Is Michael Caine Britain’s most important film star?

The Interstellar actor was remarkably underrated until the Nineties, but his versatility and voice make him peerless, says Anne Billson

By Anne Billson 12 November 2014 • 6:00am

Not the least of the pleasures in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is watching Michael Caine doing what he has been doing in each of Nolan’s last six films – anchoring the outlandish elements with a performance of quiet authority. Caine helps you believe that a billionaire can dress up in a bat costume to fight crime; that magicians can teleport across the stage; and I don’t know about you, but I’d give my right arm to sit in on one of his Dream Architecture lectures at the Sorbonne.

Hard to believe now that Caine was once considered a joke. Never mind that throughout the Seventies and Eighties he was showing his range with brilliant performances in films as varied as The Man Who Would Be King, Dressed to Kill, Educating Rita, The Honorary Consul, Hannah and her Sisters (for which he won an Oscar), Mona Lisa and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. What everyone remembered were the squawking turkeys.

And Caine, like any hardworking actor, appeared in his fair share, of which The Swarm, The Island, Escape to Victory and The Holcroft Covenant are the more entertaining examples. “I have never seen it…” he famously said of Jaws: The Revenge. “By all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Post-Jaws, Caine was better known for his catchphrases – “My name is Michael Caine” (sampled by Madness) and “Not many people know that” (which originated as a joke by Peter Sellers) – than for his talent. The consensus was that he appeared in any old rubbish, only ever played himself, and couldn’t act. So when in 1992 I wrote that “Michael Caine is the best, most important, and most versatile film star that Britain has ever produced”, a few eyebrows were raised.

Ha! History has proved me right. It was “Cool Britannia” in the mid-Nineties that kick-started the reassessment: a booming economy, Britpop and the roaring success of lad-mags such as Loaded created a mood of boisterous, pro-British optimism. Who better than the man who had incarnated Alfie, Harry Palmer and Charlie Croker to stand as figurehead to a generation of would-be geezers who were turning their backs on the wimpy New Man stereotype and looking for a manlier role model?

Caine was the Sixties, or so it would later seem. After seeing active service in Korea, he spent a decade slogging away in regional theatre or playing bit parts on film and TV. He’d celebrated his 30th birthday before the triple whammy of Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966) propelled him to what then seemed like overnight stardom in a cultural climate where, spearheaded by the great Stanley Baker, working-class actors were at last finding themselves cast as leading men in a milieu formerly exclusive to RP-speaking toffs.

Ironically, for an actor so closely associated with his way of speaking, Caine’s breakthrough role was that of a posh lieutenant with an upper-class accent in Zulu (which starred Baker). But it was his performance as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, the flipside to glamorous jet-setting 007, that established his screen persona, with Cockney accent and – unheard of for film stars who weren’t playing eggheads – spectacles. He would go on to play Palmer twice more in the Sixties (including in Ken Russell’s demented and rather wonderful Billion Dollar Brain) and twice in Nineties TV movies.

After dipping his toe into Hollywood (Gambit) and a couple of misfires, he consolidated his leading man status with the The Italian Job (the Great British Hooligan manifesto); as part of Battle of Britain‘s all-star line-up; in a couple of gritty, cynical war movies directed by Hollywood pros (Play Dirty, Too Late the Hero); and as a thoughtful mercenary in a Thirty Years’ War epic with a cracking John Barry score (The Last Valley).

And then, in 1971, Get Carter. Critics were cautious in their admiration for Mike Hodges’ gangster movie, many of them flinching from the violence. The film made money, but it wasn’t until its rerelease in the post-Tarantino Nineties, by which time the violence seemed par for the course, that it started cropping up in lists of Greatest Crime Movies and All Time Best of British. As Jack Carter, avenging angel of death in a black raincoat, Caine plays a ruthless sociopathic anti-hero with no ingratiating notes whatsoever. This is an actor who doesn’t feel the need to be loved.

Nor is he afraid to play villains (Mona Lisa, On Deadly Ground); psychos (Dressed to Kill); homosexuals both sympathetic and unsympathetic in California Suite and Deathtrap (when playing gay was something of a career risk); or camping it up in Miss Congeniality (“It takes a very secure man to walk like that“).

His down-to-earth approach to the craft is unlikely to land him in Pseud’s Corner, but he is a master of technique, with few equals in the art of talking to camera (Alfie), and among the best in the business at simulating all the varying degrees of inebriation (Educating Rita, The Honorary Consul), having long ago understood that drunks don’t slur their words or walk crooked.

I think it’s safe to say that Caine is no longer underrated. Since the Nineties, he has been sought out by a new generation of directors, and is often the highlight of the films in which he appears, whether upstaging Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson’s smashing neo-noir Blood and Wine, belting out It’s Over in Little Voice, perfectly cast as Austin Powers’ dad in Goldmember, or smoking weed in a superannuated hippy wig in Children of Men. And his vigilante pensioner in Harry Brown shows he can still carry a movie.

The Michael Caine voice has also become an obligatory port of call for TV comedians such as Paul Whitehouse, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. I always feel a bit cheated when he tries an accent, though attempts range from the good (Zulu, Secondhand Lions) to the bad (The Cider House Rules, for which he nevertheless won his second Supporting Actor Oscar) and the ugly (Hurry Sundown, Mr Morgan’s Last Love). With one exception: I love his fake Austrian, torturing rival conman Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

But when that voice is unleashed on “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”, “A pint of bitter… in a thin glass“, or even “I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees“, the man has no equal. So I’ll say it again: Michael Caine is the best, most important, and most versatile film star that Britain has ever produced.

This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in November 2014.


One thought on “Is Michael Caine Britain’s most important film star?

  1. You’re quite right Anne. I was talking about Michael Caine with a very educated man in the 1970s and he said ‘he’s actually a very good actor’, as if anyone would automatically assume he wasn’t.
    I have always enjoyed watching him, long may he thrive still.

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