Nantucket has never been an island driven by celebrity. Quite the contrary, celebrities are drawn to the island for the reprieve it offers them from the limelight. That is unless you put them on center stage. Enter Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro. On July 13th, the Dreamland Theater will honor these two Oscar-winning actors at its first anniversary gala. “The inaugural event is about reminding people of the power and importance of cinema,” says the Dreamland’s executive director, Melissa Murphy, “and who better to celebrate that with us than these two world- renowned actors?”
Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro are no strangers to Nantucket. In fact, Douglas has extended family on the island, and he has been vacationing on Nantucket with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones for years. “I try to get to Nantucket at least once during the summer,” Douglas says, “because it gives me time to spend with my friends Gerry and Heather in their beautiful home, and a chance to see my cousins Seward, Joyce and Johnny John- son who are also in Nantucket.” Douglas and Zeta- Jones can often be found dining in the candle light at Lola 41, golfing at Sankaty or Miacomet, and hitting the beach out at Surfside with their regular island hosts Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman. “Each summer I look forward to knowing I am going to Nantucket,” Douglas says.
Many people aren’t aware that Robert De Niro is also a Nantucket regular, although his appearances around the island are far less public than Douglas’s. Known for his privacy, De Niro enjoys the quiet refuge the island can afford a star of his renown. Interestingly, his connection to Nantucket extends tenuously to his late father. Robert De Niro Sr. was an acclaimed abstract expressionist painter, and his works have hung in Cavalier Gallery on Main Street in recent years.
Both De Niro and Douglas are finding their way back to the island this July with the help of filmmaker Armyan Bernstein who is both a friend of the actors and a friend of the Dreamland. “I’ve known Michael for many years,” Bernstein says. “I met him when we were young men, and I know him now as we enter the autumn of our years as a friend, and colleague, and fellow filmmaker and especially as a fan.” Bernstein gives a lot of credit to Nantucket for bringing the two actors to the event. “I’m sure neither would have accepted our invitation if they hadn’t have found themselves here and found themselves enchanted by this place,” he says. “The magic of the island surely got to them. They have a special attachment to the island. And they have a fondness to the notion that movie theaters are beautiful things that should be cherished.”
Indeed, Douglas and De Niro haven’t so much worked in the movie industry as defined it for a generation. Just a year apart in age, the two actors ascended the echelons of Hollywood, leaving behind films that serve as time capsules of American culture. They have starred in a combined 152 films, but not one together—until now. Their appearance at the Dreamland comes just after wrapping up their first film collaboration: a Hangover-meets-Ocean’s-11-comedy called Last Vegas.
De Niro is the method actor, the Godfather who can say more with the furrow of his brow and the squint of his eyes than most scripts. He’s played the full spectrum of drama, from the tragic Raging Bull, Jake La Motta, to the comedic father-in-law Jack Byrnes. However, De Niro’s contribution to film extends beyond his Oscar-winning work as an actor and director. A lifelong New Yorker, he founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2002 to promote cinema in the Big Apple and beyond.
Douglas is Hollywood royalty, the son of Kirk Douglas whose legendary role as Spartacus left big sandals for his son to fill. Despite winning his first Academy Award at the age of thirty-one for his work as a producer on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directors were wary of Douglas as an actor, and he languished in minor roles until 1984 when he starred in Romancing the Stone. Then came Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, another Academy Award, and the rest is Hollywood history.
“I do pictures for myself,” Douglas says, “because I figure if I like them, some other crazy people out there might like them, too. You know, once you’ve gained your confidence and done some bizarre, strange films with some roles that have been successful, it gives you the confidence to go out there and take more chances.”
For Douglas, the event at the Dreamland comes at a pivotal time in his career and personal life. After miraculously defeating stage IV throat cancer, he took on a role strikingly different than that of his trademark repertoire. In HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Douglas plays Liberace during the showman’s five-year relationship with Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. Beneath the extravagant costumes and makeup, Douglas abandons the cunning masculinity that has defined many of his roles and embraces an authentic effeminacy and vulnerability that makes his portrayal of the flamboyant show- man Oscar-worthy.
“What appealed to me most about playing Liberace was when I was doing my research everybody I spoke to who knew the man only had positive things to say about him,” Douglas says. “They said he was the nicest, fun person to be around. He loved performing and having direct contact with his audiences. I’ve never had the opportunity to play someone like that, which is obvious from my resume. I’m usually the troubled bad guy.” The performance has been lauded around the world, and with the help of Liberace’s legacy, Douglas’s comeback to film has truly started off on the right note.
Douglas and De Niro’s appearance also comes at a pivotal time for the Dreamland. As with every institution on Nantucket, the theater is trying to define itself and establish its own unique niche on the island. “The question we still get asked the most is ‘Why would I support a movie theater or why is a movie theater a nonprofit?’” says Melissa Murphy. “This year we are trying to focus our messaging on helping people understand the broader picture of the Dreamland and what our role is in the community.” Ultimately, the Dreamland is about nostalgia. It’s about keeping the movie theater experience alive. In bringing in the likes of Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro, two actors who have drawn millions into theaters around the world for decades, the Dreamland reminds audiences that its movie reels will continue to spin for many years to come on Nantucket.