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Thursday 23 March 2017

Michael Caine: tales of a jobbing cockney

Choice role: Italian director Paolo Sorrentino wrote Youth with Caine in mind
Choice role: Italian director Paolo Sorrentino wrote Youth with Caine in mind

Most of his 1960s contemporaries are either retired or dead, but Michael Caine just carries on acting. A couple of years back, he had hinted that he might be about to call it a day, but the 82-year-old recently declared that he'll "never retire" unless they "stop sending scripts". Considering that in recent times he's worked with everyone from Christopher Nolan to Gore Verbinski, that seems unlikely, and his latest film is a collaboration with Oscar and Palme d'Or-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino.

Sorrentino wrote Youth with Caine in mind, and the veteran actor is on top form playing a retired composer having a kind of late-life crisis. Fred Ballinger is on holiday in Switzerland with his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) when he receives a request from Buckingham Palace to perform at Prince Philip's birthday concert. The invitation sends him into a kind of tailspin, and as he and Mick become overwhelmed by memories, things soon get out of hand.

Caine once said "I've done an awful lot of films - in fact I've done a lot of awful films!" and for a dark period between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s he was associated with a string of absolute stinkers. But his moving and persuasive performance in Youth, which opens here next week, reminds us just how very good a screen actor Caine can be on his day. He has a kind of unfussy naturalness about his acting that sets him apart from the show-offs and the hams. He's versatile, too, and can move easily between comedy and drama.

As a young actor, he was constantly told to do something about his strong cockney accent.

"People always told me you can't be an actor you don't talk posh," he explained, "and I said I'll show you how to be an actor without talking posh. And I did it."

In fact, his accent and unique intonation have been his fortune, popping up in most of his performances and enhancing some of his finest moments. Caine is surely one of the most impersonated actors of all time, and who has not had a go at saying in character his most immortal line, "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off"?

That came from The Italian Job, the film that perhaps best summarises his cool and youthful appeal. But as it turns out, Caine's career was only getting started in 1969, and would later blossom in unexpected ways after surviving that potentially fatal mid-life slump.

He was not, to begin with, Michael Caine at all. He was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, in Southwark, London, in 1933. His mother was a charwoman, his father a porter at Billingsgate Fish Market, and he grew up in modest circumstances in south and central London. He saw action in the Korean War while doing his national service, and returned to England at a loose end until he answered an ad in The Stage looking for an assistant manager and occasional walk-on actor for a repertory company.

In 1953, he made his professional début as Catherine Earnshaw's drunken brother Hindley in a local production of Wuthering Heights. Realising that his own surname didn't exactly trip off the tongue, he chose the stage name of Michael Scott, and began a nine-year slog around the theatres of small-town England that he'd later describe as "really, really brutal".

In the mid-1950s, he returned to London from deepest Suffolk and got himself a new agent. His new mentor quickly advised him that as there was another Michael Scott working in the capital, he'd have to find a new stage name pronto. Michael was speaking from a phone box in Leicester Square, and when he looked around he noticed that the latest Humphrey Bogart movie, The Caine Munity, was playing at the Odeon. On such whims careers are born.

He moved in with another rising cockney star, Terence Stamp, and began hanging out with him and Peter O'Toole after landing the job of O'Toole's understudy in the West End play The Long and the Short and the Tall. The boys were high-livers, and in his 2010 biography The Elephant to Hollywood, Caine recycled his much-loved story about the perils of partying with O'Toole.

While he was working as O'Toole's understudy, the pair decided to go for a quick drink after the Saturday night show. The night went swimmingly, and they awoke in a strange flat next to two girls 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 toiled for almost a decade in repertory theatre before he hit the big-time, and his break, he has admitted, was one huge slice of luck. In 1962 he was called to audition for the role of a Cockney corporal in the big-budget action drama Zulu on the recommendation of his friend and the film's star, Stanley Baker.

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 later explained, "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.

He was tall, blond, handsome and extremely charismatic, but it was after Zulu, when Caine begin using his real accent on film, that his true potential became apparent. Till this point, British actors who weren't playing mendicants, lunatics, criminals or 'peasants' adopted as a matter of course the clipped and strangulated tones of the English upper-middle class, but Caine was among the first of a new breed who refused to change their 'regional' accents.

Albert Finney from Manchester, Tom Courtenay from Yorkshire and Caine from the salty heart of London ushered in the winds of change with their unvarnished and irreverent accents and performances, and gave working class people the kind of screen heroes they could identify with. In Caine's case, he won a special place in British audience's hearts playing Len Deighton's mild-mannered London spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966).

If he was a hero in those, he was a right cad in Alfie (1966), playing a strutting misogynist who used women for sex and referred to his girlfriend as "it". He was outstanding in the role, which earned him his first Oscar nod - he's been nominated in every decade since, and has won twice. Enduring favourites like Battle of Britain (1969) and The Italian Job (1969) followed, and Caine would give one of his most compelling turns as a Newcastle gangster out for revenge in Mike Hodges's 1971 classic, Get Carter.

He was terrific opposite his friend Sean Connery in John Huston's Raj adventure The Man Who Would be King (1975), but thereafter his career went off the boil. Critics accused Caine of chasing money rather than quality, and looking at the likes of The Island (1980), The Hand (1981) and especially the 1978 killer bee adventure The Swarm, it's hard to disagree with them.

But in the 1980s he restored his reputation, first in Britain, then in America, with two extraordinary performances. In Lewis Gilbert's Educating Rita (1983), which was based on a Willy Russell play and partly filmed in Trinity College and environs, Caine played a drunken, world-weary English professor whose faith in human nature is restored by Julie Walters' salty working-class student.

That film won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, and he won his first Academy Award in 1986 playing a compromised husband in Woody Allen's brilliant ensemble comedy Hannah and her Sisters.

With Caine now settled in Hollywood with his second wife, Shakira, there would be more lucrative rubbish from time to time, like Jaws: The Revenge (1987) and Michael Winner's embarrassingly bad 1990 comedy Bullseye. But there were gems, too, like his delightful turn opposite Steve Martin in Franz Oz's caper comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). And since the late 1990s, and his second Oscar win for The Cider House Rules, Caine has hardly put a foot wrong.

In the mid 2000s, just after he turned 70, Caine began arguably his most fruitful screen collaboration, with high-flying Hollywood director Christopher Nolan. But the older Caine has given some of his finest performances in smaller budget films, like John Crowley's Is Anybody There?, and Daniel Barber's thriller Harry Brown.

In fact, you could argue that in old age Michael Caine is better than ever, and he hasn't lost his salty sense of humour either. At the Cannes press conference for Youth, it was noted that Caine hadn't attended the Festival for 49 years. "I was here with a film called Alfie," he said. "It won a prize and I didn't. So I never came back. I'm not going all that way for nothing."

Caine and Nolan

Since 2005, Christopher Nolan has cast Michael Caine in six of his films, and fondly refers to the veteran actor as his "lucky charm". It turned out to be a stroke of genius choosing him to play Bruce Wayne's trusty retainer Alfred Pennyweather, because Caine became a strong grounding force in Nolan's Batman trilogy. While Christian Bale's Wayne plunged ever deeper into his desperate battle with Gotham's underworld, Alfred became his moral guide, lecturing him on issues ethical and practical, and telling him about his mysterious youth.

He was perfect, and when Nolan began to move on from the Batman franchise, he took Michael with him. In The Prestige (2006), Caine brought depth and heart to his portrayal of John Cutter, a sad-eyed 19th-century magician who gets caught up in the deadly rivalry between two illusionists. He had a smaller role in Nolan's 2010 sci-fi heist thriller Inception, but was front and centre for Interstellar (2014), playing a wise and weary NASA professor who has found a new home for humanity. At this stage it would be hard to imagine a Nolan film without Caine, and there may well be a role for him in Nolan's next project, Dunkirk.

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