Sunday, July 22, 2007

Films of Michael Caine: introductory essay

Busy with a deadline-impending project, so here's an essay from my book on the films of Michael Caine. It was written in 2003, so doesn't take into account more recent projects like Children of Men or Batman Begins. Four years later, the mentioned remake Sleuth has finally been films, with Harold Pinter writing the screenplay adaptation and Kenneth Branagh as director. It's due for release later this year in the run-up to Oscar nominations. First time round both Caine and Olivier got best actors noms for their work in Sleuth - will the remake emulate that success?

Michael Caine is one of the world’s great film actors. He has won two Oscars, three Golden Globes, a BAFTA and numerous career achievement awards. Since his breakthrough role in Zulu (1964), he has made eighty movies in forty years – with more on the way. These films have ranged from the sublime (Get Carter, Sleuth and Alfie to name a few) to the ridiculous (The Swarm, On Deadly Ground, and Shadow Run). Caine’s remarkable career longevity is underlined by the fact he is one of only three men to have been Oscar-nominated in five consecutive decades (the others are Laurence Olivier and Jack Nicholson.) He turned 70 in March 2003, an age when most people have already retired. Instead Caine was being feted for giving one of the finest performances of his career in The Quiet American (2002). He had another film already in post-production (Secondhand Lions) and was about to start work on The Statement with acclaimed director Norman Jewison.

Starring Michael Caine is a guide to this iconic actor’s feature films. The bulk of the book is devoted to a movie-by-movie analysis of those 80 movies, including useful information, intriguing facts and a range of opinion. Its emphasis is squarely upon Caine’s participation and his performances, with extensive quotes by the man himself drawn from hundreds of sources. Alas, attempts to secure an interview with Caine for this volume proved unsuccessful - hopefully that will be redressed for a future edition.

Starring Michael Caine is not a biography of the actor’s life. There are several of those already available, with Caine’s 1992 autobiography What’s It All About? still the definitive work on the subject. This book is neither a hatchet job nor a hagiography. It is an honest appraisal of Caine’s career and the films in which he has appeared. Caine has made foolish choices and has also shown moments of genius on screen. This volume acknowledges both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. Instead of presenting a chronological career overview, Starring Michael Caine concentrates on the films themselves, presenting them in alphabetical order. It tells the behind the scenes story of each movie’s production, charts critical reactions and helps you sort the gems from the dross.

Lazy critics have frequently written off Caine with the facile suggestion that the actor is merely playing himself. But he has appeared on the big screen as gangsters, journalists, spies, transvestites, murderers, psychopaths, architects, homosexuals, bisexuals, diplomats, racists and assassins, among many other roles. If he was only playing himself, it is unlikely he could convince in any of those performances. Perhaps Caine’s greatest gift is to make what he does look easy, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

But how did a South London lad with no formal dramatic training become one of the most respected film actors of the past 40 years? And why has he been so successful for so long? There is no single answer to either question that neatly explains Caine’s 40-year career near the top of his profession. Certainly he is a pragmatic actor who appears to look upon acting as a craft, rather than an art. He prides himself on being professional, and expects others to do the same, because acting is his profession.

To best illustrate the many factors that have contributed to Caine’s success and longevity, it is necessary to briefly examine his life and career so far…

Maurice Joseph Micklewhite was born at St Olave’s Hospital in London on March 14, 1933. His father was a porter at the Billingsgate fish market, his mother a cleaning lady. The South London family was poor, with Micklewhite Snr frequently unemployed. At the age of five young Maurice Micklewhite developed a life-long love for films, and began making regular visits to local cinemas. He was evacuated during the Second World War and later recalled being mistreated while billeted away from home. In later life the actor would use such traumatic experiences and injustices as triggers to help him find the necessary emotion for a scene. Caine can cry on demand by reaching back to those painful memories.

After the war the Micklewhite family was relocated to a district called the Elephant and Castle, home to vicious criminal and street gangs. Caine based his performances in films like Get Carter (1971) on the murderous individuals he encountered at the Elephant. At 15 he joined the drama class at a local youth club to pursue his dream of becoming a film star and to get closer to girls. He left school at 16, becoming an office boy with a small company that made tourist films. Called up for National Service at 18, Micklewhite was later sent to fight in the Korean War. The deaths and carnage he witnessed there had a profound effect on the would-be actor. He subsequently starred in several war films, but almost always chose pictures where the futility of war was made obvious.

Micklewhite left the army in 1952 and talked his way into a job as an assistant stage manager with a small theatre company, adopting the stage name Michael Scott. The young actor started getting walk-on parts, gradually increasing his levels of skill and confidence. When he was offered his first television job, Scott discovered his chosen stage name was already taken. Inspired by The Caine Mutiny (1954), the young actor renamed himself Michael Caine. Over the next decade he continued to perform on stage and in a succession of bit parts for movies. His best hope seemed to be with television, but Caine was determined to succeed in films. He even turned down a regular role in the long-running police series Z-Cars. His friends were fast becoming household names, but Caine was approaching 30 without finding a great role. That changed when he was cast in Zulu (1964).

Caine showed remarkable resilience during his first 30 years. He determined to become a film star, despite all the odds being against him. Men from his background did not aspire to become actors. Such a profession was sneered at and those who chose it were called queer. But Caine persisted with his dream. He did not have the looks of a matinee idol, nor the upper class accent used by most British actors of the time. He did not have the chance to go to drama school, instead learning to act on the job in repertory theatre, from bits parts in movies and on television. Caine’s first marriage collapsed partly because of his driven ambition to succeed as an actor. Again and again he would tell fellow actors that he was going to be a film star – but nobody believed him.

Timing was another factor in Caine’s success. He was ready to make the most of his big break when it came as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead in Zulu. By 1963 he had developed the technical skills to cope with such an opportunity. He did not have much dialogue in the film, but succeeded in giving what he did have far greater impact than any film acting novice could achieve. Had the chance come sooner, Caine might not have been ready. Equally, a shift in British attitudes by the 1960s made it possible for creative people from working class origins to break through traditional barriers and become famous. Kitchen sink dramas, angry young men and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll all helped pave the way for Caine to become a cinema star.

THE 1960s
Luck has played a significant part in Caine’s career. His first major roles were all in hit films – Zulu, The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966). Each helped win him subsequent roles, creating and then enhancing his status. Caine’s performance in Zulu secured the lead in The Ipcress File and the financial security of a seven-year contract with producer Harry Saltzman. The Ipcress File proved an actor wearing glasses could be a big screen star – the first time that had happened since Harold Lloyd in the silent film era. It also helped win Caine the role of Alfie and his first Hollywood picture, Gambit (1966), with Shirley MacLaine. Alfie brought his first Oscar nomination and, crucially, introduced him to American filmmakers. Had any of these pictures failed, the knock-on effect could have badly derailed his fledgling career.

Other actors have divided their time between cinema, the theatre and television, but Caine has single-mindedly pursued film acting as his career. He abandoned theatre work soon after making Zulu and television almost as quickly. He grabbed opportunities to work with established film stars and major directors, always looking to improve his skills and extend his network of industry contacts. But fear of poverty pushed Caine into unwise choices, like a contract with Twentieth Century Fox that begat two feeble flops, Deadfall and The Magus (both 1968).

At the end of the 1960s, Caine was stuck in a run of unsuccessful films. Critics wondered if he could ever escape the twin shadows of Alfie and Harry Palmer. But another of Caine’s strongest assets came to his rescue – professionalism. No matter how bad the film around him may be, Caine prided himself on always giving the best performance he could. But his professionalism goes beyond that. Almost everyone who ever worked with him has said how easy he makes the job for others. In a career not short of prima donnas, Caine gets on with the job of acting. Producers never lose money because he has thrown a tantrum and refused to come out of his trailer. Directors are delighted to discover he arrives on set already knowing his lines. He is willing to help other actors achieve a good performance, staying behind to feed them lines even when he is not visible in shot. As a result, people are eager to work with him again and again. Caine’s professionalism earned him great respect in Hollywood.

THE 1970s
Another reason for Caine’s continued success was his willingness to take risks. He played a remorseless hitman in Get Carter (1971), fully endorsing the film’s brutally realistic violence. The picture horrified critics at the time but has since been recognised as a British cinema classic, thanks in no small part to Caine’s bleak, chilling performance. In Sleuth (1972) he went head to head with Olivier, one of Britain’s most respected thespians. The picture offered an unique challenge as it was one of the first movies made with a cast of just two. There was no hiding place for Caine, but he proved himself equal to Olivier as a film actor and both men were nominated for the best actor Oscar.

Many British actors of Caine’s generation lost their way in the 1970s due to drink or drugs. In his autobiography Caine recalled that he too was becoming a heavy drinker by the early 1970s, but his relationship with Shakira Baksh changed that. They married in January 1973 and had a daughter later that year. It’s impossible for any outsider to know just how influential Caine’s 30-year marriage has been upon his career, but it seems likely she has helped him through lean years when others have turned to drink and drugs.

Caine has been in plenty of poor movies, but he has also made many shrewd choices over the years. In the mid-1970s he deliberately began taking roles that could establish him as an international film star. Caine was ready when the British film industry went into near terminal decline, able to sustain his career by working almost exclusively in Hollywood. After The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), he made 15 films in seven years – but only three were British. The actor found himself spending so much time working in Hollywood, he decided to live there. The punitive tax rates imposed on high earners in Britain were another encouragement to leave his homeland.

The transition to America was not easy. To fund the relocation Caine took on ill-advised films like The Swarm (1978) and Ashanti (1979). But in between them he still managed to impress as a bisexual in California Suite (1978), proving he was a better actor than his surroundings often suggested. Caine arrived in Hollywood as the 1970s drew to a close but found himself back at the bottom of the ladder when it came to getting the best scripts and the best parts. It was like starting all over again. But he still had to earn a living and threw himself into what work was available, even if it meant the movie disaster Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979).

THE 1980s
Caine’s struggle to re-establish himself as a credible actor in Hollywood continued in the early 1980s. He made three horror films in succession, with only Brian De Palma’s controversial Dressed to Kill (1980) giving Caine a credible platform to display his talents. It took all the actor’s powers of persuasion to secure the lead in Deathtrap (1982), a minor film by Sidney Lumet that still raised Caine’s profile. Ironically, he went back to British films to prove himself. Educating Rita (1983) reunited him with Alfie director Lewis Gilbert and secured Caine another best actor Oscar nomination.

Caine was never afraid of hard work, appearing more comfortable on a soundstage than a golf course. His fierce work ethic reached new heights in the mid-1980s when as he appeared in 12 films between 1985 and 1988. Caine was determined to prove his range. Widely perceived as a dramatic actor, he took on as many comedies as possible. Some were sublime (such as his Oscar-winning role in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) or playing the cad in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)), some were fitfully funny (Sweet Liberty in 1986) and others simply fell flat (Water in 1985). By the end of this prolific period Caine and his family had returned to live in England.
When he turned 55 Caine reversed a long-standing policy of refusing all offers to act on television. He was paid a seven figure sum to star in a TV mini-series, Jack the Ripper (1988). The project was a ratings hit and Caine was persuaded to make another, Jekyll & Hyde (1990). Deciding it was time to take stock, he stepped off the treadmill of constant filming and began writing his autobiography, What’s It All About?

THE 1990s
When Caine tried to get back into acting after a year off, it proved harder than he expected to get work. He set up a production company with American Martin Bregman to make small British thrillers, but the venture failed when their first film, Blue Ice, flopped in 1992. A year later he found himself in Alaska making On Deadly Ground (1994) with martial arts action hero Steven Seagal. Caine’s career was in trouble and he knew it.

For years the actor had sworn he would never make another Harry Palmer film, having hung up his NHS frames after Billion Dollar Brain (1967). But in 1994 Caine made two Harry Palmer films back-to-back in Russia, both doomed to go straight to video. It seemed Caine’s time had passed. He was over 60 and could only find worthwhile scripts for TV projects. The actor decided to concentrate on running his restaurants, opening a new one in Miami, Florida. Just when he was thinking of retiring altogether, his lucky streak returned with the arrival of Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson.

The pair were making a movie in Florida called Blood and Wine (1997). They invited Caine to play a dying safecracker. It was only a supporting role but got him back on the big screen. Within a year Caine had joined the cast of Little Voice (1998), establishing a fruitful relationship with America’s powerful Miramax studio. That led to his supporting role in The Cider House Rules (1999) and a second best supporting actor Oscar. Caine was being taken seriously again by Hollywood – the comeback was complete.

THE 2000s
In the past four years Caine has played a mixture of lead and supporting roles, balancing lightweight comedies like Miss Congeniality (2000) and Austin Power in Goldmember (2002) with dramatic films such as Last Orders (2001) and The Quiet American (2002). The latter earned him a sixth Oscar nomination, largely thanks to Caine’s own efforts to get a film perceived to be Anti-American released in a hostile political climate. He didn’t win the Oscar, but just getting his name among the five nominees was a testament to his talent, perseverance and networking skills.

So what’s next? Secondhand Lions is already in post-production and should be released soon after this book is published. Considering the harsh response of British critics to Caine’s New England accent in The Cider House Rules (1999), it’ll be interesting to see what reviewers have to say about his Texan drawl. Shooting is underway on The Statement (200?), a potential Oscar contender, judging by its cast and crew.

Caine is hopeful of two other projects coming to fruition. Production was due to start on Boswell for the Defence in 2001 but financing fell apart just before shooting began. Plans are afoot to try again towards the end of 2003, with Caine in the lead. Also being nursed towards production is a new film version of the stage play Sleuth, featuring Caine and rising star Jude Law. Both make for intriguing prospects.

A few, final thoughts before moving on to consider Caine’s 80 films since Zulu. There are only two major genres this versatile actor yet to tackle – the western and science fiction. The former is perhaps not surprising, as the western has been out of favour with filmmakers for most of Caine’s career, and the British industry doesn’t produce many westerns. Then there is the fact Caine has an oft-stated antipathy for horses, having been unseated and unsettled by the animals on almost every occasion he has acted with them. ‘I’ll never be in a western,’ Caine told GQ in 1997, ‘because I hate horses, I don’t like wide open spaces, and I’m not very keen on baked beans.’

As for science fiction, it’s difficult to imagine Caine slipping into a spacesuit these days. Most of his film roles have been resolutely contemporary when they were made, with only a handful set before the 20th century. The closest he ever got to a science fiction was facing the killer bees of The Swarm (1978). The fallout from that almighty flop probably persuaded him science fiction was a genre best left to others.

It seems unlikely that Caine will retire soon. He received the best notices of his life for The Quiet American and is still hungry to win a best actor Oscar after four unsuccessful nominations. More importantly, Caine is still hungry to act. Many of his friends and colleagues have been content to retire, but Caine wants to stretch himself. Since turning 65 the actor has produced some of his career’s best work. Hopefully there is more to come…

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