#26 — Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000)
When Michael Douglas was cast as Grady Tripp, I was mightily disappointed. Wonder Boys was a book I adored, and the news that it was being adapted for the screen by the writer of The Fabulous Baker Boys and the director of L.A. Confidential filled me with brave belief that the commonplace degradation of a literary work by the Hollywood machine would be skillfully sidestepped. I figured it would be easy from there. Cast Jeff Bridges as the lead character, and all would be well.
Instead, director Curtis Hanson opted for Douglas, an actor who still had star cachet despite recent duds, and, of course, a shiny Best Actor Academy Award on his shelf. The hardware suggesting Douglas’s thespian prowess didn’t convince me. I’d long found him to be stiff and problematic as an actor, seemingly always with an eye cocked off screen, as if he were watching himself in monitors to make sure he was operating with his preferred comportment. My dour prejudgement was completely misguided. It turns out Grady Tripp was a perfect role for Douglas.
As has been validated in the years since, Douglas benefits when he strays from the parts that are close to his evident conception of himself, be it sexually irresistible lawyer, sexually irresistible police detective, or sexually irresistible businessman. That’s exactly what Grady Tripp provided him. A bedraggled college professor who’s wrestling with the opposite of writer’s block — he’s chugging away on a novel with pages numbering in the thousands and no end in sight — Grady is exhausted by his persisting existence. He’s aware of his own fractures, but is utterly without the tools or motivation to mend them. To borrow from the justly Oscar-winning song Bob Dylan wrote and performed for the film, Grady used to care, but things have changed.
Douglas wisely plays Grady’s existential malady as a deeply embedded condition. It’s not something that’s come over him all of sudden, or even recently. It’s a long-term evolution that’s reached down to the very marrow. Many actors would include little signals of Grady’s past strength or the stirrings of hope that he will escape this collapse. Douglas rejects that, committing to the character’s flattened state. Misery requires too much energy. Even the treadmill he’s on has ground to a halt.
My reductive, shortsighted view of what Douglas could bring to the role revealed to me what I didn’t quite understand about Grady Tripp, no matter how much authority I brought to my thumping advocacy of the novel. Grady wasn’t simply a broken person. He carried with him the all the qualities that were there when he was on top, celebrated as a brilliant writer, adored and respected by students, and laying claim to all the trophies that come with patriarchal success. The confidence that comes with that type of existence isn’t necessarily eradicated when fortunes shift. Sometimes it transfers and applies itself to develop a strange comfort in dejection. Because certainty is the default in Douglas’s acting, he was able to bring that to the character to a degree most others wouldn’t. Actually, I suspect most others wouldn’t have even thought to try.
And that’s what the best acting does. It opens up truths that we — that I — wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco