Michael Douglas, oral sex and the black art of publicity

Jun 4, 2013
Richard Jinman

Michael never meant it THAT way, and Rhys had a reason to be grumpy. Why can’t PRs tell it like it is?

WHEN the indefensible needs to be defended, when black must become white and the genie must be forcibly returned to its bottle, Hollywood turns to its publicists.

They are the men and women who would deny gravity, if gravity were implicated in a story that threatened the reputation of their client. They are the hardy foot-soldiers who, faced with a relatively tame story claiming, for example, that Charlie Sheen "cheated on his wife with a call girl”, can be relied on to angrily deny every syllable.

The publicists were hard at work this week when Hollywood veteran Michael Douglas made headlines around the world by declaring in an interview with The Guardian that his throat cancer was caused by oral sex. “Without getting too specific,” the actor told journalist Xan Brooks – an odd choice of phrase, given that he was about to get very specific - “this particular cancer is caused by something called HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus”.

Journalists, who spend much of their time listening to actors drone on about the “generosity” of their co-stars, tend to remember lines like that. Brooks certainly did and had an audio recording of the interview to back him up.

But a day after the world was handed a vivid and entirely unasked-for mental picture of the 68-year-old actor’s sex life, his spokesman, Allen Burry, said it was all a misunderstanding. Douglas wasn’t linking cunnilingus to his own throat cancer, you see. He was linking cunnilingus to other people’s throat cancer! At a stroke, everything was cleared up – just like Douglas’s tumour.

Closer to home, the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans got into a spot of bother this week when he gave a slurred, irritable interview to Janice Turner, a journalist from The Times. The “interview from hell” ended prematurely when Ifans told Turner to “f*** off” and stormed out.

Right on cue, Rhys Ifans’s “ashen-faced” publicist appeared from the wings with an explanation for her client’s behaviour. The actor’s demeanour was regrettable, but entirely understandable because he had had a “bad reaction” to antibiotics, she said. Ifans was angry, not because he was an egomaniac or an unpleasant person, but because he had received some “bad news” several weeks earlier. The nature of the bad news was not specified.

Weirdly enough, Ifans had “really enjoyed” the interview with Turner, his publicist said. So, in a sense, the expletive-laden tirade and hasty exit were his way of saying ‘thank you’.

Why, just for once, can’t a wayward starlet’s representative hold up her hands and say: “You know what? My client was so high at the time of her arrest she didn’t know she was behind the wheel of a car”. Why can’t the spokesman for an actor who gives monosyllabic answers to a TV host, before tearing off his microphone and walking out, say: “You know what? My client has become a royal pain in the ass since getting the lead in Space Conquest 2.”

It won’t happen, of course. The stars will continue to be misunderstood, misquoted and quoted out of context. Their publicists will continue to issue angry denials and insist the most privileged people on the planet are not only sober, God-fearing, truly inspirational members of the human race, but “rilly nice” too. In publicity, as in war, truth is always the first casualty.

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Forget about the Publicist - Douglas created a sensation that reverberated across the Globe. He blew it on wife Zeta, 3 kids, and baggage as it personally reflects on their relationship with the erring star. Was it Zeta who had HPV, or was he another Charlie Sheen with multiple hookers ? Which !