Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Films of Michael Caine #41: Educating Rita
Cast: Michael Caine (Dr Frank Bryant), Julie Walters (Rita), Michael Williams (Brian), Maureen Lipman (Trish), Jeananne Crowley (Julia), Malcolm Douglas (Denny).
Crew: Lewis Gilbert (director and producer), Willy Russell (writer), David Hentschel (music), Frank Watts (cinematography), Garth Craven (editor), Maurice Fowler (art direction).
Synopsis: Rita is a 26-year-old hairdresser who wants to better herself. She enrols for an Open University course on English literature and begins taking tutorials with Dr Frank Bryant, a drunken lecturer who used to be a poet. Rita’s husband Denny wants children but she wants to discover herself first. When Denny gives Rita an ultimatum, she chooses learning ahead of him. Rita begins flatting with Trish, a glamorous woman who seems to have all the answers. Frank receives a final warning from the college after trying to deliver a lecture while drunk. Rita is now able to recite poetry from memory and will pass her exam with ease, but Frank dismisses all that, saying she has just swapped one life for another. When Trish tries to commit suicide, Rita realises what her own odyssey has been about. She now has choices. Rita sits the exam and passes with distinction. Frank is leaving for a two-year sabbatical in Australia. Rita declines the chance to accompany him, but gives Frank a haircut as a going away present.
Educating Rita started life as a stage play by Willy Russell, with Julie Walters originating the leading role. Director-producer Lewis Gilbert acquired the film rights, hiring Russell to adapt his own script for the cinema. When the project was turned down by all the major studios, Gilbert raised the $6 million budget from bankers in the City of London. He began shooting the film without a distribution deal in place, a move that gave him the freedom to cast whomever he wanted in the two main roles.
‘The stories about Dolly Parton are true,’ Gilbert told Films and Filming in 1985. ‘The studios wanted her to play Rita and the film to be set in America.’ Executives also wanted Rita and Frank to end up in bed together. Gilbert retained Walters from the original stage production. The director chose Caine to be drunken lecturer Frank. The pair had worked together on Alfie (1966), a film that won international acclaim and earned Caine his first Oscar nomination. ‘Michael has matured and progressed as an actor,’ Gilbert said. ‘He was well cast in Alfie, but there are things in Educating Rita he couldn’t have done 16 years previously. He just gets better and better.’
To prepare for the part Caine transformed himself physically, putting on weight and growing a full beard. ‘When I played Frank, I based him on two people I know,’ Caine said in his acting masterclass. ‘While I knew what it was like to be drunk, alcoholism was another thing; and I had no concept of how a university lecturer behaves – I’d never been to a university. I based Frank-the-lecturer partly on a writer friend of mine named Robert Bolt, who was a great teacher. I’d seen him talking and explaining, I knew his manner. And for Frank-the-alcoholic I imagined myself to be another friend of mine named Peter Langan, someone who behaved like an alcoholic of truly historic proportions. I amalgamated the two people to make Frank.’
Caine said it would have been a cliché for Rita and Frank to fall into bed with each other. ‘I felt very strongly that although Frank does fall in love with Rita, it’s never spoken about and is totally unrequited. I gained 35 pounds and grew a beard because there should never have been the possibility of Rita’s being sexually attracted to this fat old drunk.’
Educating Rita was filmed entirely on location in the Republic of Ireland during the summer of 1982. For five weeks the production was based in Dublin’s Trinity College while all the students were away on holiday. Another five weeks followed shooting in and around the capital city. Fake snow was used on the college quad to simulate winter.
Caine has frequently said the film is among his favourite performances. ‘It was a big character change for me,’ he told Venice magazine in 2002. ‘Up until that point I’d playing Michael Caine-ish in everything. The most extraordinary thing about that role for me was that I could find nothing of myself in it. He was the farthest away from myself I’d ever been with a character, which is the ideal place for an actor to be. Julie Walters really helped to make me look good. She’d never done a movie before. She’d done the play, so she was very into the characters, but I thought she played down, into the style of film acting, just beautifully. A lot of theatre actors would have gone over the top with it.’
The film was released across Britain with a 15 rating in April 1983, attracting rave reviews and grossing nearly $4 million at the box office. It reached America in September that year. Initially rated an R, that was reduced to PG on appeal. Again, critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive and it grossed nearly $15 million during a six-month run in cinemas. At the end of 1983 Educating Rita was included in many critic’s top ten film lists for the year, leading to a strong showing in the major cinema awards.
Caine and Walters both won Golden Globe awards as best actor and actress in a musical or comedy. The pair also won acting awards at the BAFTAs and Gilbert received the best film trophy. At the Oscars, Caine, Walters and Russell were all nominated but left empty-handed. Best Actor went to Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies (1983) – the only American among the five nominees. Caine would have to wait nearly twenty years before receiving another best actor nomination.
Educating Rita was first released on VHS in 1986. A budget price DVD version was issued during 1999 in the UK. In the BFI’s 1999 poll to find the Top 100 British movies of the twentieth century, Educating Rita was one of seven Caine pictures on the list, being voted 84th best film. In 2002 there were rumours of a remake starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Halle Berry.
Reviews: ‘This is a master film actor’s performance. The goal of Caine’s technique seems to be to dissolve all vestiges of “technique”. He lets nothing get between you and the character he plays.’ – New Yorker
‘Caine’s unselfish partnering of the newcomer [Julie Walters] doesn’t conceal the finesse that now shades his every appearance on the screen…’ – Evening Standard
Verdict: Educating Rita is a wonderful film, blessed by fine performances from the two leads. On the surface the plot has echoes of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, but this film covers more than matters of class or accent. Educating Rita is also about self worth, personal freedom and making choices. Caine stretches himself, showing how far he had grown as an actor. It’s not just the physical transformation that is startling, but the depth of emotional on display in the eyes and the voice. Compare that with the lazy kickabout that was Caine’s performance in Victory (1981) just two years earlier. Walters shines as Rita, giving no hint this is her first major film role. Gilbert directs with deft simplicity, giving Russell’s poignant and funny script a fitting vehicle. You only need to imagine a Hollywood remake of the story to realise how restrained and sensitive this version is. The only sour note comes from the grating, cod-classical synthesiser score. It badly dates what should be a timeless film. Otherwise, Educating Rita is close to perfect.