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Posted at 4:39 PM ET, 09/23/2010

Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street': When life elevates art

By Jen Chaney

Michael Douglas, alongside Shia LaBeouf and Josh Brolin in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." (Barry Wetcher/20th Century Fox)

Michael Douglas, through no fault of his own, brings a bit of baggage to his role as the possibly reformed Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," which arrives in theaters Friday.

That baggage doesn't solely come in the form of his Oscar-winning performance as Gekko in the first "Wall Street," although the specter of that icon-of-'80s-excess is certainly present throughout Oliver Stone's follow-up.

The outside forces that creep most notably into the movie involve what's been happening in Douglas's personal life. It's impossible to watch the film and, at certain points, not think about his recent struggles, both with cancer and his son Cameron's drug problems. But in a demonstration of how an actor's off-screen life can occasionally elevate his work, Douglas's troubles manage to make an already powerful performance even more so.

Note: There are "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" plot spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution.

Cancer. That word is spoken several times throughout this sequel and every time, a viewer can't help but squirm in his or her seat, especially when Douglas uses the word while delivering a lecture in Gekko's first major scene in the movie. In the same moment, we're reminded simultaneously of that iconic "Greed is good" speech from the first "Wall Street," of Douglas's current illness and of the fact that time changes a man -- makes a guy like Gekko more penitent (perhaps) and forces even the strongest actors to confront physical weakness.

Does all of this take our heads out of the narrative for a couple of seconds? Sure. But it also adds impact and poignance to Douglas's work.

That's even more true during a key scene in which Gekko reveals his guilt and shame over the death of a son who had drug problems. Yes, this is Gekko talking. But as Douglas-the-actor's voice breaks, you have to think that thoughts of Cameron Douglas are partially responsible for causing the cracks.

Of course, Douglas's performance is pretty great even if you don't bring his personal matters to the table. But doing so -- even though Douglas undoubtedly did not intend for that to happen, since the movie was filmed a year ago -- takes a fine encore performance of a career-defining role and pushes it into the realm of the truly memorable.

Can you think of other examples of actors whose personal affairs actually enhanced instead of hurt their work? Or is Douglas's "Wall Street" performance a rare success in this department?

By Jen Chaney  | September 23, 2010; 4:39 PM ET
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I've yet to see the movie (we'll be going to it in less than a hour). Normally Stars of film who have tragic personal lives make the best movies. Recent case in point Heath Ledger, Marlon Brando i.e. A Streetcar Named Desire set the tone for it all..everyone trying to become something like method actor letting their inner turmoil propell performances.

Posted by: J_E_T_ | September 24, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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