The three-strike rule is an unacknowledged truism in Hollywood. Anybody can make a mistake with one bad movie. Two call into question your judgment. After your third whiff, the A scripts stop coming, and your agent starts booking you into ribbon-cutting events.
The wonder of Michael Caine’s career is that, while loads of his roughly 100 films over 50 years have been duds, he remains a blue-chip actor, still in demand, his reputation unimpeachable. At 75, this is virtually unheard of.
Most top-of-the-line movie stars who last that long have run out of tricks and are trading in on the currency of nostalgia. But Caine refers to 1983’s “Educating Rita” as one of his favorites because it represented, as he puts it, “my changeover from the young chap who gets all the girls to a fat old guy with a stomach and a beard. It was then that I became a leading character actor.”
Lewis Gilbert directed “Rita.” He also directed the 1966 version of “Alfie.” There were a lot of reasons why the 2004 remake didn’t work, but one of them has to be that without a comparable repeat of Caine’s amazing performance, it lacked, to paraphrase Noel Coward, the potency of cheap music. Caine prizes “Alfie” as “the film that introduced me to America,” though a lot of American action aficionados had already flocked to 1964’s “Zulu,” in which an improbably beautiful young Caine as Lt. Gonville Bromhead — that hair! that name! — almost re-fashioned the movie into a Lawrence of South Africa.
Caine puts “The Man Who Would Be King”(1975) in his fave five speed-dial, partly because it gave him a chance to work with director John Huston (whom he revered) and good friend Sean Connery (as well as Caine’s wife, Shakira), but also because it reunited him with Christopher Plummer. Plummer played Hamlet in a powerhouse CBC lineup in 1964 that included Caine as his luminous Horatio.
Therein lies an open secret: Caine is a fine, serious, well-trained actor. He always brings something, even to empty roles. He’s had six Oscar nominations and won two, for supporting roles in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) and “The Cider House Rules” (1999). But he holds “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988) closer to heart. Why?
“Because I got to spend three months shooting in the South of France,” he says. “I love to travel. One of my favorite movies was ‘The Marseille Contract.’ It may not have been very good, but I got to live in Nice, Cannes, Marseilles and Paris. I like to have a good time.”
Marcello Mastroianni once confessed that he made a lot of bad movies in order to live in beautiful places. And in mock-weariness, he sighed, “My job requires that I make love to beautiful women.” The same with Caine. You can draw your own generational distinctions. Marcello had Sophia, Monica and Anita. Caine has worked with Beyonce, Nicole, Charlize and Scarlett. “Smashing women,” he calls them. He may have lost a young chap’s moves, but not the eye.