What's it all about, Michael?
He's film royalty, but he comes across as just
an ordinary Joe, MICHAEL POSNER writes. And even at the age of 68,
Michael Caine still gets the girl in his latest movie
By MICHAEL POSNER, The Globe and Mail
September 14, 2002
Life is so weird. Here's Michael Caine -- the knighted Sir Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, 68-year-old Cockney child of crushing poverty turned movie gazillionaire, two-time Oscar winner, star of Alfie, Get Carter, The Italian Job, Hannah and her Sisters, Little Voice and some 95 other films, genuine screen icon now in his sixth decade of filmmaking -- here's Michael Caine wandering the corridors of Toronto's Intercontinental Hotel in some sort of leisure jean suit doing serial promotion for his latest film, The Quiet American.
Caine picks his way carefully through the hallway, littered with empty trays and dry water bottles, nerve-frayed publicists and jostling camera crews. The place reeks of sweat and ennui. No one gives him a second glance. Just another star. Just another road show.
"Do you mind if I just have a leak first," he says, before settling himself again for another mini-interview.
The stripped-down hotel room is packed with light standards and cables. In the bathroom, the tub is a storage vat for blank videotape cartridges; the shower stall houses a box of duct tape.
Caine is in good spirits, buoyed by the generally positive reception to his new film, adapted from Graham Greene's 1955 novel of the same name by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, and directed by Australian Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games). He plays Thomas Fowler, a world-weary, opium-addicted British journalist in Saigon in the 1950s, before American military involvement. Fowler's got a wife back in London, but is living with his Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (played by 18-year-old newcomer Do Hai Yen). Brendan Fraser plays young American aid official Alden Pyle, harbinger of the coming escalation. It's a story of passion and betrayal, the two constants of human history.
"Very often, you think the film is great and then you go to one of these festivals and find you're a minority opinion," says Caine. "No one is ever unkind enough to say it directly, but you can tell from the interview that they have no interest and don't think much of the film."
He declines an opportunity to name some names. "If you want to dig the grave for me," he says with that signature chuckle, "I'm not going to give you the shovel."
Here's the thing about Michael Caine, and it's probably the secret of his success and durability. Although he's film royalty, owns posh houses, swank cars, restaurants, and so on, he comes across as just an ordinary Joe. You can take the bloke out of East London, but you can't scrub East London out of the bloke. In fact, that fidelity to roots is what got him started as an actor in the mid-1950s, after doing a year's military service in the Korean War. The times, of course, were auspicious. Caine came of age as a performer during the Angry Young Man period of British theatre -- the era of the kitchen-sink dramas of Joe Orton, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker -- and there was a premium on authenticity.
"I sort of resented that my class were being made to look like chumps all the time," he explains. "So I came into the business purely to get it right, to get straight performances of my type of person, working-class. Because all the other actors were RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts graduates] and nobody could get it right."
Of his early years in poverty, Caine says that it was "only a poverty of money, not of spirit. I had the closest-knit family. I was never unhappy, never dirty, never hungry. My mother and father were brilliant, but they couldn't make a lot of money."
When he announced his decision to become an actor, his father concluded that Caine was gay, "because where I came from, all actors were gay. It was a rule or something. I thought actors were gay, but I didn't know what gay was. So I found out and told my mother, and she didn't believe me. When I got married and had a baby, my dad was finally convinced I wasn't gay."
Acting at first in small provincial theatres under the name Michael Scott, he adopted the Caine surname when he moved to London. "I was on the phone with my agent and he told me there was another actor with the same name and I needed a new name, right then, so I looked around -- I was in a phone booth in Leicester Square -- and across the street I saw this movie marquee and The Caine Mutiny was playing, so I said Caine . . . Make it Michael Caine."
Ironically, perhaps, it was his war experience that landed him his first film role -- A Hill in Korea (1956). Most of his performance did not survive the editing suite. "My appearances were mercifully few," Caine wrote in the first instalment of his autobiography, What's It All About, "the editor having decided that the cutting-room floor was the ideal place for my first effort at international stardom."
In the next eight years, he appeared in 18 films, including Hamlet (playing Horatio to Christopher Plummer's melancholy Dane), and The Wrong Arm of the Law (with Peter Sellers). His first major role, his first major success, and his first major stretch as an actor was in Zulu (1964), based on the true story of a few British soldiers who in 1879 held an African fort against 4,000 Zulu warriors; Caine played an upper-crust military officer.
But even then, he endured some rough patches. At one point, broke and unemployed, he auditioned for the part of Bill Sykes in the musical Oliver and was rejected. The show ran seven years, by which time Caine was a star. "Late in the run, I drove past the theatre in my Rolls-Royce, and I thought to myself, 'I could still be there, playing Bill Sykes.' "
On the strength of Zulu, he was cast in Alfie (1966), which earned five Oscar nominations and won him an international reputation. For this, he could thank Terence Stamp, Anthony Newley and Laurence Harvey, all of whom spurned the part because of its abortion sequence, which would have portrayed them in an unfavourable light.
Caine quickly capitalized on his standing -- The Wrong Box, The Ipcress Files, The Magus and The Italian Job were all made before the end of the decade. Moving to Hollywood, he lived the high life -- serial bedding of starlets (his first marriage had ended), heavy drinking (three bottles of vodka a day, according to his biography), the house in Hollywood Hills.
At one point, he was living in the Playboy mansion in Chicago -- "86 bunnies, a 24-hour bar and me, a single man of 30."
Then he met Guyana-born Shakira Baksh -- he spotted her in a TV commercial for Maxwell House coffee; they've now been married more than 30 years, and have one daughter.
In short, if you need "been there, done that" material, Caine's your man. Some of it is recounted in his autobiographies, but not all of it. "You also have to meet these people again," he explained to another recent interviewer. "I've never given all the zingers, y'know? I never forget anything. You cut a lot of stuff because you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. As a matter of fact, one of the most hurtful things you can do to anybody is to leave them out. They hate that."
Busy as ever, the scripts continuing to land on his desk, Caine has no plans to slow down. This past year, he appeared in Mike Myers's Austin Powers in Goldmember and in a zany Irish caper film, The Actors. Next up is Second-Hand Lions with Robert Duvall and Haley Joel Osmont.
For the moment, he is basking in the glow of The Quiet American, which he considers one of his finest performances.
"I've seen it twice and I've looked for me, the actor, and he's not there. It's just the man, the character. It's a great love story and a great spy story -- and at 68, I got the girl. And it wasn't a 68-year-old girl, either."