Review: Michael Caine: The Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine
Hodder & Stoughton, €23.40, Hardback
Published 04/12/2010 | 05:00
The Elephant to Hollywood isn't Michael Caine's first attempt at an autobiography. In 1992 he published a memoir called What's It All About, which described his rise from impoverished beginnings in London's tough borough of Elephant & Castle to the heights of Hollywood stardom.
At that time he thought his star was in decline, and, in fact, he briefly retired from acting after the book's publication. But little did he know that he was about to embark on an extraordinarily successful late purple patch that would include some of his best films and a second Oscar win (for The Cider House Rules).
In this volume Sir Michael (he was knighted in the year 2000) brings us up to date using an unfussy and totally unpretentious writing style that sounds exactly as he speaks. And while his name-dropping anecdotes about working on recent films like Batman Begins and Harry Brown are interesting enough, it's Caine's stories from his 1960s heyday that really catch the reader's imagination.
Caine toiled for almost a decade in repertory theatre before he hit the big time, and his break, he tells us, was one huge slice of luck. In 1961 he was called to audition for the role of a Cockney corporal in a big budget historical drama called Zulu. When he got to the Prince of Wales Theatre, however, the film's director Cy Endfield told him the part was already gone.
"The bar at the Prince of Wales is very long," Caine explains, "and that's why I became a movie star, because just as I reached the end Cy called out 'Can you do a posh British accent?'" Caine said he could, and the resulting film got his career started.
Hit movies like Alfie and The Ipcress File made Caine one of the famous faces of swinging '60s London. And by the sound of it, he did not forget to enjoy himself.
Caine was a high liver, and at one point claims to have been downing at least two bottles of vodka a day. He also had an eye for the ladies, and Terence Stamp and Peter O'Toole were his impressive partners in crime. O'Toole, Caine reckons, was probably the wildest of them all. When Caine was working as O'Toole's understudy on a West End play, the pair decided to go for a quick drink after the Saturday night show.
They awoke in a strange flat next to two girls that they didn't recognise. "What time is it? Caine asked. "Never mind what time it is, O'Toole replied, "what f***ing day is it?" It was Monday.
Caine's party days came to an end when he met his beautiful wife Shakira Baksh. And in his book, he describes how he fell in love while watching a coffee commercial.
On a rare night in, he saw Shakira in a Maxwell House ad and told his friend: "That girl is the most beautiful girl in the world -- I have to meet her." The couple were married within the year.
When Michael and Shakira moved to Hollywood in the mid-70s, his mother came to visit. Somewhat overwhelmed by her verdant, sun-kissed surroundings, she remarked: "Look at all that hysteria climbing up the walls". She meant wisteria, but her son decided "she'd summed up Hollywood in a nutshell".
Over the years Caine became something of an unofficial British ambassador in Tinseltown, and when the Queen arrived, his presence was requested at a state dinner. It was apparently a boring one, because at one point the monarch said "Mr Caine -- do you know any good jokes?" The actor duly obliged.
After Caine quit smoking he attempted to lecture his stubbornly high-living friend Jack Nicholson. "Michael," said Jack, "it has been proved that people who are left-handed die earlier than smokers. I am right-handed, so I am ahead of the game."
The Elephant to Hollywood is full of such anecdotes, and if anyone else was telling them they might come across as mere name-dropping. But Michael Caine, a bona fide movie legend, more than gets away with it.