Everyone can do a Michael Caine impersonation. Some do it extremely well.
One of the finest comic sketches of the past decade involved Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden doing battle to get the voice – complete with nasal inflection and cracked emotionality – just right. But no one does Michael Caine quite as well as Michael Caine.
He does him so well that it’s easy to forget what a great actor he is. Because, like the best screen actors, he uses the force of his personality to inform his characters. They may be very different people and performances, but there’s something irreducibly Caine-like about them.
It’s a quality that can be mistaken for narrowness of range, but in fact, in a career that spans more than 120 films, Caine has played a diverse set of characters, from a transsexual psychopath in Dressed to Kill to a butler in three Batman movies. And he invariably takes the audience along with him. His latest film, as he approaches his 83rd birthday in March, is Youth, by the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, whose The Great Beauty won the Academy Award and Bafta for best foreign-language film two years ago.
Again, Caine is a long way from his stereotype of the tough cockney. It’s very much a European art house film and he plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer-conductor holed up in a Swiss sanatorium with his best friend, an American film director played by Harvey Keitel. It’s fascinating to see Caine and Keitel together with their very different acting techniques. There’s a fabulous stillness about Caine, an ease in front of the camera that makes Keitel’s performance look a little awkward and forced.
Mostly, Caine is on affectingly restrained form, but there’s one scene in which he becomes riled by an emissary from Buckingham Palace and he suddenly snaps: “That’s enough!” And you know that even Leonard Bernstein or Herbert von Karajan at their most exasperated would never have mustered such coiled menace in two words. That’s it and then Ballinger is back on sweet old man form, but that flash tells us a lot about how he came to be an uncompromising artist.
By all accounts, or at least’s Caine’s, Sorrentino wrote the part specifically for Caine, who was notionally in retirement. But he’s been notionally in retirement for about 20 years, during which he’s hardly stopped working. He’s finished yet another film since Youth and in an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme he said he’d be happy to take a part in the proposed film about the Hatton Garden heist, if the script was right.
During that same interview, he suggested the UK should vote to get out of Europe unless there were some “extremely significant changes” in the way the EU is organised. “You cannot be dictated to by thousands of faceless civil servants,” he told Nick Robinson.
No doubt Ukip or the irredentist wing of the Tory party will be getting in touch with his agent, but Caine has never been afraid to voice his opinion on politics, especially if it concerns his livelihood. He announced he was leaving Britain for the US in the late 1970s when, under James Callaghan, the super-rich paid an 83% tax rate. “I realised that’s not a socialist country,” he said a few years ago. “It’s a communist country without a dictator.”
In 2009 he suggested that Britain should bring back national service to give young people a sense of belonging and also threatened to leave Britain again if Gordon Brown raised income tax any higher than 50%.
He made those comments during the promotion of Harry Brown, a kind of gritty vigilante movie set on a council estate in London’s Elephant and Castle, in which Caine plays the sort of character he might have become had he not become a multimillionaire film star.
He has described himself as a “Cockney yob from the Elephant and Castle”. His father was a Billingsgate porter who died when Caine was in his early 20s and his mother was a charlady.
“I had a very tough father and a very tough brother and if anybody ever came to our house, they never came again,” he has said. But he was a classic case of a bright kid going to the local grammar school – Camberwell, in his case – and gaining an interest in books, thanks to his English teacher, a Mr Watson.
Not that it was an easy path from there. He left school at 16 and worked as a clerk and as messenger before doing his national service, which included active combat in Korea. He says that it was experiences there that extinguished his youthful sympathy for communism. As a 19-year-old soldier, he apparently had a near-death experience that, he said, “formed my character for the rest of my life”.
He had taken up acting after coming out of the army, starting off as an assistant stage manager at a small rep company in Horsham in West Sussex. Married with a young child, he worked solidly throughout the 1950s on stage and in TV, but it was, he has said, “brutal” work.
If the Korean incident formed his character, then his outlook, his philosophy, was very much located in the 1960s. He was one of number of prominent figures from working-class backgrounds who found themselves at the forefront of fashion.
Newly single, he shared a flat with Terence Stamp and was good chums with the photographer Terry O’Neill and hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, none of whom came into the world accompanied by a silver spoon. He was something of a hell-raiser until he met his second wife, Shakira, whom he married in 1973.
His big break didn’t come until 1963 in Zulu. He played an upper-class officer which, as a British working-class actor at the time, was a revolutionary piece of casting by the American director Cy Endfield.
Caine has always maintained that he would never have got the part had Endfield not been a foreigner. “I swear to you,” he reiterated just recently, “no English director... would have cast me as an officer – not one.”
He’s probably right, but that sense of class awareness allied to a sense of a self-made man pushing back the social boundaries of a snob-filled England was a very 1960s story and it has remained a key part of Caine’s identity. Perhaps his defining role in those terms was Harry Palmer, the anti-Bond spy in the three mid-60s adaptations of Len Deighton novels, The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain.
Palmer was dry, sceptical and working class. He understood how the world worked, found his upper-crust bosses painfully detached, but he was dogged and had a knowing sense of self. A loner, but unlike Bond, a real outsider.
Caine has been a highly successful and extremely wealthy actor for more than 50 years, but he still sees himself as an outsider, someone who is perhaps better appreciated in the “classless” environment of America than Britain.
He has been nominated for six Academy Awards and won two of them, the first for one of his greatest performances, and certainly some of the finest acting ever seen in a Woody Allen film – as a philandering husband in the grip of an epic midlife crisis in Hannah and Her Sisters.
But even after that, Caine was still seen as a bit of hack, someone who would appear in anything. And his filmography is a rich and varied document, featuring Steven Seagal movies, straight to video fodder, but very rarely a bad performance.
His friends teased him in 2000, when he was knighted, that surely the Queen knocked the chip off his shoulder with her sword. But in spite of the knighthood, the Oscars, the large Surrey house with swimming pool and a bank balance large enough to survive any tax increase, there will always be an element of the underappreciated in Caine. Perhaps that’s why he continues to produce acting that demands our appreciation.
THE CAINE FILE
Born 14 March 1933 in Rotherhithe, London. His father, Maurice, was a porter at Billingsgate, his mother a charwoman.
Best of times Winning his two Oscars, first in 1986 as best supporting actor in Hannah and Her Sisters and then again for the same category in The Cider House Rules in 1999. Meeting his second wife, Shakira:,“Life began again at 40,” he says.
Worst of times His upbringing was pretty tough but he says the first decade of his career as an actor was “brutal, very brutal”.
What he says “I always say to any actor: don’t listen to advice from actors, especially if they’re older than you. Because when I was very young, I asked lots of older actors for advice and every single one of them said to me, ‘Give it up, you can’t act and you’ve got a rotten accent’.”
What others say “Perhaps he will do anything for the money, but while doing anything he will do everything to make that anything something.” Christopher Bray, author of Michael Caine: A Class Act
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