Who's Your Daddy?

A riveting HBO documentary examines father/son relationships through Kirk and Michael Douglas.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 1, 2006

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A Father ... a Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Includes: Interviews and featurettes.
You'll Like It If You Like: Hollywood
history, father/son dynamics, documentaries.

"I couldn't do it, and you did it." That's movie star Kirk Douglas talking to his movie star son Michael Douglas in the brutally honest opening minutes of this HBO documentary about their lives and resentments.

He's speaking about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the book for which Kirk bought the rights, starred in off-Broadway, then watched his own son produce the movie and cast Jack Nicholson-who won an Oscar-in the lead.

"That was a low, low point in my life," says Kirk.

"What do you think I should have done differently?" Michael asks.

"Oh! Oh boy!" the father yells. "That's a good question! ... You could have said, 'No, no, my father must play that part.'"

"Jack Nicholson was 24 years younger than you," Michael sensibly answers, but the facts aren't really the point here. Thirty years later this quarrel is as alive as if it happened last year.

You see it in their animalistic body language as much as their words. Freeze your DVD player on Michael's bitter, angry expression while his dad rehashes these old resentments. Or on Kirk's equally furious face.

Then check out the amazing finale. First Kirk interrupts his son to say, "I forgive you" (yeah, right)-except he says it staring straight into Michael's eyes, with his hand around his son's neck, as threatening and intimidating as the gunslingers he played in old Westerns.

They laugh and kiss on the mouth, but Michael still throws in, "I forgive you"-as if that were the point-and then repeats, "I forgive you." Except this time, he looks down, as if saying it to himself.

Forgiving yourself and forgiving your father-that's the theme of this riveting documentary, which seems like it's going to be a PR puff piece but then turns into one of the most raw, candid looks at fathers and sons ever put on film. "That was the tragedy of my life," says Kirk about his own father, an abusive Lower East Side ragman. "I never got that [approval] from my father because he wasn't able to give it."

Filmmaker Lee Grant-who won an acting Oscar for Shampoo in 1975-vividly traces four generations of male anger, unhappiness and dysfunction. Kirk's dad? "He was a failure," reports his son. "He couldn't support his family."

Kirk himself? "Dad was a bully," says Michael's brother Joel. "He wasn't obviously the normal kind of father."

And Michael? In the words of his own mother, he "was not able to be around a lot" as a father (sound familiar?) and therefore had a son who was a drug addict at 14. In one of the film's most startlingly poignant moments, John Candyesque brother Joel suddenly asks the camera: "What goes on inside there, Mike? What goes on?"

Kirk zealously slept around on both his first wife, who left him, and his second one, a chic Frenchwoman who blandly says, "I don't think that many men are very faithful anyway," yet acknowledges, "it wasn't easy and I felt I was a little bit diminished." She singles out the last 12 years-through most of which Kirk has struggled to recover from a disabling stroke-as "the happiest years of our life."

Michael, too, kindly calls his dad's stroke "a blessing in disguise."

Kirk, for his part, yells, "What's wrong with sex addiction? I've had it all my life! It never bothered me!"

Filled with backhanded compliments and grudging accommodations, the movie captures the competitive bile and love of a real family better than a thousand sappy family dramas. Grant's got an especially effective technique of holding her camera on people's faces after they've stopped talking, capturing their wayward emotions even as she brings in someone else's perspective in voiceover.

It's a way of achieving what all documentary filmmakers are striving for: the plausible sting of real life. "Forget acting," as Michael says about being his dad's son right at the start of the movie. "You just didn't even know how you'd ever be a man."

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