In 1997, GQ sent me to interview Michael Caine to tie in with the UK release of Blood and Wine. I didn’t once mention that I’d written a book about him (My Name is Michael Caine, Muller 1991) and neither did he. We got along just fine.
Michael Caine is back in style. The younger of his daughters is 23, so he knows a thing or two about Britpop. “I opened a paper a couple of months ago, and there was this Liam Gallagher and a picture of me, side by side, and I thought what the hell have I got to do with Liam Gallagher? What’ve they written about now? And he was talking about who his icons were, and I became a big hero with my family because I was his icon of cool. He wore mackintoshes like Harry Palmer, things like that.”
If you need further proof that Caine is back and kicking ass, take a look at Blood And Wine, Bob “Curly” Rafaelson’s Florida-set film noir, in which he plays Victor Spansky, a chain-smoking safe cracker with emphysema who teams up with his poker buddy Jack Nicholson to nick a diamond necklace. It’s a shit-kicking performance that has already won him the Best Actor award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Elsewhere in the movie, Stephen Dorff, Judy Davis and Jennifer Lopez are no slouches, but what you want, what you really, really want, is more of Nicholson and Caine, more of their sublimely sleazy double-act as they bicker, brawl and double-cross each other. They’re the Odd Couple from hell, Laurel and Hardy by way of Jim Thompson or James Ellroy. “Something Jack and I want to do is a comedy, because we had such a laugh on that film. I think we’ve got to take the characters further than that. They’ve got to be more nefarious, more villainous.”
Victor is Caine’s chewiest role in years: he gets to cough his lungs out, bang people’s heads against trees and dye his hair black. He is an irredeemably vicious lowlife who dreams of lazing his last days away in Marbella and will stop at nothing to achieve that dream. Caine has never shied away from playing unsympathetic characters; Victor Spansky is a close relative to the horrid antihero of Get Carter, or to Mona Lisa‘s magnificently nasty Mortwell, but older, more desperate, and broken down. “I like to play characters. Plus, of course, nobody’s ever a villain to himself. Even Hitler thought he was a nice man.”
But then Caine has never shied away from playing anything. Years before Tom Hanks got an Academy Award for pretending to be a homosexual in Philadelphia, Caine played gays, with the minimum of fuss, in both California Suite and Deathtrap. While the world thrilled to stories of Robert de Niro fattening himself up for Raging Bull, Caine quietly put on 37lbs for his role as the alcoholic tutor in Educating Rita. In the course of his career, he has played heroes and villains, philanderers and transvestites, conmen and killers. He’s done light comedy and heavyweight drama, schlock horror, disaster movies, even a musical. He’s dabbled in every genre, with the exception of science fiction and westerns – “and I’ll never be in a western because I hate horses, I don’t like wide open spaces, and I’m not very keen on baked beans.” Show me another British film star with a range like that. Hell, show me another British film star. There’s Sean Connery, of course, but we’re not exactly spoilt for contenders.
“That’s a good start to an interview,” he says when I tell him how much I enjoyed his performance as Victor. “I can relax. Sometimes you think the movie’s good, and you agree to do interviews, and you realise that everybody hated it. And you go, ‘Oh shit, what have I done?’ You’ve made your bad movie, but you don’t want to talk to the press about it for two weeks.”
Caine turns out to be an interviewer’s dream. He’s professional without being too slick. He needs only the most rudimentary prodding to deliver a stream of observations and anecdotes. He’s eager to please. Matey. Fun. He’s either a really nice bloke, or a damn fine actor. Maybe even both. Either way, he wins.
The difference between a film star and a film actor is that, in Hollywood, the film star gets to keep his own voice. Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes et al may be chameleon kings who can adopt accents at will, but their personalities are so submerged in their performances that nobody knows what they really sound like. B-listers such as Bob Hoskins and Brian Cox have to pretend they’re Americans when they appear in American movies, but Caine, like Connery, is allowed to keep his own voice, whether it’s in Blood And Wine, Hannah And Her Sisters or Jaws – The Revenge.
You could be blindfolded and you’d know you were listening to Michael Caine. There’s no mistaking those vocal cords. To encounter this voice in the flesh, as it were, is to find oneself (Liam is right about this at least) in the presence of an icon, a living legend, a veritable national institution. “To Americans, we don’t have accents,” Caine explains. “We have voices. I’m always allowed to keep my own voice ‘cos that’s Sean’s voice and that’s my voice, just as if it was James Cagney’s voice and Humphrey Bogart’s voice and Cary Grant’s voice.” Once, it might have seemed like the last word in cheek for the bloke from Elephant and Castle to include himself in such company. Not anymore.
The voice was one of the things which helped make Caine a household name even though, ironically, his first big break in the film business – Zulu – required him to play a uniformed toff and talk posh. But he and his south London accent hit the big time just when it seemed that the working classes – led by the Beatles, David Bailey and Caine’s one-time flatmate Terence Stamp – were storming the barricades of society and grabbing their share of the swinging Sixties. And London in the Nineties is swinging once again, according to the world’s media.
“That’s death, isn’t it?” Caine says with a guffaw. “That means it’s over, once anybody notices.” But there’s no denying the capital has livened up over the past few years, if only with regard to eating out. Caine, of course, was in the advance guard of the foodie revolution, introducing brasserie dining to mid-Seventies London with Langan’s in Mayfair. “Actors didn’t used to go into the restaurant business. Now they’re all in it.” These days, he has a clutch of restaurants, including a new one in Miami – his first such venture in America.
It’s difficult to imagine now, when BBC English has lost its cachet and even the likes of Emma Thompson talk with more than a hint of estuary, but back in the early Sixties, Caine came up against a lot of prejudice on account of the way he spoke. Even now, given the opportunity, he will expound at length about what the British attitude to accent still says about our class system. It’s the nearest he comes to a rant.
“Directly an English man or woman opens their mouth, we ourselves, quite involuntarily, make a class judgment. And given normal circumstances – not actors or rock ‘n’ roll stars who are rich beyond their accents, you know what I mean – you could say roughly how much they earned, or where they live, what sort of house they live in, what sort of car, or furniture, and what sort of restaurants they eat in. All from their having said, ‘Good morning.’ But in America you can’t tell who the hell anybody is.”
As soon as he landed in the States – it was 1966, and he was there to make the caper movie Gambit with Shirley MacLaine – he felt a sense of euphoria. “And a relaxation. My shoulders came down, and I realised nobody gave a toss what class I was from.” His pet hate now is seeing himself referred to as “Michael Caine – professional Cockney”. (He was born in Rotherhithe, technically within the sound of Bow Bells.) “Nobody’s ever paid me a penny to be a bloody Cockney,” he says. “Cockney actor Michael Caine. As though I keep coming on in a cloth cap, saying, ‘Watcha, me old cocksparrer.'”
Accent or no accent (and it’s really gone beyond that now – it’s simply the way Michael Caine speaks), no one could say the man has ever been typecast. Within the past year alone he has played Captain Nemo in a four-part ABC mini-series of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, President De Klerk opposite Sidney Poitier for Showtime’s Mandela and De Klerk, and Blood And Wine‘s Victor. He is clearly amused and flattered – but also slightly nervous-sounding – about a planned retrospective of his films next year at the National Film Theatre. “It looks like your work is over, you know.” Same as being called an icon, a living legend or a national institution? “All three of them denote old,” he says, “and I don’t regard myself as old”.
Even so, such a retrospective is long overdue. Caine, who has now acted in more than 70 movies, has somehow got saddled with a reputation for appearing in nothing but turkeys (and even The Swarm, Blame It On Rio and The Holcroft Covenant have their fans), but a quick glance at his filmography is all it takes to disprove this canard. Anyone who can include Zulu, The Ipcress File, Get Carter, The Man Who Would Be King, Dressed To Kill and Hannah And Her Sisters (to name just half a dozen) in his curriculum vitae has nothing to be ashamed of, and there’s plenty more where they came from.
There are also hidden gems, waiting to be rediscovered. “I used to think Get Carter was underrated, but now it’s been rated, now it’s very rated.” His most unjustly neglected film, he feels now, is The Last Valley, a Thirty Years War epic directed in 1970 by the writer James Clavell. “It went completely nowhere. It’s my elder daughter’s favourite film – not only of mine, but of all time. I thought that was a wonderful film, with an unbelievable score by John Barry.”
The other element that made Caine stand out from the crowd at the beginning of his career was his spectacles; those, plus the voice and a catchphrase or two – “Not a lot of people know that” – have become trademarks which have not only made him an impressionist’s dream, but have fixed him firmly in the public consciousness. Once upon a time, film stars only wore specs when they were pretending to be homely or intellectual. You’d never catch James Bond wearing specs (except when he’s disguised as a homely intellectual), but secret agent Harry Palmer was another matter. Originally conceived as the antithesis of the glamorous, jet-setting 007, Palmer lived in a small bedsit, wore a grubby mackintosh, and performed mundane tasks such as boiling a kettle, though (like Len Deighton, who wrote the Harry Palmer novels) he was also a pretty nifty chef. “I… am going to cook you… the best meal… you’ve ever eaten,” he promises one of his girlfriends in The Ipcress File.
The Last Valley apart, the film I most want to see on the big screen when the British Film Institute does its Caine retrospective is Billion Dollar Brain, shot partly in Finland, in which Caine played Palmer for the third and penultimate time (he was to play the character 30 years on, in the TV movie Bullet To Beijing). It was Ken Russell’s second feature film (“British movie crews have a way of sussing things out,” says Caine, “and by the third day he was known as Rasputin”) and his leading lady was Catherine Deneuve’s elder sister, the fabulous Françoise Dorléac, whose blossoming international career was cut short in a fatal car crash soon after the end of shooting. “I helped her with her luggage in Finland,” Caine recalls, “which was a socialist country, so you go to a bloody hotel and there’s no porters. So I thought I’d help her out, ‘cos it was all icy on the pavement and freezing cold.”
It turned out that Dorléac had seventeen suitcases. Caine asked why she’d brought so much luggage along for a two-week stay, and she said, “In case I meet him.” Who? “I don’t know,” she said, “but if I meet someone and fall in love, I don’t know where he wants to go, or what he wants to do.” And so she had everything – tennis outfits, ski outfits, bikinis, scuba-diving stuff. Whatever he wanted to do, she would be ready. “Seventeen bags I lugged in,” says Caine.
Michael Caine wasn’t that man, that him. If you’d been a mother in the Sixties, you wouldn’t have wanted your daughter to go out with the man who played Alfie. “If my daughter had come to me with me,” says Caine, “I would have been thrown out.” As a bachelor-about-town, back in the Sixties, he did his fair share of womanising, but now the tide has turned, and he is justly famed for his rock-solid marriage to the beautiful Shakira. “My greatest pleasure is to be with my family, and I’m very, very, very family-oriented, to the point of boredom if you’re on the outside of it.” Nowadays, mums and dads love him to bits. He really is a national institution.
It doesn’t mean we should take him for granted, though. Caine makes it all look so effortless that people often make the mistake of thinking he’s playing himself on screen. But he’s not just a great actor and a powerful film presence – he is also a superb technician. In a BBC masterclas Caine conducted ten years ago, he gave away many tricks of the screen actor’s trade, but it also reminded you just how tricky some of these tricks actually were.
In everything from The Romantic Englishwoman to Educating Rita to The Honorary Consul, Caine has proved himself a supreme practitioner in the art of the drunk scene. (Just compare his numerous subtle degrees of dipsomania to Kenneth Branagh’s embarrassing diatribe in Peter’s Friends.) He ascribes this prowess to a theatre producer who once ticked him off for overdoing it and told him: “An actor being a drunk is a man who’s trying to walk crooked and trying to talk slurred. A drunk is a man who is trying to walk straight and act properly. There’s the key.”
“I do have a little experience of drunkenness,” adds Caine. “But not very much.”
In his book Acting On Film, he also warns about the continuity perils of smoking on camera (“When did you change hands? How long was the ash?”) In Blood And Wine, however, he chain-smokes his way through virtually every scene. “Yeah, I had it planned. I would just go – phooh – start, say the line, and then wait till I’d finished and then have another puff. Beginning and end, every time.” And even the nonstop coughing wasn’t so hard, he says. “I don’t smoke cigarettes, so what I used to do, I always had a fag alight. So before every take I’d inhale, and I’d be coughing and choking all the way through the scene. That’s why it’s so realistic – because I was. Makes the acting look good.”
That’s the whole secret of Michael Caine’s movie stardom – make it look effortless, and make it look good. If the British film industry really is going through one of its perennial mini-revivals, then surely it’s about time that some of our hot young film-makers started pelting Caine with the sort of meaty screenplays that, for example, French actors of his age and experience, such as Philippe Noiret, get all the time. “A comedy role,” he says, “I would love that. And it would have to be the lead, ‘cos I’m not going to do a low-budget film where I’m not the lead. And if I didn’t get any money, you’d have to pay me a percentage. So I’d hope it would make money.”
Your mission, then, should you decide to accept it, is to provide Michael Caine with a role every bit as juicy as that of Victor Spansky, but funnier, and set here, on his home turf.
“You know what you need to write a screenplay?” he says. “A pencil and a piece of paper.”