His turn as Lib­er­ace in Steven Soder­burgh’s biopic has the crit­ics rav­ing. Michael Dou­glas tells Don­ald Clarke about his por­trayal of the camp pi­ano man, his own brush with can­cer and Hol­ly­wood’s con­tin­u­ing prob­lem with gay roles

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

If you’re talk­ing to Michael Dou­glas about play­ing Lib­er­ace the wrong place to meet would be a tat­tered bus shel­ter on the out­skirts of a sink es­tate. You need some­where with a bit of glam­our. We could not have hoped for bet­ter than the Hô­tel du Cap in An­tibes on the French Riviera. Some dis­tance from Cannes, where Steven Soder­bergh’s Be­hind the Can­de­labra is play­ing in com­pe­ti­tion, the sprawl­ing lux­ury lo­ca­tion was the model for the Hô­tel des Étrangers in F Scott Fitzger­ald’s Ten­der is the Night. A Travel Tav­ern it is not.

Mr Dou­glas joins your hard-work­ing cor­re­spon­dent in a sort of lux­ury tent that opens onto an im­pos­si­bly pic­turesque view of the bay. Yachts the size of frigates (lit­er­ally, for all I know) jos­tle for space in a sea the colour of lapis lazuli.

Dou­glas looks ev­ery one of his 69 years. Re­cently re­cov­ered from throat can­cer, he sports deep wrin­kles set in wor­ried skin that em­pha­sises the ab­surd white­ness of his im­mac­u­late Chi­clet teeth.

But he seems in very good form. Be­hind the Can­de­labra, which de­tails the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the flam­boy­ant pi­anist and a naive tearaway named Scott Thor­son, has just screened to ec­static re­views. Both he and Matt Da­mon, who plays Thor­son, have been sin­gled out for par­tic­u­lar praise.

“I guess I was ner­vous be­cause he was a big guy, a Po­lack,” Dou­glas says. “He was barrel-chested. One thigh was the size of both of mine. His hands were huge. I’m not an im­per­son­ator. How do you cap­ture all that?”

Very ef­fec­tively as it hap­pens. Made for the HBO tele­vi­sion net­work, the film fol­lows Thor­son as he meets Lib­er­ace and, af­ter an­other young man is ejected, be­comes in­stalled as chauf­feur, live-in lover, sec­re­tary and sur­gi­cally en­hanced off­spring. There is hu­mour here. But it’s a dis­turb­ing film. Dou­glas’s jeal­ous, ma­nip­u­la­tive show­man em­ploys plas­tic sur­geons to re­make Scott in his im­age. Fur­ther ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour fol­lows.

You will not need to be told that Michael is the son of the ap­par­ently in­de­struc­tible Kirk Dou­glas. His dad and Lib­er­ace – both su­per­novae in the post-war years – in­evitably rubbed up against one an­other. Did Michael ever meet Lee (as the pi­anist was known to pals)?

“I met him once en pas­sant in Palm Springs at a cor­ner,” he says. “My fa­ther was in his car and a guy came past in a Rolls Royce. I re­mem­ber it was a con­vert­ible with the top down. The light was bounc­ing off his skin and his hair was per­fect. Now I know it was a wig.” This was, he thinks, about 1956. “The nice thing about this part is that I am play­ing a nice guy. I don’t get to play nice guys that of­ten. He was so gen­er­ous. He was such a nice fel­low.”

Now, hold on a mo­ment. Ear­lier in the day, I bumped into Jerry Wein­traub, pro­ducer of the film. He also spun the line that Be­hind the Can­de­labra deals with a nice guy who some­times be­haved a tad dis­grace­fully. But the film strikes me as be­ing un­remit­tingly mer­ci­less in its treat­ment of Lib­er­ace. He moulds Scott into a play­thing, then dis­cards him with­out any ap­par­ent re­morse. The Lib­er­ace seen in Can­de­labra is some­thing of a mon­ster.

“Well, he was when things turned,” Dou­glas says. “He did not like un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions. When Scott be­came a drug addict, it was dis­taste­ful. He did give him a for­tune in jewellery. But he re­neged on the house he bought Scott. He was liti­gious. But we know enough guys who like young blonde bimbo girls. They know what they are get­ting into. They also get gifts and so on. But there’s al­ways a pay­off.”

Dou­glas knows about the ups and downs of the busi­ness. The son of Kirk’s first wife, Dina Dill (also still with us), he grew up shoul­der­ing a ter­ri­fy­ing weight of ex­pec­ta­tion. But he was also primed for the many dis­ap­point­ments that darken life in show busi­ness. Happily, there have not been too many of those. As long ago as 1975, he won an Os­car as pro­ducer of One Dou­glas with Matt Da­mon in Be­hind the Can­de­labra; age 25 on the set of Adam at Six AM; with wife Cather­ine Zeta-Jones and kids Dy­lan and Carys at Univer­sal Or­lando last Novem­ber Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A long run­ning part in the TV se­ries The Streets of San Fran­cisco led on to big-league movie star­dom in the 1980s and 1990s with such hits as Wall Street, Fa­tal At­trac­tion and Ba­sic Instinct. No­body is bet­ter at play­ing un­trust­wor­thy creeps.

“That’s the big­gest ad­van­tage of be­ing sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion,” he says. “My fa­ther was a movie star. So I do think of it as a busi­ness. There are won­der­ful ben­e­fits. There is none of that look­ing at the busi­ness through a quartz glass. I don’t know any­thing else. The thing that’s changed most is prob­a­bly the dig­i­tal press: elec­tronic cam­eras, phones and so on.

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