FEATURE MICHAEL DOUGLAS
till shaken by the LA riots, the American media awaited the aftermath of the Rodney King appeal hoping. in the true Hollywood. for a sequel that would deliver the thrills and spills of the original. It failed to arrive. but by then there was something else to fill the banner headlines on the front pages: a movie that dared to confront the social breakdown of America’s most tense of cities without a glimmer of political correctness.
The papers went mad over Falling Down, the story of a sacked defence worker who blows a mental fuse while stuck in a traffic jam. abandons his car on the freeway and heads for the home of his estranged wife and daughter. On the way he trashes a Korean store. comes into violent conflict with a Chicano gang. shoots up a burger bar. and kills a neo-Nazi. An ordinary tale of everyday madness in the City of Angels where the Devil commands? Where Michael Douglas has previously brushed the raw nerves of adultery (Fatal Attraction). greed (Wall Street) and lust (Basic Instinct). with Falling Down he takes the rotten tooth of urban decay and hits it with a powerhammer.
‘Well. Los Angeles did not receive the movie very well.’ admits the 48-year-old actor. ‘We all were somewhat surprised at the amount of criticism and denial by the newspapers. but what was clear was that we obviously hit a nerve?
An actor. then. who has a basic attraction for characters with fatal instincts? After a few minor screen roles and a stint opposite Karl Malden in TV’s The Streets of San Francisco, Douglas emerged from his father Kirk’s shadow into a Hollywood spotlight of his own with a run of production credits that began with the Oscar- winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Alternating his behind-the-scenes work with on-screen performances as liberals (The China Syndrome) and low-grade action heroes (Romancing The Stone). he finally secured A- league status in 1987 with the box office bonanza of Fatal Attraction and the Best Acting Oscar for Wall Street.
‘I guess having a producing background. I always look at scripts as the movie and not for the part.’ he explains. ‘and as a result. in some pictures that I act in. I sometimes don’t have the best part. but I still like the movie. After Basic Instinct. 1 had a real need to find a good acting role and I thought Falling Down was the best writing that I had seen in a really long time. I got past the first two pages of the script in a traffic jam. and I went “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I live north of Los Angeles about 90 miles and my life is planned about how I’m gonna come into town and miss the traffic. I get very scared about myself on the freeway when I get gridlocked. I do get nervous. And when this character burst out. I understood that perfectly.’
Douglas was able to tap into one of 'L__-___ _ _ 14 The List 4--l7 June I993
No stranger to controversy, MICHAEL DOUGLAS seems to have surpassed himself with Falling Down, the tale of an ‘ordinary American citizen’ pushed over the edge. Alan Morrison met him and talked violence.
white middle-class America’s greatest fears: that the class blamed by every ethnic and social minority for its troubles is itself slipping from a long-held position of security and prestige. The WASP has lost its sting and can only buzz discontentedly. Until Falling Down. D-FENS. the Douglas character. is further alienated by being known as a number plate. not a human being. and as he travels home. he discovers that he has lost touch with his wife and child. and
that the areas of the city he strays into have
been taken from him and claimed by others.
‘I get very scared about myself on the freeway when I get gridlocked. I do get nervous. And when this character burst
out, I understood that pertectly.’
The film is about his reaction to this social disenfranchisement. and this is where the criticisms are also targeted. While it might be acceptable to go along with Falling [)own’s black-edged satire and cheer the (non-fatal) burger bar disturbance (where the company etiquette would indeed test the patience of a saint). it is an odd and disturbing experience to be in a cinema where fellow members of the audience cheer the assault of an admittedly greedy Korean store-owner or the inadvertant death of Latino hoodlums. At what point does guilty wish-fulfilment become incitement to racism?
‘Part of the theme of the film is that violence begets violence.‘ argues director Joel Schumacher. previously best known for slick teen movies The Lost Boys and F lat/iners. ‘It is no accident that the briefcase turns into a
Mlcheol Douglas: ‘Wo have made a polltlcally Incorrect movle’.
baseball bat. turns into a knife. turns into a bag of guns. and that a child teaches Michael how to use the most sophisticated weapon in the film. There are millions and millions and millions of people who have seen this film now. and I would say. unlike almost any movie I’ve made. there are as many different reactions. However. when you show a movie to 500 or IOOO people and 25 people cheer at Michael hitting the Korean grocer. then what I read in the paper is that the whole audience stood up and cheered. The difference is that when people clap or are excited. they’re the loudest in the room; but usually the person next to them isn’t doing that. I think that you as an audience are responsible for your feelings.
‘Just because we decide to be politically correct doesn’t mean people naturally feel politically correct. We have made a politically incorrect movie. but it does deal with some of the problems that are right in front of our face. It all has to do with a certain preciousness. Pretty soon everybody in movies isjust going to be a nice lawyer in a three-piece suit. and we won’t be able to do anything because it will offend someone. And you won’t like those movies either.’
The pivotal scene in the film takes place in an army surplus store run by a neo-Nazi. played to perfection by Frederic Forrest. Fawning to D- FENS. whose exploits he has been following on police radio and whom he regards as heroic. Forrest — the homophobic. misogynistic racist — says ‘We’re the same. you and l.‘ D-FENS is repulsed: ‘We’re not the same. I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole.‘ But when he shoots the neo-Nazi. does he wipe this accusation off the agenda. or does he become a hypocritical equal? ls D-FENS reallyjust a tax- paying American standing up for his constitutional rights? Douglas is adamant about what his character represents.
‘My character is the villain in the movie.’ he punches home. ‘Some people forget that. maybe because of the responsibilities l have. having made a lot of movies — but I am the villain in this movie. Robert Duvall (who plays the policeman on D-FENS’s tail) is the protagonist. the hero. I’m interested in tracking the moral ambiguities. but they’re not easy to make as films because we all like to have our heroes white and our villains black. I think that all of us suffer from moral ambiguities. questions of good and evil. The character at the beginning of the movie walks out of his car into a traffic jam. which suggests to me that this is not a normal person. And from there. the
picture is a metaphor for his decline as
I well as the city’s decline and our society’s decline. You’re not supposed to follow my character’s path.
‘However. the audience is seduced by D-FENS’s point of view early in the movie. I would say probably up until the neo-Nazi scene. the reaction generally is that people cannot believe that they have been seduced and persuaded into feeling for this character. and then realise. looking into a mirror of themselves. just how easy it is to be persuaded in that way. The truth of the matter is that there are racists in the room. there are racists as part of our society. It’s the truth. it exists.’
Falling Down opens in Scotland on Friday 4 June.