The couple is fully clothed, the man hovering directly above the woman. They are smiling, but they are not touching--simultaneously attracted and eternally repelled, perfect polar opposites. "I love them because you don't know whether they're floating or falling," Michael Douglas says. He smiles his predatory smile, and the couple in the painting smiles back. On another of the canvases by painter Robert Yarber that hang in Douglas' office on the Paramount lot, a man and woman hold hands as they step off the edge of a cliff. Perhaps they are flying.
From where Douglas sits, up and down, in and out, even good and evil are all simply limits to be pushed. As Sharon Stone, his co-star in "Basic Instinct," said at the time of Douglas' ability to keep his tongue on the pulse of America, "I think we licked the outer edge of the envelope."
With the release of "Disclosure" this Friday, Douglas firmly affixes his stamp to the U.S. male as he has been delivered up to movie audiences over the past decade, completing the rough-trade triptych he began in 1987 with "Fatal Attraction," continued with "Basic Instinct" in 1992, and concludes--violently, but without taking his pants off for a change--with Demi Moore.
"I love being politically incorrect," he says, "so I thought the reverse twist of changing the roles of sexual harassment would give people a way to look at the issue from a different point of view. Reversing the roles stops us from lining up simply on gender, and allows people to see the other side. I don't mean we should start feeling sorry for guys, but I think it helps everybody to look at the other side."
The film also goes so far over to the other side that only an actor of Douglas' seductive power could redeem it, suggesting that given enough sex and power, a woman can ruin a man's chance for career advancement. Douglas stars in the adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel as a mid-level computer-company executive whose ex-girlfriend Moore is brought in as his boss to help the company finesse a profitable merger; she also has plans for Douglas that have nothing to do with the furthering of his corporate career. As he did in "Fatal Attraction," Douglas plays a character who deceives his wife and imperils his family, and still leaves you rooting for him at the end.
"His role is difficult because he's carrying the movie on his back," says "Disclosure's" director, Barry Levinson, "but he has the ability to make it look effortless. Having some big bravura emotional scene is easy, but it's very hard to take the audience through this movie, to tell this story, without the audience getting tired of looking at him. But Michael always seems to be saying, 'Watch me, look at me.' "
It is a trick he learned from watching his father work, and then resisted using for nearly 20 years, from the time he became an actor in the late '60s until he made "Wall Street" in 1987, because he didn't want Hollywood to think of him first as the son of Kirk Douglas, known for playing some of Hollywood's most legendary heels and heavies.
"I think there was a very conscious effort on my part to play these sensitive-young-men roles," Michael says of his early parts in features such as "Summertree," "Hail, Hero!" and "Adam at 6 a.m.," as well as his career-making sidekick role in ABC's '70s police series "The Streets of San Francisco." "I was trying very hard not to be what I most wanted to be, which is a pretty limiting way to live."
His father had cast a giant shadow, but when Michael finally emerged from it, it was by finding his own dark side. In "Wall Street," for which he won the best actor Oscar, he played greenmailer Gordon Gekko as a shark with all shiny surfaces, a brilliantine killer in a gray-green suit.
"It ain't the devil if it doesn't look good, because the devil's seductive, it's gorgeous," Douglas says. "That's what's interesting about the devil--the evil. I'm fascinated by morality tales, that struggle. It's a theme that keeps popping up in my movies."
That's not all that keeps popping up in Douglas' films, of course; he has become the John Wayne of the gender war movies.
"There's been a gender war going on for a long time, and a lot of my pictures have been about that," he says. "Both sexes are having a tough time identifying their roles to themselves, much less to each other. I think a lot of guys are lost as to what their role is, and they're confused in terms of the signals they're getting from women. I also think they're concerned about losing their role as provider."
He is not speaking strictly about being the breadwinner here. "A woman can be artificially inseminated, she has milk and can feed, has cycles like the moon," he says. "She's much closer to the earth than men are. I do feel guys are lost because their role, in a lot of cases, is to be the worker bees, the drones."