Thursday, September 27, 2012

Michael Caine

Michael Caine:  A Class Act

This may seem a really strange book for me to read, given that I have seen very few of Caine’s oeuvre, not even his most famous films like Zulu and The Ipcress File.  There is an explanation, but in a more general sense, I guess I became a Michael Caine fan when I first saw The Muppet Christmas Carol.  I was very young and thought only two things, firstly, that I was amazed such a serious British Shakespearean [sic] actor could act against Muppets, and furthermore, I thought he was a good Scrooge and made a great movie even better.  I still love this movie and still think Caine is the best Scrooge ever.

I chose this biography rather than Caine’s two autobiographies because, I suppose, of the angle Christopher Bray picked (even though the biography is about 10 years out of date now).  “Sir Michael Caine would never not open an envelope—because there was always the chance that it might contain a cheque.  It was a joke, but like many jokes it made a serious point.  Money and class have been the twin obsessions of Caine’s life.”  I hadn’t realized, somehow, that Caine was born in Rotherhithe, went to school in Camberwell (John Ruskin), and gained his first cinema experience in Peckham.  The Lone Ranger, he says, was his first hero.   The point is, I live in south London—barely a stone’s throw away from some of the early landmarks in Caine’s life.  Believe me, you don’t find many movie stars from south London.  

In addition to contracting rickets (one disease you never hear of anymore), he also contracted blepharitis, which was, in fact, responsible for giving him that trademark hooded eyes look.  What also surprised me was how, in some ways, his early life mirrored the first 20 years of the life of William Hartnell, born some 20 years before him.  Like Caine, Hartnell thrived in the country but was drawn by circumstance inextricably to London.  Like Caine, Hartnell fell in love with his leading lady—for Hartnell, it was on tour in Canada in the 1920s and the marriage lasted until his death, though not without its ups and downs.  Caine, on the other hand, married his RADA graduate in the 1950s, only with it all to fall apart and Caine not to form a lasting relationship until the 1970s when he met Shakira.  

Caine’s life also intersects in a roundabout fashion with Verity Lambert’s—in 1957, he lost out on a role to Sean Connery, with whom he eventually became good friends.  The role was in Requiem for a Heavyweight, the Rod Serling TV play that Verity Lambert went to New York to study in 1961.  The 1950s, however, were a dreadful time for Caine’s career; it’s almost as if he were the perfect face of the early 1960s, one of the few to actually embody the picture of the Sixties that Dominic Sandbrook tries hard to dispel in his books, just waiting to emerge when the new decade came in.  In any case, he has stood the test of time far more than his one-time flatmate, ‘60s flavor of the month, Terence Stamp.  

And after  that, Bray follows Caine’s career through works of genius and flops and everything in between, trying to find something worth saying about each of the hundreds of films in Caine’s filmography.  I have to take Bray’s word for most of it, and his filmic admiration of Caine’s craft is tempered by wry honesty, though some of his observations just strike me as bizarre.  It’s no masterpiece, but it’s interesting and certainly has made me pack dozens of Caine’s films on my “to watch” list.  

Caine, as presented in this book, is a good actor.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he is a good or even consistent person.  He is quoted as having said, “I’ve always felt slightly patronized, trivialized, marginalized,” whether by the likes of Laurence Olivier and Richard Harris, or Denis Healy’s ‘70s taxation system.  One does get the impression more than ever that films are churned out by committee and by industry and there is no telling what will actually emerge—whether it will be something decent or something execrable.

It’s a real shame that the book was written before Caine’s casting in the Nolan!verse Batman films.  I’d love to have read what Bray made of that.       

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