Total Recall

Total Recall: Michael Douglas' Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps star.

by | September 24, 2010 | Comments

Michael Douglas

Born into Hollywood royalty, Michael Douglas started his career with easier access to casting directors than most budding actors — but that will only get you so far, and it’s certainly no guarantee that you’ll put together a filmography that currently stands at four decades and counting, more than 40 films (and nearly $1.5 billion in lifetime grosses), three Golden Globes, two Oscars, and one AFI Life Achievement Award. We think you’ll agree that’s a pretty distinguished list of achievements — and with Douglas’ latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, arriving in theaters this weekend, we decided to take the opportunity to look back on his finest moments… Total Recall style!


10. Falling Down

Released the year after the L.A. riots exposed long-ignored class and racial rifts in American society, Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down presented a time capsule-ready portrait of the growing confusion and resentment felt by many segments of society in the early 1990s. With his buzz cut, thick-rimmed glasses, and starched, buttoned-down wardrobe, Douglas channeled the middle-class disdain that dominated the media during the rise of grunge, gangsta rap, NAFTA, and The Jerry Springer Show, lashing out with a trail of increasingly high-stakes violence during a simmering L.A. afternoon. It’s an awful lot to chew for what was, in many respects, a rather run-of-the-mill action movie, and some critics found Falling Down‘s blend of bloodshed and black humor a bit hard to swallow. Most, however, appreciated its underlying message, including Roger Ebert, who wrote, “The film … is actually about a great sadness which turns into madness, and which can afflict anyone who is told, after many years of hard work, that he is unnecessary and irrelevant.”


9. Wall Street

Smart, sleek, and eminently quotable, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street presented Douglas with what arguably became the most iconic role of his career. He was simply perfect as the oily, morally adrift Gordon Gekko, and although Gekko’s signature proclamation that “greed is good” would go on to haunt Douglas, he was an emblematic character for an era in American history when it became acceptable to not only dedicate your life to the naked pursuit of wealth, but to attain it by any means necessary. The performance won Douglas an Oscar, and roughly 20 years after the wave of financial-sector shenanigans that inspired Wall Street, it became painfully clear that we hadn’t learned our lesson — and Stone was convinced it was time for Gordon Gekko to make his return, setting in motion the sequel that inspired this week’s Total Recall. “Like the rest of Stone’s oeuvre, it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer,” wrote Christopher Lloyd of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “But his filmmaking style is like heavy metal: When he hits the right chords, nobody plays with as much power or brash energy.”


8. The War of the Roses

Douglas and his Romancing the Stone castmates Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito reunited for the second time for this pitch-black comedy about a wealthy married couple (Douglas and Turner) whose disintegrating marriage becomes a desperate, violent squabble over their shared possessions. Doing double duty as director and co-star, DeVito extended his directorial hot streak (begun with 1987’s Throw Momma from the Train), while Douglas and Turner took the love/hate banter they perfected during Stone and Jewel of the Nile and subtracted the love, fueling one of the most entertainingly venomous divorces in cinematic history. As Rob Vaux of the Flipside Movie Emporium put it, “For anyone who ever spent Valentine’s Day alone with a bottle of scotch, for anyone who ever watched the love of their life go stomping out the door, for anyone who ever gazed in hatred at the happy couple spooning in public? this is the movie for you.”


7. Fatal Attraction

After exploring the dark side of lust with 1986’s 9 1/2 Weeks, director Adrian Lyne decided to poke at the seedy underbelly of obsession for the following year’s Fatal Attraction. One of the quintessential thrillers of the 1980s, Attraction follows the horrifying downward spiral set in motion after a married attorney (Douglas) has a one-night stand with a troubled woman (Glenn Close) whose refusal to let go produces fairly dire consequences for everyone concerned. Though it outraged some feminists (and a few bunny owners), Attraction was hugely successful, earning six Academy Award nominations and more than $320 million worldwide — as well as critical raves from the likes of Empire Magazine’s Angie Errigo, who wrote, “Two absolutely riveting performances and a smart reversal of the usual male-female stalker scenario leave behind a nasty taste and an unforgettable cinema experience.”


6. Wonder Boys

A commercial failure so vexing that Paramount took the unusual step of re-releasing the film nine months after it flopped, Wonder Boys united a strong cast (including Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr., Tobey Maguire, and Katie Holmes) to bring to life the well-received novel by Michael Chabon about the adventures of an irresponsible English professor. It was a role uniquely suited to Douglas, who’s all rumpled charm as the pot-smoking, adulterous Grady Tripp — and the source material had an impeccable pedigree, as evidenced by Chabon’s Pulitzer win the following year for The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. So why did the ticket-buying public tune out on Wonder Boys? Whatever the audience’s reasons, it was their loss, as far as most critics were concerned. As Peter Rainer wrote for New York Magazine, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen another American comedy that mixed rue and slapstick and sentiment in quite this way.”


5. Solitary Man

With a filmography as crowded and distinguished as Douglas’, it’s really saying something that one of his ten best-reviewed movies was released just this year. And while it’s true that Solitary Man finds Douglas back in familiar territory — playing an aging cad whose countless poor decisions are finally catching up with him — it’s hard to complain when it’s territory he inhabits this comfortably. Surrounded by a terrific cast that included Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, and his old pal Danny DeVito, Douglas disappears into the skin of an inherently unlikable character and somehow manages to make you root for him — or at least empathize. “Why do we keep watching this sad, sad man?” asked Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, answering, “because he’s ecstatic as long as he avoids facing reality, and Douglas makes that ecstasy a marvelous thing to behold.”


4. The China Syndrome

Taking its title from the theory that the core of a nuclear reactor would melt through the Earth if it suffered a full-scale meltdown, The China Syndrome tried to highlight the dangers of nuclear power — and sure enough, less than two weeks after Syndrome was released, the infamous Three Mile Island accident took place, dominating the news and giving the movie a spooky added element of topicality. Douglas, to this point, had seen his greatest successes on television (on The Streets of San Francisco) and as a producer (with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest); here, acting again as a producer, he starred with Jane Fonda as reporters who witness a narrowly averted meltdown at a power plant, forcing a plant supervisor (Jack Lemmon) to take decisive action. The China Syndrome may have been unusually timely, but it was also a pretty solid conspiracy thriller; as Film4 wrote regarding the four-time Oscar nominee, “The film is one of those rare modern thrillers that manages to combine fantastic acting and intelligent dialogue with real, heart-stopping suspense.”


3. Romancing the Stone

Movies and television shows about dashing adventurers crashing around the jungle in search of lost treasure were all the rage in the 1980s, and most of them were pretty awful. 1984’s Romancing the Stone proved a noteworthy exception to the rule, largely thanks to the palpable chemistry between Douglas and co-star Kathleen Douglas (not to mention the comic antics of Danny DeVito). Though some dismissed it as a Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff, this story of a hapless romance novelist (Turner) and the adventurer (Douglas) who helps her nab a giant emerald from the clutches of a Colombian gangster was one of the bigger hits of the year. More importantly, it established an enduring partnership between Douglas, Turner, and DeVito. “Its combination of romance and adventure (and a bit of comedy) was spot-on,” wrote Christopher Null of Filmcritic, “and few films that have arrived since have captured Stone‘s enthusiasm and good-naturedness.”


2. The American President

Romantic comedies get a pretty bad rap, but the genre wasn’t always the near-exclusive domain of Kate Hudson, Kristen Bell, and Cameron Diaz; once upon a time, you could count on one or two intelligent rom-coms sneaking into theaters and reminding us how it’s done. A case in point: 1995’s The American President, starring Douglas as a widowed president whose romance with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening) becomes the dominant issue of his re-election campaign. With a solid supporting cast (including Richard Dreyfuss and Michael J. Fox), gentle direction from Rob Reiner, and a sharp Aaron Sorkin script, President won a landslide victory with critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who wrote, “With great looks, a dandy supporting cast, a zinger-filled screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Mr. Douglas twinkling merrily in the Oval Office, The American President is sunny enough to make the real Presidency pale by comparison.”


1. Traffic

One of the more darkly ambitious films to make its way through the studio system over the last decade, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic looks at the human cost of the drug trade by following seemingly unconnected stories that slowly converge. In Mexico, a police officer (Benicio del Toro) becomes the unwitting employee of a drug lord; in San Diego, a major dealer (Miguel Ferrer) is targeted by a pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman); and in the Midwest, a crusading judge (Douglas) finds his black-and-white views on drugs challenged when his teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) develops a cocaine addiction. In condensing the six-part BBC series Traffik, Soderbergh had to trim some of the original’s heft, but Traffic was still a four-time Academy Award winner (including Best Director) as well as one of the best-reviewed films of the year, thanks to critics like Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer, who proclaimed, “The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled.”

In case you were wondering, here are Douglas’ top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Game — 82%
2. Traffic — 81%
3. Wall Street — 80%
4. Falling Down — 79%
5. Wonder Boys — 79%
6. The China Syndrome — 76%
7. The American President — 71%
8. The Ghost and the Darkness — 71%
9. Shining Through — 71%
10. Fatal Attraction — 67%

Take a look through Douglas’ complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Finally, here’s Douglas in the way-too-funky title sequence for his breakout role, The Streets of San Francisco:

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