Here’s a fun exercise that illuminates various generational and communicational chasms: go find someone under the age of twenty-nine and try explaining Michael Douglas to them. I mean, really explaining him. I’m not presuming you know the man personally. (Or that you have seen The Kominsky Method.) Who among us could claim to know what fires his soul? No, I’m saying try explaining to someone who wasn’t necessarily around to witness the phenomenon just what a massive, extravagant star Michael Douglas really was. It’s a little difficult, no? It had something to do with his charisma, I’m pretty sure, but that charisma was rather of-its-time: that moment from the late 80s into say the mid-to-late 90s when the men—or at least the ones people seemed to like seeing on screen—were wiry, jackets were boxy, money came in fast and loose, and sex was everything—mind you, a very niche vision of sex, built around the generally self-regarding and aggrieved worldviews of the aforementioned wiry men.
Into that arena came a champion. Okay, champion might be too strong a word, but he really did grab your attention, didn’t he? In retrospect it all seems preordained, but it didn’t have to be that way. Yes, Michael Douglas was born into Hollywood royalty. And yes, his first big break came when Kirk Douglas acquired and gifted the film rights to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to his then twenty-something son, who really hadn’t done much with his life up to that point. The idea was that Michael, dutiful son and relative Hollywood greenhorn, would, as producer, make sure at the very least that his superstar father was cast in the leading role. Wait…you thought Michael Douglas was going to do that? Think again. He cut the old man loose. Told him he had aged out of the McMurphy role. Sorry, pops, we’re going with a twenty-seven year-old livewire named Jack Nicholson.
Edging your own father out of his pet project— that’s just a glimpse into the serrated soul you’re getting when you come up to a Michael Douglas picture.
But I’m digressing.
I don’t want to give you a full Michael Douglas biography here. Let’s just say that after the success producing Cuckoo’s Nest, which earned him an Oscar, he spent a few years toiling in TV land, co-starring in a police procedural called The Streets of San Francisco. Eventually he quit the show to make his leap to the big screen and came out first with a supporting role in the medical thriller, Coma (adapted from the Robin Cook novel, another literary juggernaut), then really got into gear with his first big vehicle. (His production company was called Bigstick Productions—honestly, given what we know about Douglas, I really don’t want to interrogate that company name too closely.) That thriller, The China Syndrome, though seldom seen today, was one that neatly captured the spirit of conspiracy-laden 1970s cinema and brought in quite a few Academy Award nominations. It launched Douglas into the big time and within a few years he was a bona fide leading man. By the mid-80s, he was an A-lister, and the rest is history, although try explaining that history to someone weaned on the streaming services.
What I’m trying to say is they don’t make them like Michael Douglas anymore. That might well be a good thing in the bigger cultural picture, but by God some of those movies were exhilarating, and who else could have played them except Michael Douglas? (Possibly Laurence Fishburne, now that I think of it. Right? You can kind of see it, can’t you? But that’s really a topic for another article: How come Laurence Fishburne wasn’t an even bigger star in the 1990s? Why did we have to wait for The Matrix to fully cement his reputation? Table that for a while and let’s get back to Douglas.)
This is a modest little project. Here, in my opinion, are the five thrillers that explain who Michael Douglas was and why he ruled Hollywood for a brief heyday. Actually it wasn’t even that brief. The man had a two decade run at the top. And these are only the thrillers! Where possible, I will make mention of several other Michael Douglas films you could be watching to complement the thrillers, because really how are you going to capture the man’s spirit without also discussing Andrew Shepherd and Sydney Ellen Wade?
The China Syndrome (1979)
To close out the 1970s, Douglas got in just in time with his big political thriller, and it has all the eery prescience you could want. Douglas is in a supporting role, playing behind Jane Fonda’s TV reporter and Jack Lemmon’s shift supervisor at a Southern California nuclear facility. This one’s a disaster thriller, and it centers around the idea of shoddy construction and casual corruption in the nuclear energy sector. Needless to say, the nuclear lobby was not pleased and set up an advance campaign framing the movie as irresponsible and implausible, and then about a week after the premiere…the Three Mile Island nuclear accident went down in Pennsylvania. As for the movie, it brought in a slew of Oscar nominations and positioned Douglas—seen here in one of his bearded roles—as a Hollywood player on the rise.
Romancing the Stone (1984)
Does anyone watch Romancing the Stone anymore? I’m genuinely asking, because they might want to. (It’s currently streaming on HBO Max.) For those who need a refresher, this 1984 adventure thriller lands somewhere between an Indiana Jones movie, a screwball comedy, a Hitchcock travel flick, and a postmodern farce. It was written by Diane Thomas—who was killed in a car accident before she got another movie made, but was on her way to superstardom, working with Spielberg and getting drafted into the Indiana Jones franchise—and directed by Robert Zemeckis. But back to Douglas…wait, before we get to Douglas, how about Kathleen Turner? Was anyone more electric than she was for this stretch of the 80s? Between Body Heat (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), plus its sequel, Jewel of the Nile (1987), plus The War of the Roses (1989), who owned that decade more than Turner?
Okay, now back to Michael…The plot for this movie is a mess beyond description. It’s zany, that’s the point. But basically Turner plays a successful romance novelist who treks to Colombia and into the jungle and is there rescued / tormented by an exotic bird smuggler—that’s right, an exotic bird smuggler—played by Douglas, who handles a machete with some real aplomb and along the way gets to hone his soon-to-be signature rapport with Turner. Between this one, the sequel, and The War of the Roses (which would have been on this list, but isn’t quite a thriller; it’s more of a domestic violence comedy, if you can believe that), the pair was setting screens on fire for quite a stretch, and this is when Douglas really cemented himself as that strange piece of sex symbolism that we can’t quite explain to today’s younger generations.
Wall Street (1987)
I have relatively little to say about Wall Street because I suspect it’s the best known of Douglas’s thriller performances, not necessarily because all that many people are watching the film these days (they might be, I really don’t know), but just because the movie—especially Douglas’s turn as Gordon Gekko— has entered the cultural lexicon and come to represent something far larger and more enduring than the simple story of bud Fox. It really is quite a performance by Douglas, though: all quiet menace and distasteful charisma. You just know that guy isn’t going to do right by the unions, don’t you? Assuming you’re pretty familiar with Wall Street, which really is a thriller when you boil it down, I’d suggest pairing this one with A Chorus Line (1985), the psychosexual musical in which Douglas plays a Broadway producer with more than a little in common with Gekko. In fact I would say the two performances together embody just about everything that made Douglas so effective at playing svengali roles. Plus you’re getting peak 80s culture all around when you watch these movies side-by-side. High finance, hostile takeovers, and show business!
Fatal Attraction (1987)
This movie really belongs to Glenn Close. So maybe, in retrospect, that was one of the appeals of Douglas—he played opposite great actors and helped them shine? No, that’s not it. Glenn Close didn’t need anybody’s help to overwhelm this movie with her magnificent, dramatically unhinged presence, but we’re going to put it into the Douglas column, anyway, because the movie was just an absolute phenomenon, earning more than any other picture in 1987 (over $300 million at the box office) and bringing in a slew of Oscar nominations, including one for Close (she lost the Best Actress award to Cher, for Moonstruck).
In case you need a refresher, this is the story of a New York City attorney whose wife and kid go away for the weekend. He has an affair with a book editor. He tries to break it off with the book editor and…well, she’s not having it. She comes for him, his apartment, his family, his rabbit—everything. He goes so far as to move to Westchester to get away from her. Westchester! But there’s just no stopping her.
The movie is obviously taking its cues from Cape Fear (and maybe the Halloween franchise), with its unstoppable, ineffable villain threatening the family sanctum, but it also sort of low-key invented a new kind of erotic thriller, one that’s crossed up with horror and exploitation tropes, proving incredibly popular with audiences throughout the 80s and 90s. In fact, Douglas made those movies something of a personal trademark for a time, going on to make Basic Instinct (1992), Disclosure (1994) A Perfect Murder (1998), all deeply troubling movies with really disturbing sexual and power politics that we’re not going to get into here because they require a full and frank examination in their own right, and honestly I just don’t know how much of it to pin on Douglas versus, say, Paul Verhoeven (director of Basic Instinct, which did some really terrible things to Sharon Stone) or Barry Levinson (director of Disclosure, which casts Demi Moore as the office sexual harasser and Douglas as the gaslit aggrieved… seriously).
So all this is to say that if you want to check out an erotic thriller starring Michael Douglas, and I would say that is a potentially valid desire, you should probably watch Glenn Close’s Fatal Attraction and then maybe afterwards if you’re still in the mood you could try A Perfect Murder, which has some nice performances from Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen and is a loose remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954).
The Game (1997)
David Fincher has many talents as a filmmaker; one is his knack for making interesting casting decisions. In particular he tends to go for actors who bring to the movie some preexisting relationship with the audience—a reputation, let’s call it, or a persona—something that Fincher can spend the next two to three hours manipulating and subverting. Think about Ben Affleck turn in Gone Girl (2014), or Jodie Foster in Panic Room (2002). Or, more on topic here, let’s think about Michael Douglas in The Game.
Fincher’s 1997 psychological thriller is all about upending expectations, and that starts from the jump when we see Michael Douglas in the leading role. He’s playing an old money industry titan in a moodily lit 1990s San Francisco, whose brother (played with a lunatic intensity by Sean Penn) shows up in town on his birthday with an invitation to a mysterious game that will soon turn out to be an elaborate and all-encompassing form of mental torture and possibly also robbery, with quite a few apparent deaths thrown in for good measure. Douglas begins as we expect—the unflappable star, then slowly descends into his own private hell. And more than anything, what Douglas manages to convey is this sense that he can’t quite believe this is happening to him—to him of all people! It’s that subtle sense of confidence and entitlement—a self-possession Douglas honed through decades of stardom—that Fincher is running through the ringer in this bizarre and memorable thriller. The movie, for the record, is just absolutely riddled with logical inconsistencies and misdirections that don’t quite hang together, but you know what, it really doesn’t matter. For all the bells and whistles, for the totally insane ending sequence, this is a movie about the unraveling of Michael Douglas. A pretty fitting capstone to his twenty year run as a superstar.
So there you have it: the five Michael Douglas thrillers that capture the uncanny experience that was Michael Douglas. Maybe you want more? I’m not going to recommend Falling Down (1993) for a number of reasons, but if you really wanted you could go watch that one paired with Behind the Candelabra (2013) and have yourself an odd, provocative evening. Or you could do the right thing and just settle into an evening with The American President (1995). Just watch Michael trying to order some flowers—pretty good, right?