There’s a lack of privacy.”
Indeed, Michael and his wife, Catherine Zeta Jones, had to take action against a stalker some years ago. He has, in fact, passed through all of the key crises that assail the average movie star. In 1980, he had to withdraw from acting after a serious skiing accident. A decade later, he underwent rehabilitation for alcoholism and drug addiction. In Behind the Candelabra, Michael gets to deliver one of Liberace’s great trademark quips: “Too much of a good thing is . . . wonderful!”
That can hardly be Douglas’s own catchphrase today.
“It might have at one time. But certainly not any more,” he says. “Because you get a little older and a little more conservative. You don’t necessarily push yourself to the boundaries as you might have when you were younger.”
The cancer experience must also have influenced his decision to slow down.
“You emerge a different person,” he says. “The illness itself is one thing. You have to monitor your alcohol. You choose not to be around smoke. That helped with the joy in performing that Lee had. For me the joy came out of being cancer free, from being able to work again. I’m so grateful this gift had been handed to me. It’s one of the best parts I have ever had.”
At an earlier press conference, Douglas broke down when discussing his pleasure at bouncing back with Behind the Candelabra. The team was ready to make the film when he was diagnosed and (Hollywood does occasionally deal in loyalty) decided to shelve the project until he recovered. Looking at the result, one can understand why Douglas was so keen to persevere. Yet there was a time when every A-list actor would run a mile from playing a gay role.
“As actors, we earn the right to do whatever we do,” he says. “I don’t owe anybody anything. I am sure Matt feels the same way. He’s a lot braver than I am. He’s in he prime of his career.” Now this is an interesting comment. Can it still be the case that playing a gay role puts actors in a “dangerous” position? Well, it has been reported in many places that all the major movie studios turned down Behind the Candelabra because it was “too gay”. HBO eventually took up the film for cable TV, but it will not go on theatrical release in the United States. (One hopes its appearance at Cannes and subsequent cinematic unveiling in Europe will cause those sceptical studio heads some embarrassment.)
I wonder whether Douglas would have accepted such a role 20 years ago.
“No, not in the prime of my career,” he says, with admirable frankness. “I wouldn’t have taken this role. I would have been scared in terms of where everything was at in the gay situation 20 years ago. We’ve come a long way. I don’t know. Matt is in the prime of his career and he didn’t even think about it. But there are not a lot of guys who, in Matt’s position, wouldn’t blink when offered that part even now.”
But why, exactly? Is the industry still so blinkered that playing a gay role could rule you out of future romantic leads? It seems absurd.
“It’s an identity that you might still be nervous about,” Douglas shrugs.
The role also presented more than a few technical difficulties. Liberace may have produced the cheesiest music imaginable, but there is little doubt that he knew his way around a keyboard. In the opening sections we see Michael zip through a boogie woogie with astonishing dexterity. It looks as if he’s now a bit of a maestro himself.
“I am not an accomplished piano player,” he laughs. “Steven originally gave me a piano teacher. But I said: ‘Promise me you can use a piece that we have Lee playing on film, so that I can copy it.’ So, I spent hours getting that right. I reckoned if the hands were in the right place only a few people would realise that I wasn’t doing it.”
Though he still looks a little delicate, Douglas seems to regard Behind the Candelabra as his first step on a new journey through life. There have been a few of those. It rather takes one aback to note that he has now been married to Zeta Jones for well over a decade. They have two children.
“I drifted away from acting. I have been married for 13 years, but I still consider myself in a new marriage,” he says, rather quaintly. “I never anticipated starting a new family and I have really enjoyed raising my kids. My priorities are completely different.”
One can’t help but return to that bout with cancer. Such an ordeal must colour every subsequent experience.
“I lost several people I know recently. Larry Hagman died recently from the same cancer,” he says, glancing at the vast carpet of blue behind my shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah. You smell the roses a bit more.”