Michael Douglas: Erotic Everyman

illustration by Vanessa McKee

When Michael Douglas was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010, he suggested it was caused by the fact that, throughout his life, he had performed too much oral sex. “Cunnilingus is also the best cure for it,” he continued. “It giveth, and it taketh.

The world’s strangest (and most scientifically slippery) humblebrag is unsurprising coming from a man who made his name navigating sexual quagmires—dominating the mainstream erotic thriller genre with his white-collar snarl and mystifying sex appeal. His late ‘80s–‘90s reign was uncontested, as he thrust his way through Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure, and A Perfect Murder with slack-jowled precision and hot-blooded virility. Thanks to Douglas’ reliable presence in these thrillers, I can almost put a figure to the curvature of his backside, the pattern of his chest hair, the way his grey-streaked hair falls as he languishes in a post-coital recline. But the Michael Douglas we know didn’t emerge fully formed, a synonym for inexplicable charisma, a pulled elastic ready to snap. He wasn’t a mere product of the mainstream erotic thriller, nor just an active player. The genre’s trajectory not only eerily echoed the version the public was presented of Michael Douglas, but what was happening in America, too: reflecting and refracting the zeitgeist with each and every ragged breath. 

As the progeny of one of Hollywood’s most brawny and brutish charmers, the younger Douglas could never entirely escape the intrinsic genetic bravado that his father passed on. “I don’t find virtue photogenic,” Kirk Douglas barked in 1984, evidenced by a slew of roles that flouted his steely bravado: from indurated film producer Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful to an ex-CIA agent in telekinesis thriller The Fury. In his personal life, the elder Douglas was chronically unlikeable and prolifically unfaithful, and his sons were tasked with living up to their father’s intensity and volatility. In his biography, Marc Eliot described Michael’s erotic thriller roles as the “ghosts of his father’s philandering.”

When Michael Douglas won an Oscar in 1976 for producing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he seemed to finally step out from under the shadow of his father and into the light. Still, he wasn’t quite the towering figure his father was: he flitted between various acting roles that, though successful, were not particularly memorable. “It’s difficult to get your own identity. I think all of my father’s four sons have taken a little longer to find themselves,” Douglas said in a 1986 interview. “I’m still looking.” 

Just one year later, during his 43rd trip around the sun, his public persona would finally emerge and stick. Stephanie Mansfield, in a less-than-effusive 1987 interview with the actor for The Washington Post, laid out the following scene:

Michael Douglas walks across the muted antique silk oriental rug in soft, black leather loafers, lavender shirt and tortoise-shell glasses, his brown hair correctly tousled, and picks up the receiver. “Yeah, hi. Mmmhhm. Mmmhhmm. Look, can I call you back? I’m in a meeting.” Other movie stars might have said “interview.” But Douglas, the consummate corporate actor, doesn’t give interviews. He takes meetings, chain-smoking Marlboros.

While it was his Oscar-winning turn in 1987’s Wall Street that posited Douglas as the poster boy for All-American greed, his erotic thriller roles tangibly combined those loathsome attributes with a recognizable fallibility. Fatal Attraction, an Icarus-like nightmare that made emancipated businesswomen into psychotic monsters, would come to define both Michael Douglas and the genre he would dominate. 


Fatal Attraction gave audiences a morality tale, implicitly marketed as softcore sexpropaganda that wanted us to forgive men for making one tiny mistake. When Dan Gallagher (Douglas) sleeps with his sexually confident colleague Alex (Glenn Close) while his wife is away for the weekend, he doesn’t anticipate that Alex will come back to haunt him in the form of obsessive stalking and animal cruelty. Dan is just one man caught up in the anything-goes nature of the late ‘80s, with its loose morals and flirty co-ed offices. He’s the standard American male who can participate in illicit behavior and keep his sparkling reputation. Until he can’t. 

When Glenn Close looks Michael Douglas squarely in the face and delivers the infamous lineI’m not going to be ignored, Dan”—her character is speaking about something bigger than herself. Men will no longer get away with shirking their responsibilities. Women, with their demands and desires, were no longer to be ignored. While in the late 80s there was cultural cognizance around the dangers of casual sex due to the AIDS crisis, the average hot-blooded heterosexual was also, now, not safe. With a quivering jowl and nervous stammer, Dan Gallagher’s fear reverberated across the country. “It scared the shit out of me,” says Tom Hanks’ character in Sleepless in Seattle. “It scared the shit out of every man in America!” The slow zoom into the nuclear family photograph at Fatal Attraction’s finale may lessen the audience’s discomfort with a knowing wink, but the film doesn’t quite earn that theory. Ned Tanen, a former executive at Paramount, made the film’s aim in relation to Alex crystal-clear: “to terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice.

But you can’t keep a good girl down. 

Perennially with his pants around his ankles, seeing Michael Douglas in an erotic thriller is the equivalent of watching teens enter a haunted house in a horror film. You want to scream, “Don’t go in there!” as he locks eyes with yet another perma-trim temptress. But part of the thrill of a schlocky horror is watching reckless kids get pecked off, one by one. Much is the same with Michael Douglas. 

There’s a sensual brutality to his face that is hard to put a finger on, the way it’s neither rugged nor pretty. Perhaps it’s the way his bottom lip protrudes, full and glossy; his lopsided smirk; the glassy, corporate eyes that want to rail you against a hard surface. The pleasure of a Douglas flick doesn’t stem so much from him being sexyalthough he isbut from the thrill in watching beautiful and powerful women fuck this despicable loser around, ergo emasculating the All-American values he symbolizes. 

And boy is he fucked around by Catherine Tramell, Sharon Stone’s ice-cold femme fatale in Basic Instinct and the cinematic equivalent of a cocaine comedown. While Fatal Attraction’s Alex was decidedly ‘80s with her permed hair and power shoulders, Catherine was a product of the modern ‘90s: sleek, blow-dried, loose. Like Alex, she was intimidatingly smart, with a “magna cum laude pussy” to boot. Michael Douglas thought he knew what to expect as an industry veteran, but even he was wrongfooted by Sharon Stone: an actress he thought wasn’t big enough to co-star with him, and yet would emerge as the film’s star. Criticism of the film’s bisexual themes also caught him off guard: “This is a detective smut novel…That’s all it is. Listen to this bullshit. Jesus, give me a break.”

There are boundless hints in Basic Instinct that Michael Douglas, Nick Curran, whichever, is getting left behind. It’s there in his knitted V-neck sweater as Sharon Stone aerobicizes around him in a hip club, clad in golden sequins. His cocaine addiction niggles at him and his slippery sobriety has him jangling with nerves. As smarter, younger, hotter people dance circles around him, we see every fibre of fury etched into his face, spilling out into rough sex and reckless behavior. 

In 1992, the same year Basic Instinct came out, Michael Douglas checked into rehab for alcohol addiction. Years of womanizing and bachelordom would ensue, as would—tangentially—the emergence of third-wave feminism and the fading popularity of the erotic thriller. This was the peak of the genre, the height of the party, where VHS sales soared and orgasms were performed with the gusto of an exorcism. But as with most cheap thrills, nothing this good can last that long. 


In 2018, Deadline interviewed Michael Douglas about a former female employee of his who had accused him of masturbating in front of her in 1986. He denied the claim. “The woman, it turns out, is a blogger,” he said. “It leads me to believe she either has or is trying to get a book deal…maybe she is disgruntled her career didn’t go the way she hoped.” A pause. “Being accused, without a chance [to defend yourself] in court. To not even really have the information in front of you, to be able to argue or defend yourself…”

In 1994’s Disclosure, the problem is not so much a person, but a pair of waxed legs in stilettos. Husky voiced and raven haired, Meredith (Demi Moore) is a senior employee in a software company and, as a character, has no recognizable attributes that may belong to a real-life person: merely a Thing to hate with irascible ease. “You used to have fun with the girls,” says one disgruntled worker. “Nowadays, she probably wants your job.” When Meredith reunites with Michael’s Tom, a past lover and now her workplace subordinate, he simply cannot handle that someone he used to think of as a sexual object now has sway over his professional career.

“Why don’t I be that guy — that evil, white male you’re all complaining about?” Michael/Tom whines as Meredith hits him with a bogus sexual assault charge as revenge for spurning her advances. Prior to the incident, he was well past his days seeing “more ass than a rental car”he’s married and perfectly content with his new life of trips with his kids to Disneyland. But after he is sexually humiliated by a powerful woman in the workplace, a metaphorical vein pops. What about men, he says? What about male suicide? What about all of us who fight in war? After one ordeal of false accusation, he morphs into the contemporary equivalent of a Reddit-dwelling incel.

Whether we like it or not, we’re with him at every turn. Disclosure engenders a feeling of cold rage at the progress women have made to fuck up the lives of cis, white, heterosexual men with callous simplicity. It is a film that feels genuinely insidious: one that makes you want to reach out and throttle the pencil skirt-clad femme fatale. You sit on the edge of your seat and cheer for her demise. You sincerely hope that her life will be ruined. You find yourself wanting her to be flattened by the system she’s managed to rise up in. She’s the proto-Gaslight Gatekeep Girlboss, and here, the glass ceiling is the River Styx.

You get the feeling that Tom isn’t entirely innocent of prior wrongdoing, just in this particular case. No matter. Michael Douglas’ third erotic thriller role is his most sympathetic, yet by trading in his complicity, the film hinges upon a theory that will only ever do more harm than good. Imagined threats combine with forward-looking futurism and jargon-heavy technobabble, leaving protagonist and audience alike to scramble for air. The sexual politics of the ‘90s were murkier than Disclosure suggests that they are, and the film does not care that false rape accusations are exceedingly rare.


By 1998, Michael Douglas is done with passively allowing schemes to happen to him: he’s now quiet, seething, Machiavellian. The Hitchcock remake A Perfect Murder belongs to a specific type of late-‘90s thriller so stuffed full of plot it’s nearly doubled over, noticeably creased from endless folding and unfolding. As Wall Street financier Steven Taylor, Douglas is still a symbol of vitriolic American powerso when he discovers his young wife Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) is cheating on him, it’s only expected that he arrange for her violent demise. A divorce won’t do—he has to annihilate her.

It’s never good news when a loud man gets quiet. Michael is sapped of corporate charm, coke-fuelled wit, victim-mode sympathy here. This feels like the breaking point. Rock bottom. He strokes his chin. His eyes are steely, liquefied by rage. The motivation is apparently money, but Steven is the kind of man who would rather get the last word than have a house on Long Island. It’s hard to put my finger on why this movie, out of all of Douglas’ thrillers, leaves such a lingering sense of dread when it’s arguably the most forgettable, going out with a whimper as opposed to a bang. Maybe it’s because this time around, he doesn’t survive. When Emily shoots Steven during the movie’s finale, she puts the nail in the mainstream erotic thriller’s coffin. As a genre that insists on navigating lust and gender roles while also thrilling its mainly male, heterosexual audience, it simply could not keep up with the times.

Or maybe it’s because erotic thrillers may have faded out, but these men haven’t gone anywhere in real life. So where did they go? “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Steven says slyly to his colleagues at a business function. He may have been killed at the end of this film, but Douglas’ entire reputation was about to be reborn: more straight-edge dramatic roles, humanitarian work, a highly-publicized romance with Catherine Zeta-Jones, two more children, Marvel movies, a cancer scare. One Michael Douglas died and another was reborn. The ghosts of his roles were banished to VHS shelves.

Where did they go?


The erotic thriller had a short shelf life: a soaring hit of kaleidoscopic smut followed by a sharp comedown, blinking blearily into the daylight of a newly moralistic millennium. Michael Douglas was there for the first bump, the aggressive high, and the fade-out of a genre that’s often rejected to this day as misogynistic shlock. But who truly comes off the worst in these films? Michael was the yuppie, the WASP, the Hitchcockian Everyman. He was the aggressor and the aggressed upon. He was, to paraphrase The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema author Linda Williams, hung like a horse but not very smart. As women pursue him into sweaty corners, nobody looks dumber than the spluttering, dumbstruck, red-faced pawn: the puppet in a suit following pairs of legs up darkly lit stairwells. And as a stand-in for the fragile white male ego, Michael Douglas was the sine qua non of the erotic thriller.