Douglas and Zeta-Jones: What went wrong?
05:00 AM, Aug 28, 2013
Another seemingly solid celebrity marriage could be heading to celebrity divorce, raising melancholy questions about the difficulties of staying together while in the grasp of fame.
Not to mention major illness and mental health struggles.
The questions arise on the news today that Michael Douglas, 68, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, 43, are separating. Zeta-Jones’ publicist, Cece Yorke and Douglas’ publicist, Allen Burry, confirmed to USA TODAY in a statement that the two “are taking some time apart to evaluate and work on their marriage.”
The couple have weathered major medical setbacks in recent years: he battled throat cancer, she struggles with bipolar disorder.
Plus, there’s the 25-year age difference and the prison sentence for his son from his first marriage.
Still, they have two kids together and they have been married for 13 years, which is pretty good for a Hollywood marriage. Why couldn’t they stay together? And if they can’t, who can?
“As evidenced by the 50% divorce rate, marriages are hard to begin with, and Hollywood marriages are that much harder because of travel, temptation, other issues,” says celebrity watcher Howard Bragman, vice-chairman of Reputation.com.
“And Hollywood marriages with significant issues have got to be the hardest of all,” he says. “With his cancer and her mental-health issues, it’s an incredible challenge. I give them credit for lasting this long. They were there for each other during the tough times, and I truly believe they wanted to sustain this but most people can understand it doesn’t always work.”
When the two were married in a lavish ceremony in 2000 at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, they were hailed as the newest, hottest May-December union in Hollywood, and neither seemed bothered by the age difference. But the gap sets up potential problems, says Bonnie Fuller, editor in chief of HollywoodLife.com, who spoke with friends in their circle.
“He had so much life experience. He’d been through a marriage, he’d had a child. I think he was madly in love with her, but he brought a much larger life experience into the marriage,” she says. “He was trying to not re-create the problems he’d had in his first marriage. He learned he wanted to be a hands-on father because he hadn’t been with his first son, Cameron. He wanted a second chance to be a husband and a father.”
Plus, she says, he was a “Prince Charming” to an up-and-coming young actress from Wales. “He came from a fabled Hollywood acting family; he already had had a hugely successful career. He brought with him a charmed life for her because of his Hollywood stature and his wealth.”
But his cancer diagnosis was a shock. Then Zeta-Jones confirmed she was being treated for bipolar disorder with therapy and drugs. She was praised for her openness and willingness to undercut the stigma of mental-health conditions, but “it’s always difficult in a relationship to cope with depression and mental illness,” Fuller says.
Still, all may not be lost, Fuller says.
“They’re taking some time apart, but they’re not doing anything further,” she says. “They’re not trying a legal separation. They’re not getting lawyers. They’ve been so committed as a family, and have been so in love with each other, I’m sure they will still work hard to see if they can continue to make it work.”
New York psychotherapist Bonnie Eaker Weil applauds the couple’s decision to take some time apart. “I call it a breakup to make up,” says the author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up. “The fact that they didn’t file for divorce yet shows they know they need to take a breather.”
Indeed, the announcement “could be just the beginning” a new beginning.
Compounded stress is harder on stars, she says.
“Celebrities are in a fairy-tale, honeymoon existence,” Weil says. “They’re not equipped to deal with the realities of life, such as sickness, that catch them off guard. They have to be in a very stable, functioning relationship to withstand the storm.”
If the marriage does end up in court, the signs suggest a reasonable outcome, says Malcolm Taub, who has handled other celebrity divorces as co-chair of the family-law department of the Davidoff Hutcher & Citron firm in New York.
“Both seem to be fairly reasonable people,” Taub says. “He stood up to the plate in his first divorce (from first wife Diandra), and there’s no reason this will be any different.”
So how come two reasonable people couldn’t make their marriage work? Because they’re just like everybody else, but with more pressures, Taub says.
“Their lives are looked at under a microscope. They’re both working in different places and different times,” he says. “They have conflicts that most people don’t have, and the accumulated effect can lead to a breakdown in honesty, trust and intimacy, which in turn leads to estrangement.”
Add medical pressures and the result can be either exacerbating or ameliorating, he says.
“One celebrity divorce I handled, the husband after the divorce had a relapse of cancer, which reunited the couple and the former wife was with him until the day he died,” Taub says. “Or a medical issue can present another major, major stress which creates a breakdown in the relationship.”
Bragman says there is sympathy in the movie world today but not shock. The couple’s difficulties had been reported in the celebrity and tabloid press.
“A lot of people wanted this to work because they’re popular, as a couple and individually,” he says. “Everyone wanted them to succeed. All we can do is wish them well.”