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Praising Caine: The Original "Alfie" Turns 76

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"My understanding of women only goes as far as the pleasure. When it comes to the pain, I'm like any other bloke-I don't want to know." -Michael Caine as "Alfie", 1966.

How can we forget-or resist- Alfie, that working class, womanizing anti-hero? He confides his personal philosophy directly to us fellow blokes and birds in the audience, and he also admits to feeling unfulfilled. He's definitely missing something, and yearns to understand "what's it all about."

This forthright quality makes us love Alfie in spite of ourselves, and also the man who created him, since as it happens, Michael Caine shares the same winning candor as the character that brought him fame. For instance, he is unapologetic, though never defensive, about lending his considerable talents to a series of schlocky films like "Beyond The Poseidon Adventure" and "On Deadly Ground", reasonably pointing out that he gets paid as much for a bad movie as a good one. Once asked if he'd ever personally watched one of his biggest stinkers, "Jaws: The Revenge", Caine replied: "I've never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." Like Alfie, Caine disarms us with the truth.

A look at his humble origins gives some insight into the actor's fondness for money: the son of a fish market worker and a charlady, Michael, born Maurice Micklewhite, grew up dirt poor in London. His first ticket to a better life came when he enlisted in the British Army during the Korean War. On return to civilian life, he was hired as an assistant stage manager, and soon got the acting bug. His agent advised him to change his name, and looking up, saw Bogart's film, "The Caine Mutiny", on a marquee. (Bogie also happened to be Caine's hero and chief inspiration for becoming an actor). Thus Michael Caine was born, and from the start he kept himself busy. By the time he won his first major film role a decade later, he was a seasoned player of British stage and television.

In his filmography, which numbers over 100 titles, the sheer volume of commercial mediocrities-and outright junk-could almost obscure the fact that this star has done as many great movies as most any of his peers. With six Oscar nominations, he has won twice (both times for supporting actor).

Not only can Caine deliver the acting goods with the right vehicles, but off the set he also exhibits a refreshing common sense about the film business itself. Speaking as one who believes that nine out of ten remakes are inferior to the originals, the following quote from Sir Michael (he was knighted in 2000) sounded positively prophetic: "Don't remake successful pictures, because you're liable to be the flop....Do remakes of failures. Then you've got nowhere to go but up." Studio heads, please take heed.

To mark the actor's 76th birthday (on March 14th), I'm listing just a few of my favorite Michael Caine outings, and hoping there are many more to come. (For those who know him primarily as Alfred in the more recent "Batman" films, this should be an eye-opener.)

Zulu (1964)- Pulse-pounding film recreates a famous battle in 1879 Natal, where four thousand Zulu warriors descended on a small outpost, Rorke's Drift, housing just 140 British soldiers. Facing certain slaughter, senior officer Lts. John Chard (Stanley Baker) and Gonville Bomstead (Caine) still decide to make a stand, withstanding brutal attacks day in and day out. Don't miss this breathless depiction of a rag-tag English force battling an implacable enemy. Baker (who co-produced) was never better, and got his mystified Zulu extras to cooperate only after showing them an old Gene Autry Western, which helped them understand the nature of acting. In one of his final appearances, Jack Hawkins registers as a fanatical priest, and you can almost see the word "star" emblazoned on Caine's forehead. Like the heroes it portrays, the stellar "Zulu" richly earns a chestful of medals.

The Ipcress File (1965)- British secret agent Harry Palmer (Caine) is assigned to investigate the kidnapping and brainwashing of a prominent scientist, a job that only becomes murkier and more complex as the film progresses. And Harry's minders have something over him, so they won't tolerate failure. From Harry Saltzman-- the producer of 007-- comes the thinking man's James Bond. Caine's Palmer is grittier, less elegant and more reticent than Bond, hence much closer to what a spy is really like. The young actor is at the peak of his powers playing Len Deighton's working-class protagonist, and director Sidney J. Furie gives the film a flavorful 60's feel. Along with the forthcoming "Alfie", this role solidified Caine's leading man status... and rightly so.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)- Based on a late nineteenth century tale by Rudyard Kipling, British sergeants Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Caine) are tired of soldiering, and it seems their ungrateful country has tired of them. They find themselves without prospects in India, and resolve on a daring plan: they will travel to remotest Kafiristan in search of untold riches. Once there, the two con the natives into believing Danny is a god, and their mission is accomplished, so as long as the populace never learns their king is mortal. Director John Huston had wanted to do this project for years (originally with Gable and Bogart), but only got the chance in the mid-seventies. It's hard to think of better casting for the two rogue adventurers than Connery and Caine, whose real-life friendship helped spark a genuine, often amusing on-screen chemistry. A deft combination of humor and suspense, the film's climax is unforgettable. Christopher Plummer also lends solid support as author Kipling.

Educating Rita (1983)- When married, working-class hairdresser Rita (Julie Walters) enrolls in an adult-ed program at Open University, she chooses alcoholic English professor Frank Bryant (Caine)--whose wife has left him for a colleague--to be her tutor. As her confidence grows under Bryant's boozy, indiscreet instruction, an unusually close relationship develops between teacher and student, one where the professor gradually becomes the pupil. This buoyant, tartly funny drama of love, class, heartbreak, and literary aspiration reteams "Alfie" director Lewis Gilbert with his ruffled, effortlessly charming star. Walters, who earned an Oscar nod for her performance, delights as the coarse Cockney out to better herself (to the displeasure of her husband), but the movie succeeds brilliantly due to Caine's curmudgeonly turn as the dissolute, world-weary scholar in need of some personal discipline. School's out for most of us, but "Educating Rita" is a bittersweet crash course in life's poignant curriculum.

The Cider House Rules (1999)- Raised for most of his life at an orphanage in rural Maine, young Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has been groomed for a career in medicine by kindly guardian Dr. Wilbur Larch (Caine), whom he's long assisted in caring for abandoned children. But the arrival of air-force pilot Wally (Paul Rudd) and his pregnant girlfriend, Candy (Charlize Theron), will open his eyes to a world far beyond the confines of St. Cloud and the cozy intimacy of Larch's household. John Irving's beloved novel gets the royal treatment in Lasse Hallstrom's warm-hearted, Oscar-winning adaptation, which deals with abortion, prejudice, and a young man's quest to broaden his horizons as he leaves the place of his youth and takes up residence in a cider mill. The film owes its success mostly to the stellar cast, which includes Erykah Badu and Delroy Lindo as a field worker and her foreman lover, respectively. No one does the charming naif as well as Maguire, and Caine's memorable turn as a kindly country doctor brought him a well-earned Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

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