LOS ANGELES—“I take each day with more respect,” Michael Douglas, who is recovering from throat cancer, said in a recent interview. “You just don’t miss days. It’s a terrible cliché expression—today is the first day of the rest of your life. But there is an element of truth in that.”
Now completely silver-haired, the 68-year-old also dished about Liberace, whom he plays in HBO’s well-received “Behind the Candelabra,” his kissing scenes with Matt Damon who portrays Scott Thorson (Liberace’s much younger lover), wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and his divorce from Diandra Luker. He tended to shift between “you” and “I” in referring to himself.
“You still have what we call aftertaste,” the actor said of the effect of the intensive regimen of chemotherapy and radiation he underwent to battle the throat cancer. “The radiation burns the inside of your mouth. You can’t eat hot spices. Your tastes change. But you feel very grateful. I’ve lost a couple of other good friends who had throat cancer, which makes me appreciate life more.”
Feeling the kiss
Of Catherine, who is herself battling bipolar 2 disorder, Michael said, “I support her. I love her. It’s not a debilitating disease. It’s how she makes…her life most comfortable.”
Michael said Catherine wasn’t on the set when he and Matt kissed in a scene. Laughing, he said, “But on the day that Matt came out of the pool in his Speedo little thing and he came over and gave me a big kiss and I grabbed his butt, his mother was on the set. So before we started rolling, Matt said, ‘Mom, I’m sorry, mom.’ She said, ‘Oh honey, that’s OK.’”
The Oscar and Golden Globe Best Actor winner for “Wall Street” also chuckled when he recalled, “Matt tells the story, ‘Every time I kiss Michael, I close my eyes and I would imagine that I was kissing right through Michael and I was kissing Catherine instead.’ I said, ‘OK, Matt, I’m not going to tell Lucy (Matt’s wife).’”
Michael revealed that the film’s producer, Jerry Weintraub, did not want him or anyone involved in the production to have any contact with Scott Thorson. Michael said, however, that Scott, who was recently released from jail (he was arrested for allegedly getting a hotel room with a credit card that wasn’t his), loved the film. “I was told that he had seen the movie and he had been nothing but very positive and [had only] praise for the film. He thought it was accurate and well done.”
Michael had good words about the flamboyant, rhinestone-loving pianist he essays in the Steven Soderbergh-directed bio pic based on the book of the same title, ghostwritten by Scott.
“Liberace was a nice guy. Everybody I talked to who knew him said he was a nice guy, generous, and a great host. I don’t play that many nice guys. So it was a joy to play him. I met him once in passing. For years, my father (Kirk Douglas) lived in Palm Springs. Lee (Liberace’s nickname) was down there.”
Michael offered vivid details about that meeting at Kirk’s house. “I visited my father one day. We stopped to talk to this guy in a Rolls Royce convertible with the top down. Not a hair of his was moving. Of course, we know why now. It was a bright, sunny day; the reflections were bouncing off all his jewelry—gold necklaces and rings. I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
He added, “When I found out I was doing this film, I did a lot of homework, I talked to my father and a lot of the people who knew Lee. They spoke about what an extraordinarily great host he was, how generous, how he loved a good time. He did not like uncomfortable situations. He just loved it all nice.”
The project began when Michael broke into a Liberace impression on the set of Steven’s “Traffic.” Michael volunteered: “I did the impression after Steven was looking at me one day. He said, ‘Have you ever thought about playing Liberace?’ I was shooting ‘Traffic’ and I was playing the drug czar. I got very paranoid. I thought Steven was maybe being like Oliver Stone and doing some kind of Machiavellian trick. Or maybe I was mincing a little bit when I was walking. I don’t know. I got nervous. But that’s just the way Steven thinks.
“Steven had an idea about it and then afterwards, it became a running joke. So during the filming, I go (mimics Liberace), ‘Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure. You’re such a wonderful director.’ Then we forgot about it. Then I think it was seven years later, he finally found the book and went from there.”
The film almost didn’t get done. “‘Behind the Candelabra’ was turned down at every studio,” Michael said. “I’m so grateful to HBO, who saw what a great project it is. The studios are tied into movies that have either ‘man’ in it or a number—‘Ironman 3,’ ‘Superman 4.’ They’re in a different world. They would rather go for tent-pole movies, spend a large amount of money and support it with a marketing budget that’s worth a fortune, which they can spend on smaller films.
“It’s certainly not the way it used to be in the 1970s. In the 1970s and 1980s when I was making movies, the filmmaker and the talents had much more of a say. That’s why, at least right now, the best work is in cable television because the writers are leaving film writing. On cable TV, they can also produce and they are making more money and enjoying themselves more in that area.”
Asked for an update on Dylan and Carys, his two children with Catherine, Michael replied, “I got them an audition—their first audition was for Rob Reiner’s film (‘And So It Goes’). They’re both going to be performers. There’s no doubt about it.”
Dylan is already asking for a role or a break, according to the proud dad. “Dylan is funny. The other day, he said, ‘I’m in the honor roll, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, son, you’re right.’ He said, ‘I starred in the school play, ‘Oliver Twist,’ right? I played the Artful Dodger, right? I was really good.’ ‘Yes, you were.’ He said, ‘Well, dad, don’t you think you can throw me a bone?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’”
Michael has another son, Cameron, who is serving a prison sentence after various drug violations. Cameron’s mom is Diandra Luker, who was Michael’s wife for 23 years.
As for her daughter, he said, “Carys is a piano player. She sings. She’s a dancer. She’s a little shier than Dylan but she is equally talented.”
Not slowing down
Michael does not look like he’s slowing down. Aside from shooting “And So It Goes,” he’s scheduled to be in “Reykjavik” (he’ll play Ronald Reagan) and “The Reach.” His “Las Vegas” will be released this year.
On what he would do differently if he could live his life all over again, Michael answered, “I’m going to get in trouble here. I’m very fond of my first wife (Diandra) but probably, we should have ended that marriage maybe eight or 10 years earlier. That’s not a reflection on her. She’s really an extraordinary person. But sometimes, if you go to a marriage counselor to help resolve problems…it took me a long time to realize, wait a minute, if I ended the marriage, then the counselor has no business. It’s in his interest to keep things going. I think Diandra would probably say the same thing. That’s probably the only clear regret that I have.”
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)