Michael Douglas: Victim Victorious

Well-Fed Yuppie Michael Douglas Lead Charge for Resentful White Men

“Why don’t I just be that guy, that evil white guy you’re always complaining about?”
— Michael Douglas, Disclosure

Was that a threat or a bleat? Or was it only the satisfied acknowl­edgment of a smart career move? Improbable as it may seem, Michael Douglas currently commands a per-picture salary of some $15 million just to play That Evil White Guy You’re Always Com­plaining About.

American movies are the R&D of American politics. To be a reigning male icon is to promote a social agenda — ­it goes with the territory. John Wayne personified anticommunism at home and in the ‘Nam, Clint Eastwood was the original law-and-or­der licensed vigilante, Sylvester Stallone achieved stardom as Mr. White (Ethnic) Backlash. Arnold Schwarzenegger embodied the global triumph of American capital, but the world-historic role Michael Douglas has assigned himself is something like der Arnold in reverse.

A well-fed yuppie with a face that bobs and weaves around the frame, pretending to menace the camera like a kid’s clenched fist, Douglas has perfected his ability to pro­ject a glowering sense of aggrieved, put-upon masculinity. Taking on the de­fense of home, hearth, and career against a succession of castrating women, not to mention menacing minority groups and ascendant nationalities, Dou­glas has elected himself patron-saint of America’s leading special interest group. He is the heroic, resentful, white-guy, white-col­lar, heterosexual vic­tim, the social hiero­glyph and talk-show staple we might call the Mighty Kvetch. “Sexual harassment is about power. When did I have the power?” Douglas wails in Disclosure. “When?”

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AMERICAN HEROES ARE STOIC BY NATURE. As the leading protagonist of the bedroom horror genre that Fatal Attraction established, if not invented, back in the Reagan autumn of 1987, Douglas taught men to whine. The quintessential Douglas vehicle is an inverted Gothic romance in which women overcome men and bodice-ripping is a source of masculine pain — or even, in the case of Basic In­stinct (1992), death. The quintessential Douglas scene transforms a cozy home or congenial work space into an arena of mortal combat. As his godlike father Kirk Douglas battled fellow gladiator Woody Strode mano a mano in Spartacus, so Michael strips down to grapple with such harridan temptresses as the Medusa-permed Glenn Close, voracious man-eater Kathleen Turner, “fuck of the cen­tury” Sharon Stone, and big-haired Demi Moore in a custom-built Wonderbra.

A figure of fantastic, self-parodic, gangster­ish drive, the senior Douglas embodied a healthy measure of America’s post-World War II strength. Back in the ’50s, when men were men and women knew their place, he slaughtered screenfuls of Vikings, Romans, and Indians. Douglas pere was the closest thing to a Jewish John Wayne. Regularly parodied by Frank Gor­shin as a hoarse, tic-ridden, volatile neurotic, Kirk was perhaps the ’50s most aggressive action star. The younger Douglas brings his father’s (or maybe Gorshin’s) teeth-clenched, anguished in­tensity to the representation of sex-whimper­ing protests even as he’s being fellated.

American tough guys are notoriously in­expressive. In the course of his sweaty, grab-ass copulations, Douglas dramatizes every cliché about erotic torment as well as the inherent ridiculousness of (other people’s) passion. Fa­tal Attraction features Douglas and Close go­ing at each other as she perches on the ledge of a dish-filled sink. In Basic In­stinct, Douglas brings Jeanne Tripplehorn home, slams her against a wall, kisses her, rips apart her underwear, smooches her again, then pushes her facedown onto a chair and takes her from behind. (“You’ve never been like that be­fore,” she observes grumpily.) As der Arnold might tear apart a phone book, Douglas simi­larly rends the panties off Moore’s body dou­ble in Disclosure, while they clank around her high-tech office like a pair of amorous robots.

The American leading man is never thrown for an erotic loss. But Douglas always manages to win the battle and forfeit the war — invariably these actresses displace him from the movie’s center. The struggle is even biologically determined. As one guy observes in Disclosure, “They’re stronger, they’re smarter, and they don’t fight fair.” The dazed recognition that life is unequal — this is the source of Douglas’s pathos.

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MICHAEL DOUGLAS’S DEMOGRAPHIC PEERS include far more talented actors: Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, to name three. Even Harrison Ford and Richard Drey­fuss exude greater screen warmth. Yet the more limited some actors are, the deeper they burrow into audience fantasies, the less apt they may be to push themselves, the easier they find it to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist.

“Charlton Heston is an axiom,” Michael Mourlet wrote 35 years ago in a once-notori­ous Cahiers du Cinema manifesto defending violence on the screen. “By himself (Heston) constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty.” Michael Douglas is likewise an axiom — even if his particular tragedy usually veers closer to farce and the beauty of his presence is a matter of some dispute.

Audiences pay to gawk at Arnold’s larger-than-life, indestructible will to power. Douglas, while no less ecce homo, more naturalistically regards his oppressors with fear and loathing, trafficking in humiliation and payback. Un­charismatic as he is, Douglas wouldn’t be any­body’s first choice as a leading man. But a true star is to some degree self-invented, having intuited a need that no one had articulated before. Indeed, it’s the sense of faintly obnoxious second-rateness that makes him such a perfect patsy for his powerhouse leading ladies.

Douglas is a selective demagogue. It appears to be part of his marketing strategy to bait women with his sexist complaints, or to pick on immigrants and the homeless, or boast of his courageously unfashionable attitudes. “You don’t have time to get politically correct,” is how he explained Basic Instinct‘s primal appeal. “Which is what movies are about, emotional catharsis.” So-called political cor­rectness has no place in fantasy — or anywhere else, for that matter. In flacking Falling Down, Douglas declared, perhaps more in sorrow than anger, that “political correctness is a state of mind, it’s a dream, it’s nirvana — and it has nothing to do with reality.”

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Douglas casts himself as someone who speaks truth to power (or is it powerlessness?). While it is diverting to imagine Kirk in any of his son’s roles, as a professional Man, Michael is dearly Kirk’s heir. Indeed, before he was any­thing else, Michael was Kirk’s son — which is to say the privileged progeny of’ ’50s affluence and hypermasculine display. Kirk’s career role of Spartacus adorns the cover of Roudedge’s fashionably titled scholarly anthology, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema; self-made and self-named (he titled his autobiography The Ragpicker’s Son, boasting within that he taught his own mother to write her name), he never lost a certain class re­sentment or the sense of himself as an object. Regarding The Champion, the movie that made him a star, Douglas senior told Roger Ebert that he “was probably the only man in Holly­wood who’s had to strip to get a part.”

Kirk cast a giant shadow, at least on his firstborn. Michael Douglas first appears in the text that is Hollywood as a dutifully conflicted son. A commune-dwelling longhair during the ’60s, he broke into the movies as the would-­be Hollywood personification of the torment­ed Vietnam generation. In the supremely am­bivalent Hail, Hero! (1969), he played a hippie peacenik who secretly enlists in the army to please his World War II vet father; in Adam at Six A.M. (1970), he was an idealistic young college instructor. At the climax of Summertree (1971), draftee Michael was actually killed in battle, even as his hawkish parents contentedly made love. (The last film was produced by papa Kirk, then starring in male menopause dramas like The Brotherhood and The Arrangement.)

While falling far below the Fonda kids as a celluloid generational symbol, Douglas did successfully project a counterculture persona into American living rooms as veteran cop Karl Malden’s college-educated, idealistic-liberal protegé in Streets of San Francisco (ABC, 1972-77). In this, he earned Kirk’s approval, defined as staking out a healthy slice of the spotlight: “My father was impressed when I was doing the series because it was seen by 22 million people a week, every single week, in America alone.” Before Streets of San Francisco’s final season, Douglas quit his role as Malden’s foil. In the show, it was explained that he had left the force to become a teacher; in fact, he had retired to savor another late counter-cultural cum Oedipal triumph — as an Oscar-winning producer.

Persuading his father to give up a cherished fantasy of starring as McMurphy in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas succeeded in getting the picture made and then sweeping the Oscars. “It’s all downhill from here,” he correctly told reporters after the ceremony. Douglas nevertheless followed up by producing a second liberal hit, the meltdown melodrama The China Syndrome (1979), and rehearsing his role as the zeitgeist’s darling. The China Syndrome had the amazing good fortune to open less than two weeks before the near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. “It goes beyond the realm of coincidence; it’s enough to make you religious,” was Douglas’s com­ment at the time.

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LIKE MANY A BEMUSED HOLLYWOOD liberal, Douglas missed the Reagan reformation — making nothing more interesting than two adventure comedies, Romancing the Stone (1984) and Jewel of the Nile (1985), wherein he attempted to pass for a chillier version of Harrison Ford, playing opposite a steamy Kathleen Turner. It was not until that ultimate celluloid father in the White House suffered severe image paralysis toward the close of his second term that Douglas came into his own.

Fatal Attraction (1987) was Douglas’s Spartacus — a midcareer, midlife political manifesto that remains his top-grossing ve­hicle. Cannily, he promoted it as a form of sexual backlash: “If you want to know, I’m really tired of feminists, sick of them. They’ve really dug themselves into their own grave. It’s time they looked at themselves and stopped attacking men.” For the first time, Douglas presented himself as a male advocate and, in doing so, revealed a demagogue’s knack for bringing a crowd to its feet. As was well-documented at the time, the movie inspired an extraordinary degree of viewer participation, with spectators typically exhorting Douglas to “kill the bitch!” as he defended his family against the crazed assault launched by Glenn Close’s jilted one-night stand.

As Fatal Attraction, which put adultery on the political map, presaged the fall of Gary Hart, so Wall Street ap­peared less than two months after the Octo­ber 1987 stock-market crash that signaled the demise of the boom-boom ’80s. An openly “liberal” movie, Wall Street provided Douglas with an openly villainous role. His portrayal of financier Gordon Gekko was that of an unapologetically and totally powerful white guy — the megabully that lives deep inside every whiny wimp. The part, which won Douglas an Oscar, may be closest to his heart: “I don’t think Gekko’s a villain,” he explained at the time. “Doesn’t beat his wife or his kid. He’s just taking care of business. And he gives a lot of people chances.”

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Taking care of business, giving people chances. Since then, Douglas has enjoyed uncanny timing. His 1989 Osaka-set thriller, Black Rain, globalized Fatal Attrac­tion‘s sense of white men under siege. The movie, in which a typically baffled and enraged Douglas lashes out at an incomprehensibly alien (and, in some ways, “unmanly”) culture, materialized even as popular resentment peaked against the Japanese companies that — then blatantly buying up “underval­ued” American landmarks like Rockefeller Center and Universal Pictures — threatened America’s status as the world’s preeminent capitalist power. Falling Down, one of the first movies to portray Los Angeles as the new behavioral sink, was in production dur­ing the 1992 riots.

Originally asked to play Falling Down‘s heroic (but henpecked) cop, Douglas intuitively asked for the more fiercely self-pitying and demonstrative role of the laid-off defense worker known, from his license plate, as D-FENS. No less rabble-rousing than Fatal Attraction, Falling Down inspired audiences to cheer as Douglas crashed a Korean grocery (“I’m standing up for my rights as a consumer — ­I’m rolling back prices to 1965″), beat a bunch of Latino gang-bangers, dissed a homeless panhandler, and terrorized the robotic counter kids in a generic fast-food parlor.

For the benefit of the press, Douglas defended D-FENS as the personification of America’s lost middle class. What seemed lost on him was that if life in 1992 was re­ally so rough for middle-class white guys, how much worse was it for everybody else?

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REVENGE FANTASIES ARE A MAJOR COMPONENT in popular entertainments, particularly those designed for the disadvantaged. In this respect, Douglas has devised a more sophisticated form of slasher film. His vehicles are all about putting the shoe on the other foot, turning victims into victimizers and vice versa. Just as immigrants and the homeless make life lousy for hardworking Americans in Falling Down, so Fatal Attraction‘s stalker and Basic Instinct‘s serial killer are female, as is Disclosure‘s rapist. Meanwhile, Douglas is persecuted, passed over, laid off, divorced, beaten up, molested, and harassed.

A successful movie star is to some degree a public servant, shoring up those cultural norms perceived to be in crisis, or effecting a miraculous reconciliation of opposing values. Douglas’s stardom depends on his capacity to project simultaneous strength and weakness. He is the victim as hero — a bellicose masochist, aggressive yet powerless, totally domineering while bat­tered by forces beyond his control (includ­ing, of course, those of his id). It’s the same rationale by which O. J. Simpson can represent himself as a victim of spouse abuse, even if it is his own.

Basic Instinct is echt Douglas — it al­lowed him to synthesize all his previous roles in the person of an arrogantly fallible cop with an addictive personality. His heightened state of deprivation, having given up ciga­rettes, booze, and cocaine when the movie opens, alludes to his offscreen life: Douglas’s media image is typically that of the licentious workaholic. Magazine profiles emphasize his tremendous, ongoing success as well as his public battles against substance abuse and “sex addiction” in the context of a long-run­ning society marriage.

Douglas asks pity for the constraints un­der which he suffers as well as for those urges that he indulges. Both are defined as Woman. But where Sigmund Freud wondered just what it was that women desired, Douglas knows only what it is they don’t: “If we followed the rules, we’d all be these sensitive, upstanding, compassionate men­ — and no women would want us.” Hence the logic of the Evil White Guy.

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On one hand, men are persecuted. “Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands,” Douglas told the press while pro­moting Fatal Attraction. In that movie, Close demands that Douglas “face up to your responsibilities,” just as Moore, in Disclosure, orders him to “come back here and finish what you started!” The fear of being worked (or fucked) to death is matched by another anxiety. Basic Instinct is fascinated by Sharon Stone’s lesbian attachments, while Disclosure makes early, joking reference to a situation in which a child has two mommies. But these references seem less homophobic than misogynist — the manifestation of a male’s fear that he might be expendable. (It is an amusing footnote to the protests directed against Basic Instinct that one deliri­ous group of activists demanded, among oth­er things, that Douglas’s character be made lesbian and recast with his movieland ex-wife Kathleen Turner.)

Women define Douglas’s success as a movie star as well as his representation of life as a man. Even when women are not the primary enemy, as they are in Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, they serve to exacerbate his predicament. Douglas’s crooked cop in Black Rain needs to make extra money for child support. The vengeful loser in Falling Down is driven over the brink by a cold and rejecting ex-wife. “I have to come home,” he warns her, hav­ing just delighted the audience by telling off an uppity vagrant.

There’s an underlying sadness here. Douglas, after all, was six years old when his parents split up. Broken families are at the center of The War of the Roses and Falling Down. Black Rain and Fatal Attraction alike are haunted by the image of beleaguered pa­triarchy. Disclosure opens with Douglas’s in­effectual announcement that “I am The Fa­ther and when The Father says put your jacket on — you put your jacket on.”

You do if Daddy is Spartacus. Just as Douglas suffers the humiliation of always being the son, so he is frequently put in the position of defending something he fears may no longer even exist. Thus, Basic Instinct evinces the most pathetic longing for Kinder und Küche. Projecting an ideal future with literal man-killer Sharon Stone, Douglas goofily suggests that they “fuck like minks, raise rug rats, and live happily ever after.”

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“I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?”
Michael Douglas, Falling Down

AS THE EMBODIMENT OF WHITE straight male power on planet earth, American presidents typically consort (at least in the national dreamlife) with those Holly­wood ego-ideals and doppelgängers who, like themselves, define what it is to be presumptive Master of the Universe.

Nixon identified with John Wayne, as well as the characters Patton and Dirty Harry. Underdog candidate Jimmy Carter was associated with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Reagan, in addition to playing himself, could morph into Indiana Jones and Stallone-as-­Rambo. For the overcompensating Bush, there was (by then, a kinder, gentler) Arnold Schwarzenegger and diffident Kevin Costner. For Clinton, who has been known to both whine in public and sniff around Sharon Stone, it is Michael Douglas — that is, if it is to be anyone other than Dead Elvis or (oh, the horror!) Barbra Streisand.

Although Disclosure hasn’t proved as mighty a windfall as Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct — are we getting tired of him yet — Douglas has at least temporarily sup­planted Arnold as Hollywood’s Mr. America. Junior, the latest and most radical varia­tion on the monstrous Schwarzenegger physique, tanked with squeamish audiences. (In his hubristic self-sufficiency, a pregnant Arnold made the mistake of playing both characters in a bedroom horror flick — and for comedy no less.) What, especially in the autumn of 1994, was Arnold getting in touch with his female side compared to the spectacle of the ex-hippie, glib yuppie Dou­glas rallying the troops once more — pre­vailing against another oversexed, postfem­inist, smart-assed, professional bitch? Yes!

That sort of appeal can take you straight to the top — just ask the Republicans. Indeed, as unlikable as he is, Douglas will next appear in the role of a successful politician. Wayne, Eastwood, Stallone have never gone this far. As his crowning achievement, Michael Douglas has been cast in the title role of Rob Reiner’s The American President. What’s more, it’s a romantic comedy. The Ragpicker’s Grandson, playing a wid­owed commander in chief (ding, dong, the bitch is dead), presumably ups his belea­guerment quotient by getting involved with a comely environmental lobbyist (heh heh), Annette Bening, whom his aides must smuggle in and out of the White House boudoir.

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Can it work? Will the wily Bening char­acter attempt to hijack the president’s health care program? Does she accuse him of in­decent exposure? Try to steal his job? Attempt to eviscerate the D·FENS budget with an ice pick? Can the long-suffering American people forgive this well-meaning but spineless victim of his indiscretions and appetites — his basic instincts? Will we “Hail to the Chief” chump? Assuredly, providing that he asserts his presidential prerogative and puts that tricky lobby lady in her place. (Douglas should have no difficulty with the requisite flackery: Corporations are going through a terrible crisis because of environmentalists’ unreasonable demands. The greens are digging their own grave.)

Just before Christmas, gossip columns reported Douglas hanging out at the White House to absorb the presidential vibe. So was Douglas sizing up the newly chastened Bill Clinton to prepare for his ultimate ex­ercise in belligerent self-pity, heroic victimization, and protection of the realm? Or was it, somewhat more logically, vice versa? ❖

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies


Five Films and Four Different Takes on Your Favorite Violent Nomads in ‘The Middle Ages on Film: Vikings!’

Five films, four flavors of the ol’ pillaging-in-leathers routine. Twilight-of-the-studio-era extravaganzas Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958) and Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1964) are delicious concoctions, grand and dopey and full of mead-hall brawling so spirited it’s touched with musical theater—Seven Brides for Seven Erics could break out. Both also struggle to make sense of Viking immorality in movies that had to please the state board of review—The Long Ships‘ human sacrifice is a surprise, but The Vikings‘ love story, sadly, isn’t. (The Vikings does have a pit of wolves and classic rooftop duel between Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas.)

The violence in those sprightly epics isn’t a patch on Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Valhalla Rising, a meditative bloodletting committed to bespattered men and miserable coasts rather than the jaunty sets of the Technicolor days. It’s a revenge tale, and Refn’s grisly stylishness is every bit as brilliant and gorgeous or ponderous and shallow as it would prove to be in hits Drive and Only God Forgives.

If you’re curious in the least, you should see it. Best of all is Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s When the Raven Flies (1984), another revenge story, also somewhat bloody, and thrillingly committed to the evocation of an ancient, muddy world unknowable to us today, where the most powerful men in Iceland live in huts so dark and cramped you can almost smell the sweat. For all its commitment to silence and mystery, Gunnlaugsson’s is also a tense, terse ’80s action picture, as Irish Gest avenges himself on the rovers who killed his parents.

Too rarely seen, When the Raven Flies stands as one of cinema’s most effective works of badass versus the bad guys. Finally, Terry Jones’s scattershot comedy Erik the Viking (1989) remains, I’m sorry to say, exactly the size, shape, and length of a migraine.


Ace in the Hole

Dir. Billy Wilder (1951).
Kirk Douglas plays a snarling newshound who shamelessly exploits the story of a man trapped by a cave-in to create a full blown media circus. Billy Wilder’s follow-up to Sunset Boulevard is a movie about the fascination of disaster that is itself a fascinating disaster. (Initial response was so hostile the studio not only withdrew the picture but retitled it.) Ace in the Hole isn’t a great movie but, in its sustained nastiness and stunning disregard for box-office niceties, it’s one of a kind.

Fri., April 9, 1:10, 3:20, 5:30, 7:40 & 10 p.m.; Sat., April 10, 1:10, 3:20, 5:30, 7:40 & 10 p.m., 2010


Melodrama King

A show biz all-rounder, Vincente Minnelli established his Hollywood reputation as one of MGM’s premiere directors of musicals, including Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Pirate, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris. But beginning with The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952, Minnelli brought a comparable brio, if not garishness, to a series of star-studded, widescreen melodramas, four of which are showing this week at Anthology Film Archives in The Bad and the Beautiful: The Melodramas of Vincente Minnelli.

Inevitably giving its irresistible title to the mini-retro, The Bad and the Beautiful
features a typically ferocious Kirk Douglas as a larger-than-life Hollywood producer whose career implodes as bad Gloria Graham and beautiful Lana Turner watch. The lunatics even more literally take over the asylum in Minnelli’s first Technicolor melodrama, The Cobweb (1955), with Graham sashaying through the bin, playing wife to Richard Widmark’s sanitarium director. Adapted from the James Jones bestseller and set in deepest Indiana, Some Came Running (1958) is the first and best of the Rat Pack flicks and stars Frank Sinatra (as an aspiring novelist), Dean Martin (as a professional gambler), and Shirley MacLaine (as the dame who loves them). This is the movie Godard riffs on in Contempt.

Two Weeks in Another Town is Minnelli’s self-reflexive sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful (which appears as a clip within). Kirk Douglas is here a fallen star attempting a comeback in a cheap costume spectacle being directed in Rome by Edward G. Robinson. Reviewing Two Weeks 45 years ago in the Anthology house-organ Film Culture, Peter Bogdanovich called it “the kind of movie critics hate and audiences love: critics because it’s flashy, loud, and, to them, unimportant—audiences because it’s flashy, loud, and to them, exciting.” The same might be said of Minnelli’s melodramas in general, although now the situation would be reversed. Aug. 15 through 19, Anthology Film Archives.

BAM Cinematek marks the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China with The New Decade: Hong Kong Film, featuring nine HK features produced over the past few years. The movies span all genres—romantic comedy, family melodrama, backstage musical, martial arts, policier—with a special nod to reigning action director Johnnie To. In addition to To’s 2004 Breaking News and “Election Doublebill” (the 2005 Election and its 2006 sequel Triad Election), the 10-day series includes a preview of To’s hit man buddy film Exiled, set to open later this month.
Aug. 16 through 26, BAM.

Keeping to the neighborhood, BAM goes on to South Korea—HK’s successor as the epicenter of East Asian pop cinema—for this year’s installment of the New York Korean Film Festival. The genres are more fluid, and there’s a four-film tribute to Im Kown-taek, best known here for the costume epic Chunhyang, and a man whose 101 (and counting) features surely make him the most prolific of contemporary directors.
Aug. 21 through Sept. 2, BAM.


Gasoline on Fire: Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh has become as much of a biohistorical Rorschach blot as Joan of Arc—was he a tortured romantic, an art martyr, or an everyday psychotic? (Or was he, as Maurice Pialat suggests in his 1991 film Van Gogh, merely a dyspeptic yearning for death?) Answers abound, but here was the first official fictionalization, taken in 1956 from Irving Stone’s bestseller and turned by Vincente Minnelli into an oppressive Hollywood nut-crash, in which van Gogh is a terminal self-doubter standing permanently outside the realms of acceptable behavior and “normal” artistic ideas. It’s a rich, fearless film in terms of Minnelli’s widescreen approach (surely it’s a safer experience on a TV than on a ’50s movie screen), but the gasoline on fire here is Kirk Douglas in the lead, his normal boiling macho-ness subverted into a rippling, tone-deaf insecurity so guileless he takes on the desperate glare of an abandoned toddler. Douglas was always a human dynamo perpetually on the verge of a meltdown; here, he completely implodes, and it’s one of that Method-prone decade’s most expressionistic performances. Warner’s unleashing Minnelli’s film in an Oscar package (Anthony Quinn, as Gauguin, won a Supporting statuette) that also features dull winners of yesteryear like Cimarron (1931), The Good Earth (1937), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Johnny Belinda (1948). All of them except Lust for Life get accompanied by vintage shorts, cartoons, and radio programs.


Speaking in Tongues

Is alphabet destiny? “I am as American as April in Arizona,” Nabokov once declared, those three peaks telegraphing love of country. In Jeff Blitz’s addictive Spellbound, which follows eight middle-schoolers on the road to the National Spelling Bee in D.C., the 26 letters can seem like familiar faces or inscrutable conspirators, undergoing capricious mutations and following the ancient rules of distant lands: Why apocope, why hellebore, why repetiteur, why zwieback? Given the abecedarian madness to follow, it’s appropriate that Angela Arenivar stands at the head of the alphabet, the start of the film, and perhaps on the brink of a language itself. Her father, Ubaldo, hollers in the fields, unenglished despite his quarter-century in Texas, calling in the cattle; though every child in Spellbound has a gift, self-trained Angela’s achievements seem even more remarkable given the alien angle from which she intersects the tongue.

The other seven hail from a mix of locales and economic backgrounds, from the fruited subdivisions of Orange County to the asbestos-mill haven of Ambler, Pennsylvania. Some get tutoring; others hit phone-directory-size practice books, or attach letters to poster board in some homegrown mnemonic grid. In competition, they utilize or disdain the four questions they can ask: Can you repeat the word? Could I have a definition? Could I have a language of origin? Can you use it in a sentence? Each participant has unique appeal, but my favorite might be the un-Ritalined Harry Altman, a joke-cracking squirt who takes the stage with a tumbling dash worthy of Joe Cocker.

Two of Blitz’s subjects, Neil Kadakia and Nupur Lala, have subcontinental roots, as does the mysterious, brilliantly named Georgie Thampy, whom we learn about only when the D.C. melee is well under way. A home-schooled Christian with decidedly odd elocution, he dispenses homiletic advice (“Twust in Jesus . . . honowing yuh pawents”) that will remind A Mighty Wind fans of Fred Willard’s catchphrase-coiner. Neil has some tense moments, ironically, with darjeeling; we also learn that his grandfather has paid 1,000 people to pray for his victory, and has promised to feed 5,000 hungry mouths for a month should that glory come to pass.

“There is no way you can fail in this country,” announces Neil’s motivated father, but when it comes to the nationals, 248 will fail, forgivably. If spelling is culture, an imposition of order on the yawping welter of all possible sounds, it is also at some level unnatural. One of Nupur’s earlier rivals, stumped by iridescent, wryly notes, “A lot of people thought it had two rs.” A sign outside a Tampa Hooters offers “CONGRADUL TIONS” to local hero Nupur; a school marquee in Missouri hails its “CHAPM.”

In their randomness, the bee words take on an oracular quality—shades of kabbalistic gematria, or the Sortes Vergilanae, the supernatural attributed to symbols on paper. But in Baghdad or beyond, as Alberto Manguel recently noted in the Times, tablets bearing the first writing, from 4000 B.C., now reside in the hands of looters. The markings account for cattle—Ubaldo Arenivar’s stock in trade.

Most tearjerkers operate along the distaff, but It Runs in the Family is full of emotive males who tend to be related off-screen as well as on-. The sight of grandpa Mitchell Gromberg (Kirk Douglas), lawyer father Alex (Michael), and lifetime Hunter student son Asher (Cameron) reach out, repel, and make amends should be as exciting as leafing through another household’s old photos, but Family goes easy on the schmaltz, and the catastrophes have the puncturing feel of real life. Stroke-weathered Kirk eschews pity, getting in touch with his Jewish roots. “Autobiographical—that’s a hard word to pronounce!” this eldest living Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) said on a talk show last week. The consonants were fogged, but perhaps we have a language of origin.


The Color of Paradise

Vincente Minnelli’s bright vision illuminates every frame of his elegant and civilized musicals. But his career was by no means restricted to the genre with which he was so closely identified. MOMA’s series celebrating the centennial of the director’s birth comprises melodramas, literary adaptations, and domestic comedies, together with four bracing musicals. While there may be nothing new or even rare here, Minnelli will never be out of season. The painstaking detail and great visual style of this Broadway set and costume designer turned movie director is evident in all his films. A fan of the surrealists, he was one of the first Hollywood directors to play with their motifs. No one used color with more dexterity. His work has influenced directors as diverse as Godard and Scorsese. He elicited some of the best performances of their careers from Kirk Douglas, Jennifer Jones, Spencer Tracy, and Judy Garland. Garland appears in two high points of the MOMA show: The Clock (1945) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). In The Clock, the director’s future wife stars opposite Robert Walker in an engaging wartime soldier-and-girl story. St. Louis, one of his most enduringly popular musicals, aglow with nostalgia, kicked off a new kind of lyric cinema, the numbers completely woven into the story in a way they had never been before.

The exuberant The Band Wagon (1953), about the travails of a show headed for a New York opening, is a glittering revue of socko production numbers, but it’s also the most romantic of Minnelli’s musicals, sparked by the memories of his own Broadway past that the film seems to have summoned. The series is rounded out by two of the director’s most underrated melodramas: Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) and Madame Bovary (1949). Two Weeks is a semi-sequel to Minnelli’s masterpiece on moviemaking, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, also in the retro). The later film concerns the private war of a has-been actor (Kirk Douglas) and a megalomaniacal director on the skids (Edward G. Robinson), played out against the background of Rome’s Cinecitta studios during the jet set Dolce Vita era. MGM made major cuts in the picture without consulting Minnelli, and this mutilated release version was dismally received. Yet even in truncated form, it’s hypnotizing—no other picture has captured so well the everyday madness of putting together a movie.

Bovary stars Jennifer Jones as the fatally romantic Emma, a dreamer like so many of Minnelli’s heroines. Jones beautifully underplays her and makes an extremely moving figure of this faithless wife and negligent mother. The audacious Ophülsian ballroom sequence, set to the tune of Miklós Rózsa’s “neurotic waltz,” is one of the great moments of Minnellian mise-en-scène. It may be heresy to say so, but this lovely made-in-Hollywood adaptation seems more successful than the standard French screen versions by Jean Renoir (1933) and Claude Chabrol (1991) of Flaubert’s work.


NY Mirror

I go away for just a week, and the town goes mad, trashing poor Liza Minnelli and raving about some stuff that could really kill you. Let me try to fix things before the damage escalates. The ‘Minnelli on Minnelli’ show that I saw was an utter lovefest, with Liza indulging us in an orgy of family lore that in its own surfacey way is deliciously laden with showstoppers and pizzazz. We could pick apart the descending set panels and perky male dance combo, but Liza anchors it all in fabulous voice and spirits and enough of a self-mocking tone to make us feel a conspiratorial part of her comeback. You know the diva’s back when she launches into her trademark sibilant pronunciations (“shnow-capped mountains”) and rips into a gutsy, slow-paced “I Got Rhythm” that proves she really does. And you’re convinced she hasn’t lost her mind when she totally skips over Dad’s A Matter of Time—the megabomb she costarred in—focusing instead on adorable hits from The Bandwagon and Gigi, one in favor of champagne, one (rewritten) extolling AA. The pinnacle of weirdness and brilliance has Liza duetting, Natalie Cole-style, with mama Judy on “The Trolley Song”—a career trick which turns us into voyeuristic, way-more-enthralled-than-embarrassed worshipers at the throne of genius genealogy. You’re thinking, “No! Don’t go there!” as you applaud wildly at this, the gayest moment of the entire millennium. In fact, if by some chance you’re not gay, this sensational spectacle will turn you gay. Brava!

Way less euphoric, Swing! doesn’t have a thought in its little head, the first act being particularly banal, though the second one does develop a certain giddy glee within its narrow limits. Overall, for $80—plus an extra buck for a “theatre restoration charge”—the rather spare revue is very drossy next to Fosse. Its creators should all go see Liza and get much gayer!

With the Amadeus revival, you’re thrilled to at least find a plot, a vision, and a few chandeliers. But since Mozart is played as an irritating one-note loon who comes off like an 18th-century Adam Sandler, you start rooting for Salieri to utterly destroy him. See it on Mondays when Kathie Lee plays the part.

And now, let’s go to the movies, where the holiday fun involves mental homes, prison racism, murder, strokes, and Lauren Bacall as a whorehouse madam. At the Diamonds premiere a few weeks ago, Bacall soaked in the applause when her name flashed in the opening credits, then ran for the exit. (Missy was not being a diva, though—she had to do interviews promoting the flick.) Jenny McCarthy was there all night, saying what a departure her role is. (She plays a voracious prostitute.) And in another corner, Harvey Weinstein revealed that for years the impressive Kirk Douglas has been sending him letters about Miramax movies, volunteering comments like “Good job” or “Lousy job.” “Michael,” said Weinstein, looking at the actor’s Oscar-winning son and laughing, “I know how you feel!” Can we expect Mikey backed by six dancers in Douglas on Douglas?

For now you’ll have to settle for Musto on Magnolia, which in my book, should be pushing up daisies. (Then again, my book is out of print.) After a brilliant start and the promise of some compellingly cross-cutting characterizations, the self-important flick dissolves into way too many trumped-up confrontations and heavy-handed deathbed admissions, replete with the requisite pathetic gay character. The eternal screeching and the bland-cop-and-annoying-druggie romance finally do relent, but only to give way to lengthy Hallmark bullshit about how we all have to be nice to one another. It was all done better when it was called Short Cuts, and was directed with more searing wit when it was called Happiness. But I did like the falling frogs.

I got a frog in my throat watching Jim Carrey‘s inspired performance as con man-kamikaze comic Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, and this time I know what I’m talking about. When I interviewed Kaufman hundreds of years ago, as was recently disclosed here, he effortlessly lapsed into various creepy characters that led me to think the guy must be crazier than Mozart. Well, his cowriter Bob Zmuda is now telling people it was all planned and they were totally conning me. Please—I knew that!

Whooshing back to the present—I’m really avant-gardee, as Li’l Kim would say—the XXX Ball at Escuelita was no shnow job. Rather than a plague on both their houses, the combustive joining of the Xavier and Xtravaganza dragoons was such a hit that some studs even tried to sneak into the Butch Queen Voguing Femme in Pumps category while wearing boots. (They were promptly given the boot.) The frenzied contest peaked with Who’s Zooming Who?, during which you weren’t supposed to be able to tell which of each competing couple does what to the other in bed. By the end, it was a no-brainer since the entrants had devolved into a raucous pageant of mock sucking and fucking. I was horrified. For hours.

While we’re contemplating who sticks what where, isn’t it odd that Kevin Spacey seems to have been shut out of all those critics’ awards? Could his insistence that he’s straight actually have proved, with delicious irony, to have hurt his career? And speaking of sexuality issues, I was thrilled that in his Times magazine article, Andrew Sullivan espoused the idea that evasively ambiguous gay celebs should fully come out. But Sullivan still wants to place himself above the outing pack, saying he’s against that practice, even as he openly muses about the sex lives of purposely vague figures like Rosie O’Donnell, Ricky Martin, Ed Koch, and Donna Shalala. I loved the piece, but honey, speculating is virtually outing—though I actually prefer reporting based on hard facts, thank you. In any case, it’s sad that Sullivan’s come under fire by the likes of Koch, who says outing is the work of self-loathing gays. No, Ed, we’re the ones who think being gay’s just fine.

It was our current mayor who got to speak at funnyman Joey Adams‘s funeral which, between the tears, was sort of like a gigantic Friar’s roast, but more A-list. Even the rabbi cracked a few jokes, though he seriously welcomed “Mr. Mayor and the First Lady,” prompting everyone to think, “Wow, this event is so powerful, it brought Rudy and Hillary together!” When we realized he actually meant the First Lady of New York, everyone thought, “Wow, this event is so powerful, it brought Rudy and his wife together!”

Finally, bringing Matt Damon and a knife together, The Talented Mr. Ripley is sleek, chic, and hypnotic enough to have me considering bathtub chess as a viable sport, but can we kindly give a rest to the gay as tortured psycho killer? Damon’s baby-faced Ripley is even more homosexual than in the original flick, being hot for and involved with men, not to mention mincing around in front of a mirror when he thinks no one’s looking. Of course Ripley tells people he’s not gay, but then again so do Rosie O’Donnell, Ricky Martin, and Ed Koch. Take it away, Liza!


Back in the Ring

Following Christopher Reeve in TV’s busted Rear Window, post-stroke Kirk Douglas stars as a muttering geriatric in the fake-paste Diamonds, his first non-talk show, non-awards show, return-to-acting role. Douglas plays an erstwhile prizefighter (cue inserts of his 1949 boxing flick Champion) who, following a debilitating stroke of his own, takes his son (Dan Aykroyd) and grandson (Corbin Allred) on a whimsical diamond hunt through Reno, Nevada. Bursting with dialogue that’s as feebleminded as its protagonist (“Live each day as if it were your last, and never give up”), Diamonds does pick up momentarily when the threesome visit a deluxe bordello where, unable to perform and fresh out of Viagra, Kirk is tenderly held by the sympathizing madam Sin-dee (Lauren Bacall). Douglas seems to be playing himself, and the film’s most repugnant aspect is its false flattery—masking pity in the form of his costars’ recurrent backslapping and awkward laughter. Worse still, Douglas will not go gently into that opening night; last month he publicly raged against the MPAA, demanding they replace Diamonds’ R-rating with a PG-13. For the sake of his relatively untarnished legacy, won’t he accept that—with its superficial script, toneless direction, and unadmirable intentions—Diamonds is inappropriate for audiences of all ages?