this guy was worth saving,” he says of his character. “I don’t know if his soul was worth saving. That was a big problem with this picture — Paul never solved the problem that this guy is evil. He’s an evil motherf—er. There has to be somebody who’s good. You can’t all be bad. That’s the big problem, you know what I’m saying? He’s an evil motherf—er — he’s dark, he’s a f—ing killer.”
“But does he deserve to be stabbed to death with an ice pick?” I ask.
“No,” says Douglas, and keeps on saying it, “no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
The postpremiere party is in full swing at the Sony Studios commissary. I’m asking Paul Verhoeven why the Motion Picture Association of America didn’t allow Catherine’s very vocal orgasm into the R-rated version of Basic Instinct, and he tells me it wasn’t so much the orgasm they objected to as the amount of “moving” that Douglas was doing on top of her at the time.
“What do you call that ‘moving,'” Verhoeven happily asks in his Dutch accent, “that men do there?” And he does little bump-and-grind moves with his hands to illustrate the question.
“Humping?” I reply quietly.
“Humping!” he says joyously, and then looks across the large room toward Douglas, who’s shuffling around, shaking hands, and taking compliments.
“Michael!” yells Verhoeven. “Humping!” And he does that little dance again with his hands.
Douglas lifts his hand in our direction, but it’s not clear whether he’s happily acknowledging receipt of the message or brushing Verhoeven off. We can just see him smile, though, when the sea of his peers suddenly washes over him, and he’s lost from view.