Michael Caine, Working Actor
By JOANNE KAUFMAN
October 9, 2007
Sir Michael Caine has won two Oscars (best supporting actor in "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "The Cider House Rules"), four Golden Globes and assorted other trophies and medals. He prides himself on his cooking and his gardening, his artistic integrity and his ability to tell a good story. But if he knows himself to be outclassed, he doesn't hesitate for a second to acknowledge it.
Consider the case of "Sleuth," a psychological drama, opening Friday, that stars Sir Michael, 74, and Jude Law and involves a brief meeting of their lips. "Jude's a better kisser than me. Jude is good. He's had a lot more practice," allowed Sir Michael, who's been married for 34 years to a former model and contender for the Miss Universe title. "But I think I'm too old for Jude Law. He likes them a bit younger. I'm over the hill as far as he's concerned."
This isn't his first go at "Sleuth." In 1972, he starred with Lord Laurence Olivier in the film version of Anthony Shaffer's hit play -- a cat-and-mouse game between a crafty best-selling mystery writer and his wife's callow young lover, the part then played by Sir Michael, now assumed by Mr. Law.
But Sir Michael wants you to understand that this "Sleuth" is not that "Sleuth." It's not some tedious remake but a whole fresh take. Only two lines from the original screenplay remain in the new script by Harold Pinter, he points out. Further, he says, in the 1972 movie the cuckolded novelist was a dangerous eccentric; this time out, he's a murderous psychopath. Entirely different ball game.
"The point is I never would have done the Tony Shaffer movie again, because between us we didn't do a bad job and it would have taken a tremendous effort to be very little better," said Sir Michael, relaxing on the couch in his midtown Manhattan hotel suite. "But when Jude came to me with the new screenplay, I thought 'this is fantastic.' When I was doing 'Sleuth' with Larry, I always thought his was the better part -- and now I'm playing it, so I'm happy."
Sir Michael has come full circle in more ways than one. He and Mr. Pinter were stage actors together half a century ago. Then "Harold decided to write plays and wrote a one-act called 'The Room' that I did at the Royal Court," said Sir Michael, referring to the legendary London theater. "So I was one of the first people to do Pinter. Then he wrote all these wonderful things for 50 years and I never did any of them, and I thought 'Well, I started you off and I never got another chance.' "
Sir Michael has embraced middle age and the years beyond with an ardor matched by very few performers. This attitude has kept him employed. Perhaps more important, it's enabled him to make the knotty transition from movie star to name-above-the-title character actor.
"I never became a failed movie star. I became a successful movie actor, which is your only choice," he said. "If you sit there waiting for romantic leads to come along and think you're going to get the girl at 85. . . And I'm still here and I'm being interviewed. A lot of people who were movie stars, if you sent their agent a smaller part the attitude would be, 'Oh, don't even give him that to read -- he's a star,' " said Sir Michael. "You had loads of these aging stars who never worked again and were in quite dire straits because they wouldn't do a small part or a character part.
"I have become a sort of leading character actor. The difference between that and a movie star is a movie star gets a script and he's reading it" -- here Sir Michael does a pantomime of paging through a document -- "and he's saying, 'Oh, Michael Caine would never talk like that. Michael Caine would never wear that. Michael Caine would never do that.' . . . A character actor looks at the script and thinks, 'Hmm, I'll put on weight for the part. I'll shave my head and be a bit bald.' He changes himself to fit the role, which is what I do."
He can hardly credit his success to any early encouragement. "When I was young, the advice I was given by my elders and my betters was 'give it up,' " recalled Sir Michael, the son of a Cockney fish-market porter and charwoman, who was born Maurice Micklewhite and got the inspiration for his stage name from a movie theater marquee advertising "The Caine Mutiny." "They thought I was useless. I was going into a profession where everyone spoke properly in a very posh accent, and I didn't talk like that.
"Even from my own kind, who you would expect to be encouraging, every single one of them said 'who do you think you are?' -- the inference being that I had ideas above my station. But I thought I could be a great movie actor. I was the first generation of performers who the first actor they saw when they were children was in the cinema. You read all those biographies of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and Larry, and it's always 'Nanny took me to the theater. The curtain went up and the lights went down and I knew what I wanted to be forever.' I went to the threepenny Saturday morning kids' program at the cinema and the first actor I ever saw was the Lone Ranger and I wanted to be the Lone Ranger and I knew I could do it. And I didn't have to have a posh accent."
The last laugh -- though Sir Michael says he hopes he isn't so shallow as to require such a thing -- has come in the form of his trophies and his title, his homes in London and Surrey. "I see myself as an example to young working-class people in England that you can do it," he said. "I felt vindicated one day when I read an article about the young Bob Hoskins, who when he was asked 'what made you think you could become an actor with your accent?' said, 'Michael Caine made me think it.' "
In civilian life, 50 years at the same job means a gold watch and, perhaps, a testimonial dinner. For Sir Michael, who will keep working "as long as I get offers I can't refuse," it has meant fielding endless questions about the secret of his long-running success. Here's the secret: "I always take life exactly as it comes." It has also meant sitting through many a celebratory retrospective.
"You know what happens at a retrospective?" demanded the star of "The Ipcress File," "Alfie," "The Man Who Would Be King," "Educating Rita" and "The Quiet American." "They run all your movies in about half an hour and you watch yourself grow old. It's terrible. I come bouncing on in 'Zulu,' very slim and very young," Sir Michael added, referring to the 1964 movie that first brought him to the attention of audiences. "And gradually I end up . . . crumbling."
Ms. Kaufman writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.