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- May 04, 1987
- Vol. 27
- No. 18
The Busiest Actor in Town
Michael Caine Finally Gets Honored by Oscar, but He Still Won't Slow Down
An entertaining fellow, this Caine, not only a witty British film actor but also one of the few of his breed who can be trusted not to drink to stupefaction, pick fistfights with visiting clergy or peer suggestively at the daughter of the host. "Someone said to me at a dinner party the other night, 'You're swearing in front of the ladies.' I replied, 'Did you notice they swore first?' I was trying to make them comfortable. My mother told me that: Always make the ladies comfortable."
One cannot help but be comfortable around Caine, who possesses an acquired courtliness far more impressive than one obtained haphazardly, as through aristocratic birth. One could spend weeks with him and come away believing he is a blend of only the most beloved characters of his most appealing movies, that he is sometimes devilish, worldly and droll and the rest of the time poignant, innocent and self-mocking. "I could have told you jokes for two days and you'd have thought I was the funniest guy you ever met," says Caine, and Shakira confirms this. She says her husband is such a great storyteller that every year he tells the same story to his friend Sean Connery and every year Connery laughs.
In the living room of the house, not far from Caine's new Oscar, which Shakira has appropriated and plunked down squarely in front of her own desk, stands a small framed photograph of Caine. It is not the only photograph in the room, but the rest are family snapshots or pictures of Caine with his arm slung carelessly around the shoulders of great chums like Connery and Roger Moore. The man in the small framed photograph looks less like Caine than someone arrested while climbing through the window of Caine's house. There is hardly a flicker of friendliness in the gaze, yet it is Shakira's favorite photograph of her husband.
"Everything that's in his face is there," she says. Her fondness for the stubble is easily understood, because he has so little vanity "that I have to tell him to comb his hair when we get off an airplane." Then she proudly points out "the mean mouth, the razor eyes, the determined jaw." She says there is also gentleness in the photograph, but if it exists it is hidden behind an expression that would intimidate an attack dog. "That's Michael," she says, "soft and mean at the same time."
It is not the Michael the rest of us thought we knew.
He has played the part, of course, in films like Mona Lisa and Dressed to Kill. "I've done it all," he says, "I've been a gay, a killer, a lunatic, an adulterer, a seducer. A good time was had by all." Yet even though he's played about every disreputable character around—he says he'd be no good as an American gunfighter or a Shakespearean king—we've always thought that was just playacting and that the real Caine was the amusing fellow of so many other roles. Shakira says the anger is real, and while it used to surface occasionally in real life, now it just "leaks out" in front of the camera. "His anger," she says, "is probably what's driven him to excel and to succeed, to make one movie after another [five films released in 1986]. Probably that's the key to his whole makeup."
Caine looks up. He is wearing tennis shoes, shiny blue pants and a shirt with epaulets, the ugly shirt hanging out of the ugly pants. He is yelling for someone in the family, for Shakira or their daughter, Natasha, 13, to please go to the tennis court because the private coach is there, a guy who played at Wimbledon for Christ sake, and nobody is playing with him. He is yelling, but there is no sense of impending rage, nothing more than a touch of familial exasperation.
"Oh, Christ, yes, I've been angry," he says, "and yeah, I have a temper that's so terrible I never lose it or use it, at least not more than once every three years. It's so bad it frightens me. But I'm not really angry anymore. The anger has gone into the cinema roles or it's disappeared into my bank account. You could say I've buried it in money."
Caine has spent nearly all his 54 years refusing to be either thwarted or ignored. "I had 30 years of abject failure," he says. "I had as much failure as success." He was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, son of working-class parents who lived on the side of the Thames not known for breeding movie stars. This Cockney who now dabbles in tennis coaches grew up poor, his meals provided by food stamps. "I was educated to become a laborer—the working class in England was looked on as one would an extremely intelligent donkey," he says. When he was a small child, during the German raids on London, he was evacuated to the countryside and placed with a family that mistreated him, a six-week ordeal that ended when his mother came to visit and took him away. "The most terrifying thing to me," he says, "is that I was abused by a stranger. I felt my mother and father would come, smash him and get me out. I think it must be so much more terrible when it's your own parent and there's nobody to come." Much of his charitable work now goes to help children, particularly abused children; he does very little charitable work for adults. "I'm very suspicious of strangers," he says. "Unless I know you very, very well, I'm not crazy about you."
He spent two years in the British army, one of them in combat in Korea, an experience that he says "made me tough," but he was probably tough before he went to war. He was nearly a victim of the British class system, which he characterizes as elders and neighbors saying to an ambitious child, "Who do you think you are?" He was 30 before he got his first major film role, playing a foppish British army officer in Zulu, and that was quickly followed by The Ipcress File and Alfie. "It sounds simple, doesn't it," he says, "but it wasn't. There were 12 of us who started out together, all friends, all young actors, and seven of us killed ourselves." He says despair drove the seven to suicide, "but I don't have despair in my body."
In 1955, while still struggling, he married an English actress, Patricia Haines, and they had a daughter, Dominique, now 30 and a horsewoman in Wales. The marriage ended in 1957. In 1973 he married Shakira Baksh, then 25, a Guyanese model who had placed third in the 1967 Miss World contest. She says he was "the most charming man I ever met." A few years after their marriage, they left England for California, virtually driven out of his homeland, says Caine, by the taxation policies of Harold Wilson's Labour Party. "I was very angry then and I'm still angry at the socialist government of England," he says. "Mr. Wilson drove me out of my home country. What do you think I'd be—pleased?"
Still, he remains a British subject and in fact his passport reads Maurice Micklewhite, which gets him a lot of laughs when he goes through immigration. (He says his tombstone will read Michael Caine, since he's spent more time being Caine than Micklewhite.)
One might think the place where he gets his mail (and his tax forms) would matter more to his state of mind than to his style of life, since he is almost always off somewhere filming a movie. Shakira says he does wonderfully well on his own, content with his books, his shortwave radio and his thoughts, but then come moments of loneliness and "he panics if Natasha and I can't be with him." Either they fly to him or he comes home, which seems a perfectly acceptable solution until one realizes that he has been making three or four movies a year, and that he needs neither the money nor the work. "If I've done 60 pictures, I've done them for 60 different reasons," he says. "I sometimes make too many, I go nuts. Friends say, 'You must do this picture for me.' I'm beginning to fall into that."
While not all of his pictures have been admirable, and in fact some have people wondering why he ever bothered, he says the only one he did for money, knowing beforehand that it would be dreadful, was Ashanti. It was a film hardly anybody saw. "Good," he says. "Let's hope it stays that way." Most recently he was off in the Bahamas filming Jaws: The Revenge, which qualifies as one of his "geographic" films, the ones he does because he likes the locale. He'll do small pictures, like Mona Lisa, to play a particular type of character, and he'll do major commercial pictures because, he says, "I like to sort of go in style for awhile. It amuses me to ask for something and they say, 'Anything you say, Mike, anything you say.' "
This latest stopover at his Beverly Hills home lasted barely long enough for him to pick up his Supporting Actor Academy Award for Hannah and Her Sisters. Then he planned to fly off again, to Canada to meet with his next co-star, Kathleen Turner, to the Bahamas to wrap up Jaws: The Revenge, back to Canada to begin filming Switching Channels (a remake of the 1940 Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell farce His Girl Friday) with Turner. He has a British film with Pierce Brosnan, The Fourth Protocol, that just opened in England and another British film, The Whistleblower, opening any day now. He has completed Surrender, with Sally Field. He plans to do The Millennium ("I haven't signed yet."), Servants' Entrance ("I'll do it in October in England.") and a remake of Gunga Din, which brings him up to May 1988, when he says, "I will be out of work." He says he will then take a year off, do no films, to which Shakira responds, "I doubt it." Two days after he returned home a letter arrived from Julie Walters, his co-star in Educating Rita, asking him to please take a small part in a small British film, just to help someone out, and he said he'll probably end up doing it. "It's not really anything," he lamely explains.
Although he was not at the Academy Awards presentation to receive his Oscar, it was only a contract commitment to Jaws: The Revenge that kept him away. He even had part of his acceptance speech ready in his mind: "I would have said, 'If any producers are watching, I promise not to price myself out of the market.' " To explain what this Oscar meant to him he tells a story about George Kaufman, the playwright, who suddenly came into quite a bit of money when a Hollywood producer bought film rights to one of his plays. Kaufman bought a yacht, dressed himself in seafaring regalia and went off to see his mother, announcing that he was now a captain. His mother replied, "By me you're a captain. By you you're a captain. By captains you're not a captain." Says Caine, "This Oscar says to me, by actors I'm an actor." He says he was touched to learn that cheers went up at parties attended by people he did not know and moved by the Oscar replica his daughter's eighth grade class made for him because he wasn't around to pick up the real thing.
Caine has been happy with his life in Southern California, which he calls the second best place in the world to live. "I'm extremely rich, extremely happily married, and I live like a drunken gangster, as we used to say when I was a kid." While he feels his nationality prevents him from getting the more prestigious roles in U.S. movies, the ones that go to Newman, Redford and Hoffman, he says Americans have accepted him wonderfully well, a possible exception being the fellow in Louisiana who called him a "bleepin' limey pinko fag" while he was filming Hurry Sundown. (The movie was so bad you can't really blame the guy.) He is amused, rather than offended, by the Hollywood film industry and says that not long ago a 19-year-old with a three-picture production deal went up to him and said, "Michael Caine, you're great, I may have a job for you."
He wasn't upset.
"It wasn't a firm offer. That's what upset me," he says.
This September, having achieved materialistic bliss in L.A., he is going home. He wants to live in England, where he speaks ill of the press ("Whatever I do, the newspapers love to shove it down my throat; they're almost totally mean-spirited"), the politicians ("I like the British system because the politicians are out there where I can scream at them") and the aristocracy ("The fortunate thing about the English class system is that the people who think they're superior you wouldn't want to be with and are quite inferior mentally").
"I think he misses it terribly," Shakira says.
He has purchased two homes, one a country estate with 260 yards of frontage on the Thames, the other a London flat in a new development known as Chelsea Harbour, also on the Thames. He was born in a hospital on the Thames and speaks of the river with reverence. Little else in England gets so much of his respect, certainly not the people who run the place, the Queen excepted. He is known to be friendly with Prince Andrew, but that is only because he likes Andrew and not because Andrew is royalty. "If I were interested in that, I'd be friends with Charles, who will be the king," he explains. He is going home so that his English daughter can go to an English school, so he can putter in an English garden, so he can be with his oldest English friends. He says the small-minded politicians can't touch him anymore, that he has become "bulletproof," too rich and too famous to be victimized again. "My career is a fascist state," he says. "I'm the dictator, the chief of police, the head of the army. Anybody who tries to interfere is put up against the wall and shot."
He is joking, of course.
Shakira says he is not.
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