Sunday, March 18, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #71: The Cider House Rules

Cast: Tobey Maguire (Homer Wells), Charlize Theron (Candy Kendall), Delroy Lindo (Mr Rose), Paul Rudd (Wally Worthington), Michael Caine (Dr Wilbur Larch), Jane Alexander (Nurse Edna), Kathy Baker (Nurse Angela), Erykah Badu (Rose Rose), Kieran Culkin (Buster), Kate Nelligan (Olive Worthington), Heavy D (Peaches), K Todd Freeman (Muddy), Paz de la Huerta (Mary Agnes).

Crew: Lasse Hallström (director), Richard N Gladstein (producer), John Irving (writer), Rachel Portman (music), Oliver Stapleton (cinematography), Lisa Zeno Churgin (editor), David Gropman (production designer).

Synopsis: St Cloud’s Orphanage in Maine takes unwanted babies. During the 1940s the resident physician, Dr Wilbur Larch, also performs illegal abortions. One of St Cloud’s children, Homer Wells, is twice adopted and returned. As Homer grows up Dr Larch teaches him how to be an obstetric and gynaecological surgeon. Homer starts delivering babies but refuses to perform abortions. In 1943 Wally Worthington brings his girlfriend Candy Kendall to St Cloud’s for an abortion. Homer leaves with them, wanting to see the outside world. He becomes an apple picker at the Worthington family orchard, sleeping in the bunkhouse with the migrant workers. The migrants are led by Mr Rose, whose daughter Rose Rose is one of the pickers.

Wally goes off to war as a pilot. The board of the orphanage want another physician to help Larch. He forges credentials indicating Homer is fully qualified, then uses these to dupe the board. Larch also sends Homer a doctor’s bag containing surgical instruments. Homer and Candy fall in love. When the migrant workers return after winter, Rose is pregnant. Homer offers to help her have an abortion. Candy learns Mr Rose is the father. Wally’s mother hears her son has been paralysed from the waist down. Homer performs the abortion on Rose. She leaves that night after stabbing her father. Mr Rose commits suicide by stabbing himself repeatedly in the wound Rose made. Dr Larch dies of an accidental ether overdose. When Homer hears this, he returns to St Cloud’s and becomes the new doctor…


John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules was first published in 1985. It took 14 years and four directors before the book was successfully transformed into a film. It was planned to go into production during April 1997 but was delayed because no actor of sufficient stature could be found for the part of Dr Larch. Paul Newman had read an early version of the screenplay and turned it down. In 1998 Sweden’s Lasse Hallström was attached as director. The movie began production in September that year, with a budget of $24 million. (Irving has written a fascinating memoir of the long journey his novel went through to reach the screen, called My Movie Business).

Before accepting the part of Larch, Caine hired a dialect coach to work with him on developed a New England accent. The actor recalled the process in an interview with ‘I told him “Be brutally frank with me. I don’t want to make a fool of myself. Let’s work for two weeks and if at the end of two weeks, you don’t think I can do this, tell me.” I didn’t want to be a British actor doing an American accent, and have people go, “That is fantastic, that American accent.”’ Caine wanted the accent to be imperceptible. ‘I had this extraordinarily difficult thing to do before I even started doing this extraordinarily difficult part.’

The Cider House Rules was shot on locations in the US states of Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. Caine started work on the film in November 1998. A few days later he flew to London for a public interview at the NFT. Caine told the audience he might win an Academy Award as best supporting actor for the film, despite having only spent three days on set. ‘It’s one of those pictures where you think, oh, I might get an Oscar for this.’

He also said the script was very emotional. ‘The day before yesterday, I was doing this scene and the director stopped it. He said, “Michael, the others are supposed to be crying, not you.” I realised there were tears streaming down my face and I didn’t even know. So we had to re-apply all the make-up and start again. It’s a tough picture, and it’s a fascinating script.’ Caine had not read the original novel when he accepted the script, so he bought a copy. ‘I started to read it. I thought, you can’t make a script out of this, but over on the table I could see it. Irving has got a great script out of it, he’s quite ruthless. I’ve never seen an artist be so ruthless with his own work.’

After appearing at film festivals, The Cider House Rules went on limited release in America during December 1999, rated PG-13. Critical reaction was strong, particularly for Caine’s performance and Irving’s screenplay. Both were nominated for Golden Globe awards and Caine won the Screen Actors Guild Award for best supporting actor. When the Oscar nominations were announced in February 2000, The Cider House Rules was named in seven categories. All this recognition and positive word of mouth increased public interest in the film. It eventually grossed nearly $60 million in the US.

Anti-abortion protestors demonstrated outside the Academy Awards ceremony in March 2000. Inside, the protests went unheeded as Irving and Caine both won their categories. For the actor it was his second Oscar triumph, but the first time he was present to collect his trophy. Caine gave an emotional speech and was close to tears when he left the stage. In subsequent interviews he emphasised the significance of the film in reviving his career. ‘The Cider House Rules was important, it reminded people that I was still around,’ he told the San Bernadino County Sun in 2002. ‘The Oscar didn’t hurt, either. I think I got The Quiet American (2002) because of The Cider House Rules. I’ll always be grateful to Lasse.’ The award also had the effect of pushing up his fee for subsequent pictures.

The film opened in the UK during March 2000, rated 12. Reviews in Britain were less sympathetic to Caine, with several criticising his American accent, but the picture still grossed more than $2.5 million. It was a bigger hit in Germany, taking more than $6.5 million. At the BAFTAs Caine missed out on as award for best supporting actor. But he did receive the British academy’s highest honour, the BAFTA fellowship. Caine used his speech to strike back at critics, saying it felt as though he had been invited in from the cold. His remarks created controversy in some newspapers and magazines.

‘People misunderstood that speech,’ Caine told the Radio Times in 2002. ‘When you read about it afterwards it sounded like I’d been vehemently sitting in a room for 40 years thinking “No one cares about me.” I know how appreciated I am in Britain, and it’s great.’ Caine said his outburst was a reaction to terrible reviews of the film. ‘When I did The Cider House Rules I got an Academy Award, but I got fucking slaughtered in Britain.’

The actor also discussed the speech in a 2000 interview with Time Out: ‘For me, criticism should be informed, constructive and impersonal. Critics here always seem to review me from a deeply personal, almost savage viewpoint. They said my accent stank! The New York Times and the New England Gazette said it was a perfect New England accent, so how uninformed can you be? And then you start to think what is their agenda?’

The film was released on VHS and DVD during 2000. The DVD includes a commentary track, deleted scenes and a making of the movie documentary.

Reviews: ‘This coming of age tale achieves a king of melancholy poignancy despite never fully charging its dramatic engines. Caine scores in an uncharacteristic role and easily the film’s most memorable supporting turn, bringing Larch a rich, disarming humanity.’ – Variety
‘The story slips tough and even incendiary subject matter into an old-fashioned yarn. With his tart adaptation of The Cider House Rules, John Irving gets to the core of his fanciful novel.’ – Entertainment Weekly

Verdict: The remarkable thing about The Cider House Rules is that this film ever got made. Turning a 500-page book about illegal abortions and incest into a heart-warming, life-affirming film can have been no easy feat. Previous attempts to adapt John Irving novels for the cinema failed to find an audience. But the author’s own screenplay is a marvellous and surprisingly funny distillation of his novel. Hallström’s restrained, delicate direction keeps the film just the right side of sentimentality, added by lush cinematography and a strong cast. Caine gives one of his most affecting performances, with an impeccable New England accent – particularly in the wry voiceover. It’s not hard to see why he won an Oscar.

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