Ask anyone to name some great British actors, and they might say Lawrence Olivier, Alec Guinness, John Mills, Richard Attenborough, or Anthony Hopkins. Pose the same question to younger respondents, and they could well come up with Jude Law, Clive Owen, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Eddie Redmayne. It is unlikely that any of them would think of adding Michael Caine to those lists, but in my opinion, they would be mistaken.
Acting in films since 1956, and still working today after around 120 roles, many of them as the star, Caine is perhaps one of those least appreciated in his home country, despite countless awards, including Oscars, and BAFTAs. He has almost become part of the furniture of cinema, hardly noticed in the crowd any longer. Yet his talent deserves recognition, and his skill and versatility mark him out from many who are better thought of.
He was born in London, in the same area that I come from, in 1933. After starting on a stage career in 1953, he changed his name from his real one, Maurice Micklewhite, to Michael Scott. He changed it again after being told that there was already an actor with this name. Inspired by a cinema sign showing the film, The Caine Mutiny, he became Michael Caine. After serving in the army for two years of the then compulsory National Service, he got film roles in 1956, with an uncredited part as a sailor, in Panic In The Parlour, followed by the role of Private Lockyer in the fine British war film, A Hill In Korea, in the same year. He was able to draw on his own experiences, as he had served in the Korean War. He went on to make fourteen more films, with parts mostly still uncredited, until 1964.
When Zulu was released that year, Caine appeared in the role of the upper-class army officer, Gonville Bromhead. Completely convincing in the part, and riding a horse as if he had been born on one, few would ever have imagined the working class roots and the carefully disguised London accent that would go on to typify much of his future career. Zulu made him an overnight star, and took him from the background squarely into the spotlight. The following year saw his first appearance as the spy, Harry Palmer, in his first of many outings in the same role, based on the character created by Len Deighton. The Ipcress File was a Bond-style film with all the gloss removed, and Caine’s Harry resonated with a public tired of flash and style, looking for substance instead. We began to see the sardonic side of Caine, and got a hint of the sexual overtones that would mark many later roles.
A year later he gave one of the performances of his career, as Alfie Elkins, in the British comedy-drama, Alfie. This was Caine back to his roots. London locations, cockney accent to the fore, and his turn as the philandering, cheeky Alfie, talking asides to the camera, was a real tour-de-force. It was also an object lesson in great acting. Making something so difficult look so easy, and chatting in close up, made every cinema-goer feel that they knew the character or someone very like him. You have only to watch the lamentable 2004 remake, with Jude Law in the title role, to appreciate just how good Caine was.
In 1969, the British caper/crime comedy The Italian Job proved to be a worldwide success, with Caine starring as the gang leader alongside a raft of great character actors, and leaving us with one of the best endings ever produced in a modern film. His lighter side came out, and his personality shone through the numerous one-liners. His output remained constant after that, and there was rarely a year when he didn’t star in a film. Military roles suited him down to the ground, and we got to see him as soldiers and airmen in Play Dirty, The Battle of Britain (1969), and Too Late the Hero (1970). That same year, the serious historical drama The Last Valley, was released, with Michael giving one of my personal favourite performances, despite a somewhat stilted, and superfluous German accent.
I am already a long way into this article, and I am only up to 1970. This gives some idea of the long and varied career of this often overlooked actor. In 2015, his latest film, Youth was released to great critical acclaim, which means that somewhere, I have misplaced forty-five years of his life. Of course, I could go on to fill a book with his body of work. Other stand-out performances include the brilliant British crime thriller Get Carter (1971), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), and his Oscar-winning role in Woody Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters (1986).
Some have made much of his roles in bad films or box-office flops. Any interviewer normally tries to get him to explain his appearances in lesser productions, such as The Swarm (1978), Ashanti (1979), or Water (1983). Caine never rises to this, often saying that he works for money, and that even these admittedly poor films earned him enough to buy houses all over the world. A working-class man from poor roots will never turn down a well-paid job, he argues. It is not my intention to just list a catalogue of his many great films here, but few actors of his age and pedigree can compare. In 1998, he won the Golden Globe for his role in Little Voice, and went on the following year to win an Oscar for The Cider House Rules. From 2000 until 2008, he was in no less than twenty-one films, before being discovered by a whole new generation as Alfred the butler in The Dark Knight. In 2009, he starred as Harry Brown in the British thriller of the same name, and gave one of his other career-best performances. They just keep coming.
Following this, he has appeared in no less than fourteen more films, and is still working at the age of 82. His private life has been a tale of a happy marriage to Shakira since 1973, and his personal appearances on interviews, chat shows, and documentaries never fail to reveal a man unaffected by fame, wealth, or success. So the next time you are doing a list of great British actors, even if only in your head, please don’t forget the wonderful Michael Caine.