I'm off to visit relatives for the weekend and won't be back until late on Monday, so below you'll find a bumper crop of entries from my book about the films of Michael Caine. The British actor's undergone a remarkable renaissance in the last ten years, when during the mid 90s his career was at one of its lowest ebbs. Personally, I think he was robbed not to get more attention round awards time for his work in Children of Men, but that whole film was criminally under-appreciated, in my humble opinion...
MISS CONGENIALITY (2000)
Cast: Sandra Bullock (Gracie Hart), Michael Caine (Victor Melling), Benjamin Bratt (Eric Matthews), Candice Bergen (Kathy Morningside), William Shatner (Stan Fields), Ernie Hudson (McDonald), John DiResta (Agent Clonsky), Heather Burns (Cheryl “Rhode Island”), Melissa De Sousa (Karen “New York”), Steve Monroe (Frank Tobin), Deirdre Quinn (Mary Jo “Texas”), Wendy Raquel Robinson (Leslie “California”).
Crew: Donald Petrie (director), Sandra Bullock (producer), Marc Lawrence and Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas (writers), Ed Shearmur (music), Laszlo Kovacs (cinematography), Billy Weber (editor), Peter Larkin (production designer).
Synopsis: Gracie Hart is a mannish agent for the FBI. The FBI receives a letter from the Citizen, a domestic terrorist, who threatens to attack the Miss United States beauty pageant in Texas. Gracie is chosen to go undercover as a contestant. The FBI employs a pageant consultant called Victor Melling to make Gracie a credible candidate. She gets a makeover and emerges as a beautiful woman, to the surprise of her boss Eric Matthews. Forensic tests suggest the threatening letter was sent by a woman. Gracie believes the pageant organiser, Kathy Morningside, is involved. But the FBI arrests the real terrorist in Nevada and close down the operation in Texas. Gracie decides to stay at the pageant, believing Kathy is planning a copycat bombing. Gracie realises the bomb is hidden in the winner’s tiara. She throws the tiara into the air just as Kathy detonates the bomb. Afterwards the other contestants give Gracie the title of Miss Congeniality…
This screwball comedy was created in 1999 as a vehicle for producer/actress Sandra Bullock. Donald Petrie was brought on board as director, having previous helmed hits like Mystic Pizza (1988) and Grumpy Old Men (1993). Caine was hired to play gay beauty pageant consultant Victor Melling soon after receiving his Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for The Cider House Rules (1999). ‘I couldn’t refuse working with Sandra Bullock,’ he told Variety.
In the film’s press book Caine discussed why he accepted the part: ‘What I liked about the role was that it was funny, it was different and it was a comedy. In my most recent films, I played the man who destroyed the Marquis de Sade, an abortionist and a very violent gangster. After reading the script and finding it such a great comedy, it was such a relief. I said, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” I was just dying to get a laugh on set.’
He started work on the $45 million movie in May 2000, soon after finishing his performance as the lead in Shiner (2000). The bulk of Miss Congeniality was shot in Austin, Texas, with brief location work in San Antonio and New York. Caine studied with a Texan pageant expert for his role as Victor and also sought tips from wife Shakira, who came third in the 1967 Miss World contest. The picture reunited Caine with Candice Bergen, with whom he had co-starred more than thirty years earlier in The Magus (1968). The actor predicted significant success for Miss Congeniality. ‘It’s very funny. I think it will be a great vehicle for Sandra,’ he told Variety just before the picture opened.
The film was released across America in December 2000, rated PG-13. Reviews were mixed but Miss Congeniality became a Christmas hit at the box office, grossing more than $105 million – the biggest hit of Caine’s career at that time. This success was echoed around the world. In Britain the 12-rated movie opened in March 2001 and grossed more than $15 million. It was released on video and DVD later in the year. The DVD includes two commentary tracks, deleted scenes and documentaries. In 2002 some entertainment media reported work had already begun on a sequel in which Bullock’s character would use her new-found beauty queen skills to become a model and hunt for a serial killer. Producers were reported to be hopeful of persuading Caine to reprise his role.
Reviews: ‘Miss Congeniality is yet another miscalculated vehicle for the ever-feisty Sandra Bullock … Caine has a fine time as the makeover master even if he’s vastly overqualified for the modest assignment.’ – Variety
‘Gossamer-thin entertainment of the sort that would make for an inoffensive first-date movie. There is a complete inconsequential feel to the whole exercise.’ – Empire
Verdict: Miss Congeniality is a lightweight film that amuses you while its happening, but doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. The movie wants to have its cake and eat it, scoring laughs from the baroque excesses of beauty pageants while still holding up the contestants as admirable for using their good looks to get ahead. The anorexic plot is just a vehicle for Bullock to exhibit her not inconsiderable comedic skills. Still, everyone hits their marks nicely, with Caine offering a delicate, understated performance as a disappointed gay man. Miss Congeniality is disposable fun – nothing more, nothing less.
LAST ORDERS (2001)
Cast: Michael Caine (Jack), Tom Courtenay (Vic), David Hemmings (Lenny), Bob Hoskins (Ray), Helen Mirren (Amy), Ray Winstone (Vince), J J Field (Young Jack), Cameron Fitch (Young Vic), Nolan Hemmings (Young Lenny), Anatol Yusef (Young Ray), Kelly Reilly (Young Amy), Stephen McCole (Young Vince), George Innes (Bernie).
Crew: Fred Schepisi (director), Elisabeth Robinson (producer), Fred Schepisi (writer), Paul Grabowsky (music), Brian Tufano (cinematography), Kate Williams (editor), Tim Harvey (production designer).
Synopsis: Three old friends meet in a South Londoner pub to remember their late friend Jack. The dead man’s son, Vince, drives the trio to Margate Pier so they can scatter Jack’s ashes. Meanwhile Jack’s widow Amy visits her retarded daughter June for the last time. During the day each person remembers incidents from their past, hidden truths and personal revelations about how they have shaped each other’s lives…
Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders was first published in 1996 and won the prestigious Booker Prize that year, arguably the highest honour in British fiction. Soon after film producer Elisabeth Robinson showed the book to Australian writer/director Fred Schepisi. The pair persuaded Swift to let them adapt it into a film. Schepisi began writing the screenplay with Swift providing critiques on each successive draft. The project got commitments from actors Caine, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone, but it took another two years to raise sufficient finance to begin shooting.
In his DVD commentary, Schepisi remembers offering the key part of Jack to Caine: ‘He said “Oh damn, okay. Yes, I’ve got to do this. I knew I’d be playing my father one day.”’ Caine found himself acting the role of a man dying of cancer at St Thomas’s Hospital – just as his own father had done. There was another strong resonance for the actor. In the film Jack’s wife Amy visits her retarded daughter at a care home once a week for 50 years. Caine’s own mother had given birth to an illegitimate son in the 1920s who suffered from epilepsy. At the time the illness was treated as a form of insanity and the boy spent half a century in an asylum, secretly visited by his mother every week. Caine only learned about his half-brother after their mother had died. ‘It was a very personal reason for him doing this film,’ Schepisi says in the commentary.
The $12 million production was shot over nine weeks from October to December 2000, during the wettest autumn for nearly 250 years. (A pre-shoot had already taken place during summer in Kent for a sequence showing hop-picking.) Filming took place at locations around London and Kent, with studio work at Pinewood and in an unused warehouse in Peckham. Caine was only required for three weeks of the shoot, before flying to the South of France to join the cast of Quicksand (2002). Last Orders reunited him and old friend Bob Hoskins, with whom he had appeared in The Honorary Consul (1983), Sweet Liberty, Mona Lisa (both 1986) and Blue Ice (1992).
In 2002 Caine told the Hollywood Reporter he did low budget projects like Schepisi’s film when he liked them. ‘I was in Last Orders with all my friends. I was only on the picture for 10 days, but I do that – it’s not like the big movie star who doesn’t come out unless it’s a full budget and everything. Apart from being with my friends, a very good script and very good director, there was that thing of getting a British movie off the ground.’
The film received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2001, with a screening at the London Film Festival two months later. Last Orders opened in American cinemas during December 2001, rated R. Many critics gave it strong notices and the picture grossed nearly $2.5 million from a limited release. The cast won the US National Board of Review’s award for best ensemble performance. Last Orders was released to British cinemas in January 2002 with a 15 rating, gathering glowing reviews from critics and grossing $1.3 million. The film was a bigger hit in Australia, taking more than $1.7 million at the box office. Last Orders was issued on DVD and VHS in 2002.
Reviews: ‘Ambitious in structure and casting, it packs a lot into its screen time. Quality craftsmanship for a discerning crowd.’ – Empire
‘Schepisi’s intelligent and thoughtful adaptation ensures that the film works smoothly through a complex series of time shifts, and, though there’s plenty of humour, the film succeeds best on an emotional level.’ – Variety
Verdict: If you want action, adventure and high octane thrills, go elsewhere. If you want a moving, funny and emotionally satisfying film about life, love and friendship, then Last Orders is the picture for you. Schepisi succeeds in adapting a heartfelt, literary novel into a small gem of a movie, his script and direction effortlessly guiding you through a complex interweaving of narratives and flashbacks. Paul Grabowsky contributes a haunting, jazz-tinged score that never overwhelms or overstates, just like the rest of this classy feature. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Caine in fine form as a man facing his own mortality. If you can watch this film without shedding a tear, you must have a heart of stone. Never crass or sentimental, Last Orders is emotionally draining and life affirming at the same time.
AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER (2002)
Cast: Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr Evil, Fat Bastard, Goldmember), Beyoncé Knowles (Foxxy Cleopatra), Seth Green (Scott Evil), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Robert Wagner (Number Two), Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina), Verne Troyer (Mini-Me), Michael Caine (Nigel Powers), Fred Savage (Number Three), Diane Mizota (Fook Mi), Carrie Ann Inaba (Fook Yu), Nobu Matsuhisa (Mr Roboto).
Crew: Jay Roach (director), John S Lyons, Mike Myers, Eric McLeod, Demi Moore, Jennifer Todd and Suzanne Todd (producers), Mike Myers and Michael McCullers (writers), George S Clinton (music), Peter Deming (cinematography), Jon Poll and Greg Hayden (editors), Rusty Smith (production designer).
Synopsis: Britain secret agent Austin Powers captures his arch-enemy, Dr Evil, who is sentenced to 400 years in prison. Austin gets knighted but his father, super-spy Nigel Powers, misses the ceremony. Soon afterwards Nigel is kidnapped by a Dutch madman called Goldmember and taken to the year 1975. Austin time-travels to 1975 where he teams up with US agent Foxxy Cleopatra. But Goldmember flees to 2002, taking Nigel with him. Dr Evil escapes prison and shifts operations to a submarine off the coast of Japan. Goldmember and Dr Evil join forces, hatching a plan to flood the world unless an enormous ransom is paid. Austin and Foxxy rescue Nigel but Goldmember and Dr Evil escape. Austin and Foxxy infiltrate Dr Evil’s sub. Just as Austin is about to shoot his nemesis, Nigel walks in and reveals that Dr Evil and Austin are brothers. Dr Evil joins the good guys and helps them thwart Goldmember. Dr Evil’s own son Scott runs off, vowing revenge.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was a minor hit in 1997, before developing a cult following on video. Two years later a sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, was a box office smash, grossing more than $200 million in the US. Another sequel was inevitable and work began on the script in March 2001.
Mike Myers wrote a long letter to Caine, asking him to play England’s most famous spy, Nigel Powers. The creation of Austin Powers had been much inspired by Caine films from the 1960s. ‘The very first time I saw Austin Powers,’ Caine told interviewers, ‘I realised Mike had based it on a character I played many years ago. The 1960s, the glasses, and the accent – I knew it was me. Not only was I ideal to play it, I felt I was the only person who could play it.’ The actor accepted the role, having taken several months off after filming his exhausting role in The Quiet American (2002).
Production began in November 2001 and was shot predominantly on studio lots. Advance promotional material announced the film’s title, but this was withdrawn in January 2002 following court action by the owners of another spy character, James Bond. It was alleged that Goldmember was trading on the Bond franchise without permission. The film was temporarily renamed Austin Powers III but the original title was eventually reinstated.
The main cast were encouraged to ad lib during filming, creating considerably more material than required. Director Jay Roach’s first cut lasted three hours – double the length of the final picture. A brief excerpt of Caine from the film Hurry Sundown (1967) appears in the film during a flashback. On the Austin Powers in Goldmember DVD commentary track Roach says the hardest cut was removing a sequence where the main characters sing along with a version of the theme song to Caine’s 1966 film Alfie. ‘We were all sure it was going to be one of the highpoints … the audience just felt it slowed the movie down. We tried it in two previews and the movie took a big dip in momentum. It was brutal to cut something like that.’ The sequence is among more than 20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes on the DVD release.
Austin Powers in Goldmember was simultaneously released in the US (rated PG-13) and the UK (PG) on July 26, 2002 – four days after its premiere. The film proved even more successful than its predecessor, grossing $213 million in the US and another $36 million in Britain. Dripping with cameos by famous faces, it featured at least half a dozen Oscar winners amongst the cast. Among those making fleeting appearances was musician Quincy Jones, who provided the music for The Italian Job (1969). The picture was released on VHS and DVD at the end of 2002.
Reviews: ‘It’s strictly more of the same from the groovidelic shagmeister … usually fun even if it’s not terribly funny. Caine as Dad was an inspired casting idea...’ - Variety
‘Extravagant, uneven, retro-happy celebration of the movies as international setters of indelible style… The movie is remarkably spry and inspired...’ – Entertainment Weekly
Verdict: This is a broad comedy stuffed full of slapstick, in-jokes and hilarious homages. The opening superstar cameo sequence is the highpoint of the film, but Austin Powers in Goldmember doesn’t outstay its welcome. Director Roach keeps the pace moving while the script by Myers and McCullers is laden with juvenile japes. But this movie is not just fart jokes and scatological humour. It also features a density of media cross-references matched only in better episodes of TV sitcom The Simpsons. Caine steals his scenes as the oldest swinger in town, performing a parody of a parody of himself. In the midst of all this, the film examines father and son relationships with surprising, heartfelt care. If you enjoyed the two previous movies in the franchise, you should love this dumb fun.
THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002)
Cast: Michael Caine (Thomas Fowler), Brendan Fraser (Alden Pyle), Do Thi Hai Yen (Phuong), Rade Serbedzija (Inspector Vigot), Tzi Ma (Hinh), Robert Stanton (Joe Tunney), Holmes Osborne (Bill Granger), Quang Hai (General Thé), Ferdinand Hoang (Mr Muoi), Pham Thi Mai Hoa (Phuong’s Sister), Mathias Mlekuz (French Captain).
Crew: Phillip Noyce (director), Staffan Ahrenberg and William Horberg (producers), Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan (writers), Craig Armstrong (music), Christopher Doyle, Huu Tuan Nguyen and Dat Quang (cinematography), John Scott (editor), Roger Ford (production designer).
Synopsis: Thomas Fowler is a British journalist for The Times newspaper based in Saigon, Vietnam, during the early 1950s. The French Army was fighting a war against Communists. Fowler has a young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong. The reporter meets Alden Pyle, an American who says he is part of the medical team with an economic aid mission in Vietnam. The Times summons Fowler back to its London office, but the correspondent asks for more time, claiming he is working on a big story. Pyle meets Phuong and falls in love with her. Fowler goes into the country and visits a town where the people have been massacred. Pyle turns up, claiming to be on a medical mission. He believes a third force must take over Vietnam from the French, to save the country from Communism. A new political party emerges, led by the self-appointed General Thé. Fowler writes to his Catholic wife in England, asking for a divorce. The reporter tries to interview Thé, asking if the general’s men had any involvement with the massacre. Pyle is at the general’s camp and protects the journalist.
Fowler’s wife writes back, refusing a divorce. He lies to Phuong about the letter but she discovers the truth and leaves him for Pyle. A terrorist bombing in central Saigon kills dozens of civilians, including women and children. Fowler sees Pyle in the aftermath, speaking fluent Vietnamese. The correspondent realises Pyle works for the CIA. Fowler confronts the American about his part in the bombing, but Pyle is unrepentant. He admits arming Thé but says such massacres will guarantee more American funding and ultimately save lives. Fowler realises Pyle is behind both atrocities. The reporter betrays Pyle to the Communists, who murder the American. Fowler persuades Phuong to resume being his mistress. Fowler stays on as The Times’ correspondent as events escalate into the Vietnam War…
Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was first published in 1955, inspired by his time spent as a newspaper correspondent in Vietnam. Director Joseph L Mankiewicz shot the first adaptation of the book in 1958, with Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy. Greene was infuriated by the film, which downplayed the book’s anti-CIA stance. He wrote a vitriolic article accusing Mankiewicz of using the movie as a weapon to murder an author.
Four decades later Australian director Phillip Noyce finally got the go-ahead for a new version of The Quiet American, after five years’ preparation. Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan wrote the adaptation, Hampton having previously scripted another Greene adaptation, The Honorary Consul (1983). The crucial part of British journalist Thomas Fowler went to Caine, on a roll following his Oscar win as best supporting actor for The Cider House Rules (1999). ‘When they offered the part to me,’ the actor told the Australian edition of Empire, ‘I thought it was Christmas. How many roles are there for men of my age with that emotional range?’
Caine finished filming Quicksand (2002) early in 2001 and began preparing for his new role. The actor would turn 68 during the production but was going to be playing a 55-year-old. ‘I lost 25 pounds, dyed my hair and had four pounds of make-up on,’ he told The Age newspaper in 2003, ‘and I tried to suck my stomach in on the wide shots.’ The actor removed carbohydrates from his diet and walked five miles a day to shed the weight.
Caine partly based his performance on Greene. ‘I didn’t know him very well,’ he told a BBC cinema website, ‘but I knew a great deal about him. One of my best friends is Bryan Forbes, who was one of Graham’s best friends. So I knew a lot by proxy. I just copied something of the way he [Green] spoke, and his movements. They were very small.’ The actor also spent time with a journalist in Vietnam, observing what the reporter did and was advised on how to play an opium user by an addict.
Production of the $30 million picture began in Vietnam during February 2001 and continued for three months. Location shooting took place at Ho Chi Minh City, the ancient port town of Hoi An, in the northern province Ninh Binh and at the capital Hanoi. Studio work was lensed in Sydney, Australia. Caine told the Hollywood Reporter he was surprised at how welcoming the people of Vietnam had been and how beautiful the country was. ‘I expected to see a war-torn land, and I saw no sign of war at all. It was fabulous for me … to be in actual places where he [Greene] was. People pointed at windows saying, “That window in the Continental Hotel, that’s the room where he wrote The Quiet American.” This part was the maximum degree of difficulty because it’s so subtle; I put my heat and soul into it. At the end of that picture, when we got back to England, I sat in the armchair looking at my wife, and I said, “I’ve got nothing left here.”
The film got its first screening as a rough-cut in New York on September 10, 2001. The next day terrorists attacked America, flying two jumbo jets into the twin towers of World Trade Centre in New York and killing thousands of people. Another plane was crashed into the Pentagon at Washington, DC. Overnight a film with award-winning potential turned into the movie nobody wanted. American and British distribution rights had been acquired by Miramax for $5.5 million. Co-chairman Harvey Weinstein later told the New York Times what happened next: ‘I showed the film to some people and staff, and they said, “Are you out of your mind? You can’t release this now, it’s unpatriotic.”’
Miramax considered dumping the movie and began shopping it around to other distributors. Meanwhile Noyce continued working on the film’s post-production, with computer generated imagery used to make modern Vietnamese cities resemble their 1950s counterparts. Weinstein reportedly ordered the toning down of a scene in which a character accused America of adventurism. The final cut of The Quiet American was delivered to Miramax in May 2002.
Word leaked out that the distributors planned to release the film in January 2003, too late for Oscar consideration and a month when lesser movies are dumped in cinemas. Caine lobbied Weinstein for the film’s release to be brought forward. He even threatened to do no promotional work for his starring role in another movie to which Miramax held US distribution rights, The Actors (2003). Caine’s cause was supported by Noyce, Australian actress Nicole Kidman and two Oscar-winning executive producers attached to The Quiet American, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. But Weinstein was still reluctant to distribute a film critical of American intervention in foreign countries, especially with the US Government preparing to go to war with Iraq.
Miramax eventually relented and agreed to give the picture its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2002. Caine told the American Press Association (AP) he gave Weinstein a promise: ‘If it doesn’t go well in Toronto, I’ll bring a shovel and help you bury it.’ Noyce used guerrilla tactics to create a buzz for The Quiet American before the festival, organising special screenings for key American film critics. The Toronto screening got a standing ovation and raves in US media, with several reviewers calling Caine’s performance a certainty for Oscar nomination. Miramax gave the picture a two-week run in a handful of US cinemas so it qualified for consideration at the Oscars.
Caine campaigned relentlessly on behalf of the film, earning himself nominations for best actor at the Golden Globes (losing to Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt), the BAFTAs and the Oscars (losing both to Adrien Brody in The Pianist). Caine won awards from film critics in London and San Francisco. ‘This has made my day,’ Caine told AP after hearing of his Oscar nomination. ‘I am absolutely delighted, I couldn’t be happier. It’s been a long, long journey. I just wanted to see whether I could get a nomination. And I’ve got one, I’m happy now and my work is done.’
The Quiet American reached Britain in November 2002. The 15-rated film got strong reviews, especially for Caine’s performance, and grossed nearly $3 million. In America the R-rated picture went into wider release after the Oscar nominations were announced in February 2003. It had grossed more than $12 million when this book went to press. Globally the picture had taken more than $22 million. A DVD and video release was expected in the UK and US before the end of 2003.
Caine told many interviewers he considered his performance in The Quiet American as the best of his long career. ‘There are moments in everyone’s life when everything comes together,’ he told the Dallas Fort Worth Star Telegram in 2003. ‘That’s what happened here. I was experienced enough an actor. I was experienced enough a man. I wanted to do something that I could really disappear into the character … rather than have a little of Michael Caine in there, like a movie star thing. I believe in this movie probably more than any other movie I’ve ever done.’
Reviews: ‘This may in fact be the best performance of Michael Caine’s career.’ – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
‘A career-capping performance by Michael Caine. One of the year’s most thoughtful films.’ – Time
Verdict: Does The Quiet American live up to all the hype? Surprisingly, yes – but don’t expect a sweeping epic or some grand blockbuster. Noyce’s film is subtle and intelligent, holding back from the sort of bombast that normally wins awards and critical kudos. The picture submerges you in the atmosphere of 1950s Vietnam, all too aware of the cost of imperialist attitudes. The global crisis that threatened to sink this picture also made its subject matter more relevant. It remains to be seen whether this version of The Quiet American will retain its power once the current political climate has changed. But time will not diminish Caine’s performance in this film, arguable the finest of his career. It’s a masterclass of nuance and restraint, many emotions played out just in his eyes. Even in a poor film, the performance would be worth watching. In this context it’s essential viewing.