Michael Douglas is no stranger to the Cannes Film Festival. He first appeared there 44 years ago for the edge-of-the-seat – and some would say prophetic – nuclear disaster thriller The China Syndrome.
He followed that 13 years later with the steamy murder drama Basic Instinct, that thrust Sharon Stone into the public eye, and, in 2012, raised eyebrows and touched hearts with his surprisingly tender portrayal of over-the-top pianist Liberace in Behind The Candelabra.
Along the way, of course, he’s garnered just one or two little other professional accolades – like, for instance, two Oscars (Best Picture for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976 and Best Actor for Wall Street in 1988), five Golden Globes and myriad others.
So it was fitting that this year, at the 76th Cannes Festival, the 78-year-old actor should receive arguably its most prestigious prize, the coveted Honorary Palme d’Or in recognition of his brilliant career, both acting in front of the camera, and producing behind it.
The audience burst into tumultuous applause when Michael, silver-haired and elegant as ever, took to the stage, to declare firmly, “There’s only one Cannes,” before adding, with his trademark wry humour: “I’m even older than the Festival!”
The day after the ceremony, relaxing in the elegant Salon des Ambassadeurs at the Palais des Festivals, he acknowledged feeling privileged at receiving the award.
“I feel I have a good batting average,” he says modestly. “To use a baseball term, I can’t say they’ve all been home runs –
obviously, we all have our failures, and I have movies that I’ve worked on and love, that nobody has seen.
“But I have a lot of hits, too, and – to continue the baseball analogy – if I were to be a batter, I feel I’d be about the third up. Overall, I’m proud. I’m very proud.”
Cannes has not always been successful for him and Basic Instinct, in 1992, was met with mixed reactions. The film’s famously steamy sex scenes left the festival audience – to coin a phrase – stone cold.
“The screen was almost too big for what was going on!” he recalls.
“I remember the dinner afterwards was very quiet – nobody quite knew what to say after that. But that’s all right. Sharon Stone had a fabulous, wonderful part, and she was great in it.”
One of the aspects Michael most loves about Cannes is the lack of rivalry bet-ween actors and filmmakers. It’s “only the joy of the cinema” that he feels.
“And I love the fact that, in Cannes, people are happy for you, no matter what country you’re from,” he adds. “One of the dangers of social media is it can separate us, and I think we all need to have something to bring us closer as human beings. I find Cannes has always been friendly and supportive to everyone.”
He explains how he has a very personal connection to the festival. It was here, back in the 1950s, that his father, the legendary actor Kirk Douglas, a couple of years divorced from Michael’s mother Diana, met a pretty French journalist called Anne. Later, with Anne, Kirk would forge one of the most famously happy marriages in Hollywood.
“Anne was a publicist here at the festival. She worked with him and that started it,” Michael continues. “Anne was my stepmother for 63 years, and I was very close to her and loved her very much. She and my mother were close too, so I benefited from having step-parents who all liked each other.”
Born in New Jersey, in 1944, and schooled in New York City, Massachusetts and Connecticut, Michael later studied dramatic art at university in California.
His father, who died in 2020, was one of the most celebrated US actors of the 20th century thanks to roles in films such as Spartacus, Paths of Glory, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Heroes of Telemark.
Michael has revealed that his relationship with Kirk – which became closer as both men grew older – had been rocky in his youth. “In the beginning there was a certain resentment,” he explains.
“He was starting his career before TV was even around, and it wasn’t unusual for him to do six, seven movies a year. So he was working all the time and he really didn’t have a lot of time for his family.
“I think I probably resented it until I got old enough to have my own family and understand a little better. And then I thought, ‘He wasn’t so bad after all’. Then, later in life, he changed, and we had a very, very close relationship. I felt very, very fortunate.”
Michael admits that, for all its drawbacks, being the son of so prominent and successful a father did also carry its advantages.
“If you’re in the second generation of film actors, you get to see how the first generation are socially,” he explains.
“You get to see my father and his friends, and his friends are people like Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck. You get to see them as
real people, with all their insecurities and their foibles. I also saw how hard my father worked. I saw the tenacity, I saw the strength. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to see a project through all the way, not to lose confidence, not to lose faith. He was quite an extraordinary guy.”
Michael says one of his father’s smartest moves, professionally, was to surround himself with “the best possible actors”.
This, he explains, was far more important to him than worrying about how prominent his own film roles would be.
“Paul Newman did this a lot, too,” Michael adds. “He wasn’t worried about being upstaged. His feeling is, if they have the part, let them go with it. Because the more good people you have acting around you, the more you’ll ride with them.”
It’s a spirit of generosity that has bled over into Michael’s career as a film producer.
“You try to make everybody else as good as they can be,” he says of his management tactics. “Don’t try to undermine them or take away from them.”
Michael learned similar lessons from Karl Malden, his co-star in The Streets of San Francisco, the 1970s police drama which originally made him a household name.
“We’d have guest actors come to work on the show and they’d always be a little more nervous, so you’d want to encourage them and help them to relax,” he recalls. Michael has three grown-up children, and it’s clear the acting gene has been passed on to them.
Forty-four-year-old Cameron, son of his first wife Diandra, is a talented actor, who, after spending some time in jail for drug possession, is now returning to the screen with roles in films such as the Bruce Willis thriller Wire Room.
And the children he has with British actress Catherine Zeta-Jones – Dylan, 22, and Carys, 20 – are both set on theatrical careers. “That’s a real testament to their grandfather, I think,” says Michael proudly.
“They were all very close to him – and, I guess, to me, too. To think there could be a third generation…Acting is a wonderful existence, but it’s not all autographs and sunglasses – it’s really, really hard work.”
Interestingly, Michael has only ever once appeared on the big screen alongside Catherine, and that was in the 2000 movie, Traffic, about the narcotics trade.
“We were in different parts of the film, and Catherine was pregnant with Carys at the time,” he adds.
Might we ever see husband and wife sharing the screen again? “I think we should find something to do,” Michael says teasingly. “You wouldn’t want to see us lovey-dovey, so maybe a remake of The War Of The Roses.”
Fans will remember that 1989 black comedy where Michael famously played husband to Kathleen Turner in a bitter divorce battle. Michael smiles mischievously: “Catherine would be a great one to go at that with.”
Watch this space.
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