From `Alfie' to `Austin Powers,' a class act

Michael Caine's easy versatility, unwavering skill seen in every role

Film

August 04, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Has any other movie actor sustained a busy and diverse career as well as Michael Caine?

Gene Hackman and Samuel L. Jackson must be the only other contenders. At age 69, Caine has made more than 130 major movie and TV appearances (not counting guest spots like his cameos on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In). More important, he has managed to pull off the feat of becoming at once an identifiable star whose name alone evokes a Cockney cool and a versatile character actor.

As he swings from the extremes of colorful surrogate-fatherhood in The Cider House Rules (1999) to institutional sadism in Quills (2000), he colors each part individually. Yet underneath is the quick, instinctive intelligence that connects to viewers of all kinds. No actor has done more to make both mall and art-house audiences feel smart.

Even after the ebbing of Swinging England - a time and place that Caine helped mold with his Cockney spy Harry Palmer in 1965's smash The Ipcress File (and two follow-ups) and his title role, in 1966, as the womanizer Alfie - Caine kept toting up achievements in every succeeding decade. He helped John Huston revive his reputation with the classic The Man Who Would Be King (1975). He gave a towering performance as the sodden don in Educating Rita (1983) and won an Oscar for his supporting role in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). And a few years ago, with his appearance in Little Voice (1998), he began a run of critical favorites that included a second supporting-actor Oscar win, for Cider House.

This summer alone, movie-lovers can sample Caine's diversity if they see him as Austin Powers' super-spy father in Austin Powers in Goldmember, then go to video stores Aug. 13 to rent Last Orders, the best film released in Baltimore so far this year, and return Aug. 20 to take out a no-good crime-and-boxing flick called Shiner, in which Caine is, against all odds, still a marvel to behold.

For a trouper like Caine, acting silly in an Austin Powers movie is a larky adventure. Rising to the occasion of Last Orders - an unsentimental tribute to the lower-middle-class members of Britain's version of the Greatest Generation - comes as naturally as breathing. But casting a giant shadow in a puny revenge flick like Shiner, turning a desperate promoter into a gutter King Lear, is the mark of an actor who both loves acting and has mastered its transforming powers.

Talking to Caine on the phone the day before the opening of the Austin Powers movie was a brief education in the flexibility that he acquired to become "Michael Caine." It's clear he identifies not just with his own part, but with the picture as a whole, which must be one reason directors love him. Part of what drew him to the part of Austin Powers' father was the series' underlying mixture of sentiment and silliness. Caine knew that Mike Myers conceived these films to salute the comic spirit of his father, Eric Myers, a former British army cook and encyclopedia salesman who, despite his move to Toronto, gave his son an appetite for all things English, especially British humor and escapism of the Beatles-and-Bond epoch.

Caine speaks with the easy rapidity of an honest man - and the constant amusement of an artist who is Kryptonite to boredom.

Most people think that Austin Powers is primarily a burlesque of James Bond movies. But your spy character, Harry Palmer, especially in his first film, The "Ipcress File," was one of the biggest espionage superstars of the Austin Powers Swingin' London era. And it wasn't until you appeared in this film that I realized Austin had been wearing your Harry Palmer glasses for the whole series.

Of course, I knew that right away. When Mike sent me a script he sent me a letter with it, and he 'fessed up. So I thought since I was the creative father of the whole thing I'd better be the real thing too. That adds a whole other dimension to our relationship, Mike and I. I'm the same age his father would have been, and I'm playing his father, and I was one of his father's favorite actors. And all those films and things of that era featured in the Austin Powers movies are a tribute to Mike's dad.

But Harry Palmer was the anti-Bond, more down-to-earth, more mortal.

And here I'm playing an aging Bond, really. I'm the superhero who the son cannot live up to.

As an aging Bond, did you make any nods to your old friends, Sean Connery and Roger Moore?

No. What I figured was I had to copy Mike playing Austin Powers, based on the fact that he would have copied me, because he idolized his father and would have liked to act like his father. But because he was also playing Harry Palmer, it wasn't very difficult.

Now, Austin couldn't shop for his own groceries and seduce a woman with his culinary abilities the way Harry Palmer could.

Well, he hasn't figured that out yet. And he wouldn't know what to shop for - he was frozen for 20 years or so, wasn't he? All he could get was ice.

Compared to Mike Myers, your theory of screen acting ...

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