The classic old-world aura is palpable from even a mile away. And when you get to sit within a distance of a few feet from him, you can’t help but admire the charm that Michael Douglas exudes. This was on Monday at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, which, in its 54th edition, is honouring the two-time Academy Award winner with the Satyajit Ray Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Ray connection
“When I was in the University of California in Santa Barbara, I was taking a film course. This was in 1963-64. One of the directors which we studied a lot was Satyajit Ray,” Douglas, 79, told select media at a closed-door interaction in Goa on Monday, minutes after having walked the IFFI red carpet with his actor-wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their eldest-born son Dylan.
“The one thing that I can well and truly say about Ray is that he was more than a film-maker. He directed, he authored books, he sketched, he narrated with that powerful voice, he was a musician... he was a true Renaissance man,” said Douglas, sporting a made-in-India jacket featuring ‘desi’ motifs like leopards, coconut trees and owls, among others.
When asked to name his favourite Ray films, the Hollywood legend picked Pather Panchali and Charulata. Douglas also added that he admired Ray’s cinema because “it deals with people who you would not think of being heroic or large-scale, but showing a reality and a texture that we had known about... and it all left me with an impression.”
The India story
This is not the maiden trip of the family to India. Douglas said that he has visited the country three times previously, mostly to the north and west and was looking forward to his first time in south India. “I first came to India for a recce for the sequel of Romancing the Stone (1984). That didn’t happen in India but my relationship with the country had already begun,” he added.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking striking in a one-shouldered blue gown, spoke of her India connection that “ran deep”. “I have not mentioned this before but when I was 18 months old, an Indian doctor saved my life by performing a tracheostomy on me. I am truly grateful for that. I wonder why but when I come to India, I have this feeling of coming home,” said the Oscar-winning Welsh actress, folding her hands in a namaste.
When asked whether he would be open to an offer from Bollywood, Douglas dismissed it immediately, saying: “I can’t dance!”
But his wife, who was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the musical Chicago, did say that she wouldn’t mind giving a go to a Bolly opportunity.
“I have always been a huge fan of Bollywood, and being a singer and a dancer, I dreamed that maybe the British film industry would do a Bollywood-type film and I would be able to be cast in it. But I wasn’t. My kids were very small and my son would tell you that we showed him Om Shanti Om, which was one of my favourite movies and when Dylan’s friends came over, he would ask them: ‘Do you want to see it?’ He would sell it to them saying: ‘It’s a movie from India, it’s my mom’s favourite movie!” laughed the Entrapment star, with Dylan nodding in agreement from the front row.
Catherine’s love for Indian cinema, however, is not limited to just Bollywood. “I watched The Lunchbox on a long-haul flight and I absolutely fell in love with it... it’s such a pure film. I even sought out the director, Ritesh Batra, and had a long chat with him. I am still waiting for him to cast me in a movie,” she smiled.
Michael’s father Kirk Douglas, of course, has been one of the luminaries of the Golden Age of Hollywood, known for his explosive acting style in both Westerns and war films, among others. Did the two share anything in common in their careers? “Stepping out of my father’s shadow took a long time,” acknowledged Michael, the man who has given us films as diverse as Wall Street and Basic Instinct.
“We sort of had a similar trajectory at the beginning of his career. But there was always the pressure of having a famous father and dealing with that,” acknowledged the actor who, besides his Oscar statuettes, has five Golden Globe Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, the Cecil B. DeMille Award and the AFI Life Achievement Award.
However, he was quick to add that his father — who passed away in 2020 and whose illustrious career boasted classics like Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life and Spartacus among many others — was “always very supportive. People used to ask him: ‘Are you jealous of your son? Are you jealous of his success?’ He would look at them and say: ‘What are you talking about?! This is a continuity of generations. It’s a sense of immortality that you can see going from one generation to the other.’”
A golden career
It’s been a stellar career for Douglas who has proved his mettle not only as an actor but also as a producer, earning his first Oscar as a producer for the 1975 classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. How did he choose such winning scripts, both as actor and producer? “In the last two summers at University, I worked in theatre. There was a programme called the National Playwrights Conference and in this conference, they selected new plays and I was part of an ensemble acting company who would act in these new plays,” said Douglas.
“I learned very quickly that the whole focus was on the material. Many actors could play the parts. It’s how good the material is,” he added.
“Then the first job I had in the business was a television series called The Streets of San Francisco. I did four years of that show, amounting to 104 hours. And then with the success of (One Flew Over) The Cuckoo’s Nest, which was my first picture (as producer), material for me became the most important. I don’t care what it is, but if it’s something that emotionally moves me and is structural, then that’s what I count on. I have been fairly successful over the years trying to stick with good material. I didn’t worry about my parts so much. I would rather have a small part in a good movie than a big part in a bad movie.
The Spielberg factor
Catherine counts The Mask of Zorro and The Terminal as two landmark films in her career, the former produced by Steven Spielberg and the latter directed by him. When asked what it was like to work with Spielberg, unarguably one of the greatest living film-makers, the actress was effusive in her praise.
“When I first went to America to give it a go in American movies, I was cast in a television series about the Titanic. One Sunday night, Steven Spielberg was at home watching TV and he saw me on that show. On Monday morning, he called my agent and said he wanted me to audition for Zorro. I went to meet him on the set of Jurassic Park 2 (The Lost World: Jurassic Park). That would have been enough for me. I would have just gone home,” she laughed. “So I met him, which was amazing. And then he sent me down for a screen test and that was it!”
The love story
That also signalled the start of the love story between Catherine and Michael, with the two having celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary recently. Michael watched her in Zorro and wanted to meet her after that. “I went over to this festival in Deauville and was promoting A Perfect Murder. I looked at the schedule and I saw that the next night Catherine was going to be there for Zorro. She was in the middle of making Entrapment and was going to be there for Zorro. And I said: ‘Well, let me find out if I can meet her, maybe have a drink and say ‘hello’. The rest is history,” laughed the actor.