The Coolidge Corner Theater honored actor and producer Michael Douglas in front of a packed audience on November 29. Douglas was the recipient of the Coolidge Award, which awards performers whose “work advances the spirit of original and challenging cinema.” The awards previous recipients included Meryl Street, Jane Fonda, and Viggo Mortensen.

The iconic film actor (and producer) was also honored on Tuesday with the Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award from Boston University. Learning that Douglas would be in town, the Coolidge Corner Theater staff asked if he would accept this award to which he enthusiastically agreed. Beth Gilligan, the director of development and marketing at the theater, explained that Douglas is more than just a Hollywood movie star — he embodies so much of the spirit of this beloved Brookline community staple.

“He’s had a remarkable career and has a remarkable range as an actor,” said Gilligan. “He’s taken a risk on directors like David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh who were relatively unknown at the time he worked with them. He has also had a diverse career, appearing both in major blockbusters like Fatal Attraction and Wall Street as well as a smaller, independent films.”

Douglas is also a humanitarian, holding the formal title as a UN Messenger of Peace and advocating on issues like nuclear disarmament, anti-Semitism and political gerrymandering. “His world goes beyond Hollywood. That is something, as a non-profit organization, we certainly appreciate,” Gilligan said. 

Douglas sat onstage with WGBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen to discuss his varied life and career. Surprisingly, as a young person, Douglas initially had no interest in going into acting despite being the son of two actors, Diana and Kirk Douglas. He recalls his elite prep school education in Connecticut and then his hippie college lifestyle at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I hit my junior year and needed to declare a major so I just decided on theater because of my parents.” Douglas recalls with candor his very early attempts at theater, “I was terrible.” He even remembered his father Kirk Douglas telling him after a performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, “Michael, you’re terrible,” to the chuckling audience.

Michael Douglas’s big acting break came in 1972 in the series The Streets of San Francisco. When the series drew claps from the audience, Douglas quipped, “Wow, there is some old people in this audience.” Douglas also gained recognition as a producer with 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “Every studio turned down the completed film until United Artists,” he said. He went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for this work, but Douglas still felt he overshadowed by his famous father. “I felt people looked at me and still saw my father. It can be a double-edged sword being the child of a famous parent,” he said.
“It can be a tough time finding your own thing.”

The year 1987 was a major turning point for Douglas. He appeared in two major blockbusters, Fatal Attraction and Wall Street. “I finally felt I was out of my father’s shadow.” Each film solidified Douglas not just an acting force but a pop culture icon as well. The moderator Jared Bowen good-naturedly needled the actor for famously saying that greed is good in Wall Street. “Mr. Douglas, what did you do to America!,” Bowen said. The subsequent years came with even more memorable roles in Basic Instinct, Romancing the Stone, The Game, The American President and Wonder Boys. “I am attracted to ambivalent characters who are neither entirely good nor entirely evil, who may have just a streak of malice in them,” Douglass said.

Douglas pointed out how many of these films featured dynamite performances from his female co-star like Glenn Close, Sharon Stone, and Kathleen Turner. With a nod to the MeToo movement, Douglas emphasized how important it was for performers to feel safe during sex scenes. “We try to choreograph sex scenes like fight scenes and use humor to ease the tension,” he said. “These women had their best performances when working with me. Sex scenes must be comfortable for everyone.”

As a survivor of throat and tongue cancer, Douglas reminded cancer survivors in the audience, “Keep checking in!” He also described his “phenomenal” experience currently working for Netflix for The Kominsky Method. Regardless of what his future holds, the 72-year old shows no interest in stopping. “I love what I am doing,” he said. “Acting is about lying; it frees you up. It doesn’t matter what you are saying as long as the audience believes me.”

Douglas also appealed to the audience to continue their support of the Coolidge Corner Theater. Facing the audience directly, he exclaimed “This is an incredible place,” he said. “Keep up your support!” As Gilligan also noted, “The Coolidge is more than just a movie theater — it’s a community cultural center. Our audience wants to delve into art, not just watch movies. This is not something you are going to find at the Fenway Regal or AMC Loews Common. There is a lot more going on here than a traditional movie theater. It’s a place for conversation.”

The theater will continue to celebrate Douglas’s varied career in the coming weeks by showcasing some of his acting and producing roles like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The Game and the lesser-known (but critically acclaimed) Wonder Boys

By Alicia Landsberg

Photo Credit: A. Gallagher Dixon