August 05, 2015

The unendurable, incomprehensible, immortal Michael Caine

I always thought I had a clever notion about Michael Caine.  He was, I imagined, a great character actor who'd inadvertently ended up a star.  It turns out this has occurred to him, too.
The difference between a movie star and a movie actor is this--a movie star will say, "How can I change the script to suit me?" and a movie actor will say. "How can I change me to suit the script?"

Surely Caine is the latter, a man who can adapt himself to many different types of roles. 
And like many character actors, he has been in many, many bad movies.
I've made an awful lot of films. In fact, I've made a lot of awful films.

But if he's a character actor, where's the steadiness, the "glue" factor that distinguishes the great ones?  Caine's performances - let's face it - are uneven.  David Thomson, the expat who knows everything about movies, dares to defy the Queen on this one:
Caine's work is indiscriminate, and he is still more at ease in supporting roles. I do not see or feel the evidence of character or depth in the mass of parts...  Well, the Queen obviously reckons him as an actor; she knighted him in 2000. He's certainly worked for it, and stayed very cheerful, but I can only think of all the films HRH must have missed: like On Deadly Ground...

No, really, the taxes were terrible.  It's much better here.

Caine has addressed this directly:
The danger is, of course, that the wait for a decent movie makes you desperate, and I got desperate to the point that I accepted a picture in Alaska...  Although Steven and the rest of the team were great to work with, I had broken one of the cardinal rules of bad movies: if you're going to do a bad movie, at least do it in a great location. Here I was, doing a movie where the work was freezing my brain and the weather was freezing my arse.

But Thomson knows as well as anyone that great actors make bad films.  He once wrote a small but enjoyable book about Humphrey Bogart, which included the passing remark that "we are talking about a man who made four great pictures in his life."

Well, Caine has his Maltese Falcon in Get Carter.  It's a nearly perfect movie, and the camera's on Caine for probably 90% of it.

In this scene you eat soup like a sociopath

Are there more?

Aye, there's the rub.  There are more good movies, but it's hard to spot more great ones.

Caine's defenders might point out his range:  He can do comedy.  He can do melodrama.  Could Bogart have done The Cider House Rules, or Hannah and Her Sisters, for which Caine won Oscars?  Doubtful...but those Oscars were for Best Supporting Actor.  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a fine piece of work, too, but in collaboration with Steve Martin.  He did win Best Actor for Educating Rita, but that was a Golden Globe.

And, as we name these examples of his best work, are we really naming great, classic, movies?  Forget four - can we even get up to two?  As I go through the titles, I find that most Michael Caine movies fit into five non-masterpiece categories:
  • Supporting roles in good movies, such as those mentioned above.
  • Supporting roles in outstanding commercial successes, such as Batman The Dark Knight's Revenge This Time It's Personal No Really Please Give Us More of Your Money.
  • Adventure movies we liked as kids, like The Man Who Would Be King, or Zulu.  In his book Have you seen...? Thomson praises The Man Who Would be King, but then cuts it with the chilling "it’s rather minor Huston."
  • British films that were perhaps good at the time, but are not watched much now, like Alfie.
  • Execrable paychecks, such as On Deadly Ground, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, or Jaws: The Revenge. 
"I have never seen [Jaws: The Revenge], but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."

There is another category, though.  He has starred in several movies that have seen their reputations improve with the passage of time.  Get Carter is the original example, but the The Quiet American might be another.  Of Caine's performance Ebert said "[it] seems to descend perfectly formed. There is no artifice in it, no unneeded energy, no tricks, no effort. It is there."  

I wonder if there are more of these.  Caine has been in over a hundred films.  Perhaps, somewhere among them, is another masterpiece, something history will look back on as an underappreciated gem.

Someone could go look, but it won't be me - too much haystack, too little time.  Caine got his money and moved on, and so have I.

Say what you want about the acting, he does a great Michael Caine impression:

Brief Esquire interview from last November is here.


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