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On Video: Michael Douglas has made smart and timely choices in his films

Friday, February 25, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Say what you will about his acting skills -- and they are considerable -- but Michael Douglas sure knows how to pick 'em. Think about it: "China Syndrome," released days before Three Mile Island became shorthand for near-nuclear nightmare; "Fatal Attraction," a cautionary tale about infidelity; "Wall Street," the movie about the go-go '80s; and "Disclosure," a timely tale about sexual harassment. His latest, "Wonder Boys," is a smart movie about people who sometimes do stupid things. If it whets your appetite for more Douglas, here are 10 suggestions:

"A PERFECT MURDER," 1998 -- In this update of "Dial M for Murder," Douglas is a millionaire businessman who considers his young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) the crown jewel of his empire. She, however, prefers the company of a struggling artist (Viggo Mortensen). When hubby discovers the affair, he offers the lover $500,000 to kill Emily. Douglas demonstrates he can play a cold-hearted villain with the best of them.

Notable for: Teaming Douglas, on screen, with a woman even younger than Catherine Zeta-Jones. And Paltrow, before the phrase "Oscar winner" became part of her name.

"THE GAME," 1997 -- Nicholas Van Orton. The name just reeks of money, doesn't it? Douglas is an investment banker who leads a lonely, empty existence. Everything changes when his brother (Sean Penn) gives him a gift certificate for "The Game," run by Consumer Recreation Services. Van Orton becomes part of an elaborate game that makes him feel alive again -- and terrified, too.

Notable for: Letting us play along.

"THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT," 1995 -- This romantic comedy poses the question, what would happen if the president were single and wanted to date? We already know what happens when a president isn't single and wants to date but that's a whole other story.

Douglas is the U.S. president, a widower raising a young daughter. And if you think some of the current presidential candidates are too close to lobbyists, wait until you see what happens when President Shepherd meets Sydney Wade (Annette Bening) who is pushing a clean-air bill. Her relationship with POTUS catches fire and then comes under fire.

Notable for: Being a warm-up for "The West Wing" team of Martin Sheen, here playing chief of staff, and writer Aaron Sorkin.

"FALLING DOWN," 1993 -- From the leader of the free world to a laid-off defense worker with black horn-rim glasses and flat top. Douglas' character loses it one smothering day in Los Angeles.

His license plate may read D FENS but he launches an offensive against merchants who won't dispense change, a fast-food restaurant with rigid rules, a road crew and an ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) barring him from his daughter. He's like the core of that nuclear plant in "China Syndrome" -- headed for meltdown.

Notable for: How this film became fodder for columnists, reflecting on whether it was "catharsis cinema" (George Will) or just an excuse for more bad behavior.

"BASIC INSTINCT," 1992 -- Let's face it. When you think of this harsh, mean-spirited thriller, your first thought isn't Douglas as a troubled cop. It's Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell, a novelist who somehow forgets to finish getting dressed before showing up for police questioning. In '92, Douglas said the script appealed to his baser acting instincts. "Everything's so repressive now -- it's like the No generation. You can't do anything, you can't eat anything, you have to abstain."

Notable for: Stone, who later protested that Paul Verhoeven had tricked her about that famous interrogation scene. He said not.

"THE WAR OF THE ROSES," 1989 -- Consider the tagline for this aggressively black comedy: "Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love all over again. This is not that movie." You don't find that amusing? Then you probably won't like this film, from director Danny DeVito, starring Douglas and Kathleen Turner as a couple whose marriage doesn't just wither away. It implodes. It explodes.

Notable for: DeVito's visual eye and the sheer black-heartedness of the once-happy couple.

"FATAL ATTRACTION," 1987 -- Or, as it was known to married men everywhere, "Scared Straight." Who can forget a wild-eyed Glenn Close insisting she would not be ignored! She's a book editor who dallies with an attorney (Douglas) one fateful weekend when his lovely wife and daughter are out of town. Before you can say "Madame Butterfly," there's a bunny coming to a boil, a very large knife and plenty of lessons to go around.

Notable for: Turning into a box-office hit and a phenomenon, inspiring feminists and pundits to ruminate on reel life.

"WALL STREET," 1987 -- Greed has been very, very good to Gordon Gekko. Not to mention Douglas, who won an Academy Award for his on-target turn as a ruthless corporate raider. Directed by Oliver Stone and also starring Charlie Sheen, the movie uses women as window dressing -- Sean Young as Gekko's wife and Daryl Hannah as an interior designer. If "Wall Street" was good for Douglas, it was not for Hannah, who won a Razzie for worst supporting actress.

Notable for: Gekko-isms, such as "Lunch is for wimps. ... The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. ... You see that building? I bought that building 10 years ago. My first real estate deal. Sold it two years later, made an $800,000 profit. It was better than sex."

"ROMANCING THE STONE," 1984 -- What does it say about society that Kathleen Turner, now 45, is considered over the hill, while Douglas, at 55, is still being paired with young actresses? Turner is a romance novelist whose sedate life is interrupted by a call from her sister, who's been kidnapped in Colombia. She suddenly finds herself living the sort of life she writes about -- complete with a handsome leading man (Douglas).

Notable for: Being compared to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and falling short, although Turner shines.

"THE CHINA SYNDROME," 1979 -- Publicity like this, you can't buy. (Nor, in a moral world, would you want to.) This movie was released shortly before the Three Mile Island accident, and while Columbia Pictures said the "coincidence is startling and of tremendous concern," the studio was happy to collect moviegoers' money.

TV reporter Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas are on assignment at a nuclear plant when they accidentally witness a near-meltdown. A flack calls it "a routine turbine trip." Come again? And that's just the half of it, as an engineer (Jack Lemmon) discovers cost-cutting measures that put everyone at risk.

Notable for: As a rebel with a cause, Douglas looks like a hippie holdover with his full beard and shoulder-length hair. Or like someone auditioning for the lead in "Jesus Christ Superstar."

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