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Michael Douglas at Lincoln Center.

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn May 28, 2010 at 1:31AM

Michael Douglas at Lincoln Center.
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Michael Douglas is secretly a better movie star than George Clooney.

I have come to this conclusion after attending the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Chaplin Award Gala, which honored the man in a flashy tribute on Monday night. Of course, the Chaplin Award doesn't mean anything in particular about a certain talent at the moment when they receive it; like the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, it merely grabs a person at a certain point in time and says, "Look how good they are...generally." Nevertheless, Douglas is indeed the finest aspect of Oliver Stone's upcoming "Wall Street" sequel, but the pure grown-up nature of his filmography is what has sold him as a brand since his late career emergence as an actor of refined sleaziness. "Wonder Boys" is fine, and "Traffic" buries his performance in its pile-up of busy subplots, but "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" bring us an actor at the height of his suave abilities. Unlike Clooney, Douglas has always been associated with prestige, from his early Oscar win for producing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" ("I loved to argue with Michael Douglas," said Milos Forman on Monday) to his series of roles in elegant, character-driven stories that rarely involve any unnecessary explosions or even a whole lot of death. They're both haunting and intelligent because Douglas makes them real. Even "The Game" plays like a restrained psychological thriller because Douglas barely overstates its unbelievable twists.

A host of Hollywood personalities took the stage at Alice Tully Hall, including Frank Langella (radiating magnificence, of course) and Tobey Maguire, who jokingly complained about Shia Labeouf's presence in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps": "I thought we had something going on," he said, referencing their chemistry on "Wonder Boys." Brian Williams revealed that Douglas voices the intro to NBC Nightly News. Douglas's wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, still beaming from her Drama Desk win for "A Little Night Music" on Sunday, grew teary-eyed when talking about their close family dynamic. And when big daddy Kirk Douglas, 93 years young, walked into the spotlight to express pride for his boy's achievements...well, everyone grew a little teary at that point.

But Danny Devito truly stole the show with a hilarious tale in which he and Douglas found themselves dealing with a snakebite under most unusual circumstances. ("If that snake bit you in the balls, you wouldn't be here tonight!") Devito also burst out into song and danced across the stage, reveling in the opportunity to do so "in front of the hoity-toity of Lincoln Center." When Douglas finally took the stage at the end of the night, he gleefully shot back, declaring what an honor it was to have his old friend (and former roommate!) talk about him "after several Limoncellos."

Devito and Douglas collaborate on movies from time to time, and you can currently find them onscreen together in "Solitary Man." But someone needs to give these guys a standalone TV show. Now, please.

Here's Douglas shortly before the ceremony on Monday:

This article is related to: Independent Cinema