Photos courtesy of Anchor Bay and Millennium Films
Review by Ryan Wilson
Actor Michael Douglas has received plenty of attention lately. First for his return to the screen as Gordon Geko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel, and secondly for his personal struggle with cancer. Both have overshadowed Douglas’ best performance in years in the film Solitary Man, released last month on DVD.
It’s difficult to forget Douglas’ current health problems in the movie’s first scene, when his character receives a less than stellar diagnosis from his physician. The news literally wipes the smile from his face and rearranges his priorities. Cut to six years later and the audience sees just how mortality has changed the character’s morality.
But I’d like to shelve the cause and effect of what changes this man. I’m not accustomed to wondering why Douglas’ characters do what they do. A figure like Gordon Geko simply exists in the world. Enough said. And in Douglas’ other famous act as a philandering husband in films like Fatal Attraction and Disclosure, I never think of what causes him to cheat on his wife. Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, these men are flawed, but they’re somehow forgiven. To accept a Michael Douglas film from the 1980s and 1990s is to accept that men in general are weak victims of their own sexual appetites.
In Solitary Man, Douglas’ appetite is as large as ever, which is only still interesting because Douglas is an older man now. It’s his mixture of youthful libido within a weathered body that’s so puzzling. And it takes more than a Viagra prescription to unravel.
Douglas plays Ben Kalman, a once successful car dealer, who’s fallen into some financial trouble due to some unethical business practices. He’s an aggressive guy who takes big chances in his professional and personal life. Ben is like an older version of a former Douglas character, one who never learned his lesson from the knife-wielding Glenn Close or the ice-pick-hiding Sharon Stone.
Which is why I don’t like the information we get early about his health. It provides too easy an answer for his reckless behavior. I'd rather just consider the aging male at his most disturbed. For example, Douglas’ Ben wants to be a good grandfather, but he won’t even let his grandson call him "grandpa" in public because there might be younger women in earshot.
And no age is too young. Ben beds his grown daughter’s friends (making future play-dates awkward we're told) as well as his younger girlfriend’s teenage daughter, whom he takes to her college interview. All of this might be simply humorous or disconcerting if Douglas didn't add gravity to each conquest. He’s as utterly confused as the young ladies he acquires.
Solitary Man might have been just another warmed over Lolita story if not for Douglas. Whether he’s sitting alone in his apartment or embarrassing himself at a college party, it feels as if we’re getting a peak behind the curtain at a certain male psyche. Rarely do we get an honest glimpse of a man this oily, and no, I’m not just talking about Douglas’ hair. In a culture that has for so long given a man like this everything he’s wanted, how does such a specimen cope with life when time begins to chip away at his monument?
I’d also like to recommend renting or buying two films from director Arthur Penn, who died a few weeks ago.
It’s Penn’s masterful work in the great film decade of the 1970s that helped redefine how we see characters today. First came Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, probably best remembered for the bloody climax where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are gunned down. Such visceral violence surprised audiences at the time, but more lasting was the point of view of the film. Never before were such anti-heroes given such a thoughtful handling. Penn turned Bonnie and Clyde from folk figures to sympathetic killers, and his influence can be seen from Terrance Mallick’s Badlands to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
Penn’s second masterpiece also changed the cultural point of view. 1970’s Little Big Man stars Dustin Hoffman as the adopted son of an Indian tribe in the Wild West. It’s a shaggy dog story that basically lampoons the entire western genre. But more, the film plays with certain perspectives movies had grown accustomed to concerning Manifest Destiny and the role of the Native American. Though played as a comedy, Penn’s film was the first to authentically take the Native American point of view. Among other things, Penn used the western tropes to satirize what we really consider a "human being."
Both Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man are among the best films of the twentieth century.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.
© Ryan Wilson, 2010