Marc Eliot | Michael Douglas: A Biography (Crown Archetype)

douglas bioThe “love stories” found here between successful fathers and sons who feel inferior to them are a psychologist’s dream.


I had expected that Michael Douglas would get more than 286 pages on his remarkable life from prolific celeb biographer Marc Eliot. Eliot’s books on Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant (both subtitled simply “A Biography” also) are doorstops. But then Douglas, despite the fact that he seems to have been around forever, has just turned 68, so he hasn’t lived as long as Stewart and Grant, and there’s less to tell. Nor was he a war hero like Jimmy or a much-married, sexually ambiguous icon like Cary. The other possibility for the book’s relative brevity, however, is that Eliot found absolutely no primary sources willing to talk to him about Douglas except Brenda Vaccaro, an actress now in her mid-70s who lived with Douglas for six years when he was in his twenties, and a few unnamed “friends,” one of whose identity isn’t too hard to figure out. It is much more difficult to get people to talk about the living than the dead.

So, this book seems almost more a scholarly study of the celebrity, only without the “scholar” part. Oh, there’s the Oedipal stuff you’d expect. In fact, speculations about the difficulty that Michael had growing up, both personally and professionally in the shadow of his father, Spartacus—I mean Kirk—is repeated often, as are many observations. My guess is that Eliot wasn’t able to get enough material to work with to make the younger Douglas seem like a flesh-and-blood human being. And that’s too bad, because his life has been both interesting and, in some ways, rather odd, especially in his choices of films and wives. The story of his first marriage to 19-year-old Diandra (Douglas was 32 when they married after knowing each other one a few weeks), which lasted on paper for 20 years, is particularly strange.

Douglas was the product of divorce himself, although his parents remained friendly, but his father has acknowledged in the several books he has written since mostly retiring from acting, that he was absent. Michael’s grownup son Cameron has had serious problems with addiction and is now in prison. Both Douglas dads take a lot of the blame for their sons’ poor choices and/or tainted gene pool when it comes to addiction. But mostly, they beat their breasts because they were not there for their sons in childhood when they needed them most. Kirk Douglas was 27 when Michael was born, and Michael became a father at 33, so both were deeply immersed in their careers. In Kirk’s case, his behavior might not have seemed out of place because it was a different time. His being absent was difficult for Michael, his younger brother Joel, and of course, his mother, actress Diana Dill Darrid, but work taking precedence for men wasn’t notable in the ’40s and ’50s. For Michael, raising Cameron in the ’70s and ’80s, more would have been expected but not much was delivered.

Michael also copied his dad’s womanizing ways, and since he is older, has weathered a life-threatening illness (so far) and is married to one of the most beautiful women on the planet, Catherine Zeta Jones, 25 years to the day his junior; he seems to have settled down at last. But then so has Warren Beatty, and I suppose for these playas, a certain increase in maturity and drop in testosterone finally housebreaks them. He and Zeta Jones have two more young children to whom he is much closer than he was with the beleaguered Cameron.

I suppose whether you sympathize with Michael Douglas depends upon your own values, and if you empathize with him, then you are probably rich, handsome, and influential. And male. But it wasn’t always easy for Michael and his still-living 95-year-old dad, and while the elder Douglas has mellowed a lot, he still seems somewhat clueless. The “love stories” found here between successful fathers and sons who feel inferior to them are a psychologist’s dream. Kirk once said to him, “Michael, I was watching one of my old movies on television last night and, you know, I couldn’t remember the movie at all… And then I realized, hey, it wasn’t me, it was you.” Not very sensitive. But then Michael notes, “Every kid has to kick his father in the balls,” and I think it’s fair to say that Michael did just that.

There’s not a lot of dish here, although some names are mentioned. Perhaps most surprising are the women Douglas didn’t have affairs with, such as Glenn Close and Sharon Stone, at least not off-camera with the latter, because they are the co-stars of his two most overtly sexual movies, the iconic Fatal Attraction and the one with the beaver shot heard ’round the world, Basic Instinct. The book is divided into the many faces of Michael: producer (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which netted him an Oscar—and a lifelong snit pitched by Kirk), action hero, sex symbol, and so on.

His career has had a number of ups and downs, but it has never been possible to count him out. Kirk Douglas found his career basically over when he aged out of action-hero leads; Michael, on the other hand, has done some of his best work, albeit much less of it, since he reached middle age. Most notably, he won his acting Oscar, something that eluded his father entirely, for Wall Street at the age 45. Kirk Douglas may have been “The Champion,” the title of the movie that informed his career as a tough guy, but Michael Douglas, the better actor and smarter businessman, has gone the distance.

If you’re a celebrity biography fan, this won’t be the most informative, and certainly not the most gossipy, book you’ll read, but for an analysis of a life and career based almost entirely on research, it is still relatively engrossing. Also, if you’ve ever wondered what a producer does and how all that works, as I have, this is an informative account of that end of the business. I don’t think this is the definitive biography, but that will come later when the subject isn’t around to object. | Andrea Braun

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