Thursday, April 05, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #80: The Actors

Cast: Michael Caine (Anthony O’Malley), Dylan Moran (Tom), Michael Gambon (Barreller), Lena Headey (Dolores Barreller), Miranda Richardson (Mrs Magnani), Michael McElhatton (Jock), Aisling O’Sullivan (Rita), Ben Miller (Clive), Abigail Iversen (Mary), Michael Colgan (Audition Director), Deirdre Walsh (Camcorder Girl), Bill Hickey (Stage Doorkeeper).

Crew: Conor McPherson (director), Stephen Woolley, Neil Jordan and Redmond Morris (producers), Conor McPherson (writer), Michael Nyman (music), Seamus McGarvey (cinematography), Emer Reynolds (editor), Mark Geraghty (production designer).

Synopsis: Ageing actor Anthony O’Malley befriends a minor Dublin crook, Barreller, who owes money to a London gangster called Magnani. The two criminals have never met. O’Malley concocts a scheme to dupe Barreller out of the cash and enlists the aid of a struggling young actor, Tom. The plan works fine until Magnani sends a henchman to Dublin for the money. Tom and O’Malley are forced to adopt various disguises to maintain the pretence they have begun, a situation complicated by Tom falling in love with Barreller’s daughter Dolores. Finally Magnani flies to Dublin to resolve the situation. O’Malley gives her the money. He ends up in traction but wins a theatrical award for his performance in a ludicrous production of Richard III set in Nazi Germany. Tom and Dolores become a couple and she gets her first acting job in a TV commercial for sausages…


The Actors began life as a story written by film director Neil Jordan in the early 1990s. ‘It was a kind of challenge to see if I could come up with a plot which forced an actor to imitate as many different people as possible,’ he told the film’s website in 2003. Jordan worked on the idea off and on for several years, considering whether to turn it into a novel. He admired the work of fellow Irishman Conor McPherson, a young playwright and film director. ‘I showed him what I’d written and asked would he be interested in writing a screenplay, Jordan said.’ McPherson agreed and began developing the story. ‘Conor wrote this wonderfully funny script and the idea of him directing it was a natural progression.’ Jordan remained attached as producer.

It was McPherson who suggested approaching Caine for the role of theatrical has-been O’Malley. ‘I couldn’t believe it when … he want wanted to do it,’ McPherson told the website. ‘I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated. But you have to realise one of the things that makes Michael so popular is his common touch. He is really an authentically down to earth guy. Ultimately what I liked about working with Michael was his professionalism. He knows what to do, he arrives prepared and just does it.’

Filming on the $5 million project took place on location in Dublin and County Wicklow between March and May 2002. It was the second feature Caine had made in Ireland’s capital city. Twenty years earlier he had starred in Educating Rita (1983), lensed on location in and around Dublin. The Actors reunited Caine with Sir Michael Gambon, with whom he had co-starred in two Harry Palmer films shot in Russia eight years earlier, Bullet to Beijing (1996) and Midnight in St Petersburg (1997). The star had also worked with Jordan before, having been directed by him in Mona Lisa (1986).

Caine told the East Anglian Daily Times that The Actors reminded him of his early days in repertory during the 1950s. ‘I based my role on every old character actor I had ever worked with. I must have known about 50 of these guys. They did the same old plays year after year and never realised just how dreadful they were. My character is a combination of all those people – totally pompous, vain and terrific to watch and fun to play.’

In 2002 the actor told Hello he couldn’t refuse the script. ‘It’s set around a very run-down theatre company and they’re doing Richard III, so I get to play the worst Richard III you’ve ever seen. He’s a fascist and runs around on a motorcycle. I couldn’t turn that down. It was a lot of fun … a lunatic film.’ Photographs of the actor from some of his previous film roles are used in theatrical posters on O’Malley’s dressing room walls.

The Actors was released in British and Irish cinemas on 16 May 2003, rated 15. It had received mediocre reviews from most critics, although many praised Caine’s performance. The picture grossed more than $500,000 in its first week of release, but longer term prospects did not look promising. The film’s North American distribution rights were held by Miramax. During 2002 Caine threatened to withdraw from all promotional work for The Actors unless Miramax released The Quiet American (2002) in time for Oscar consideration. His threat secured that release, helping earn Caine a best actor nomination. The Actors was given an R ratings for the US, but has never received a release. It's available on Region 2 DVD.

Reviews: ‘Alas, The Actors is that most tragic of cinematic creatures: the unfunny comedy.’ – Sight and Sound
‘The reason to see this film, of course, is Michael Caine. Prancing about on stage as the world’s worst Richard III, or dressed up in drag as part of his get-rich-quick scheme, he camps it up brilliantly in every scene he appears in.’ - Empire

Verdict: Successfully fuse two existing genres and you create a hybrid hit. Unsuccessfully mix two existing genres and you create a mess. The Actors is, unfortunately, the latter. It tries to combine theatrical satire and crime caper but only succeeds in falling between two stools. The problems stem from McPherson’s script. At best it provokes a few wry smiles but that’s hardly enough. The crime caper fails to involve because there is never any sense of jeopardy. The theatrical satire is surprisingly anorexic in its thinness, considering McPherson’s background as a playwright. Caine gives a solid performance but, like the rest of a talented cast and crew, cannot compensate for the absence of jokes in what is supposed to be a comedy. More than anything, The Actors reminds you of Norfolk – it’s very flat.

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