Age is but a number

Age is but a number

Age is but a number

Michael Caine is a tall, erect, slim man, with mild, hooded eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses. He looks in good shape. Caine has a reputation for being a lovely man — and a lovely man he is. Talking of his wife of 43 years, Shakira, he remarks that she is one of the few people he has met who have no nasty side whatsoever. “We’ve all got a bit of a nasty bit, especially me. I have a temper. But I never lose it. I haven’t lost my temper in years — it’s too bad. I could kill someone.”

At the age of 82, after more than 130 films, Caine says he is now retired. “I don’t,” he points out, “have to work to pay the rent.” But acting is a habit he evidently finds hard to break. This month sees the release of his latest film, Youth, by the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. Youth answers all the criteria that for years have determined Caine’s choices: a good script, a director he admires, and an agreeable location to which he can take Shakira. “If it was the Belgian Congo or somewhere, I wouldn’t do it. I go nowhere without my wife. Nowhere. And when you get a script like this with a man like Paolo Sorrentino, what are you going to say? No, shove it? You’ve got to do it.”

Caine plays a retired composer and conductor, Fred Ballinger, who is holidaying at an Alpine spa hotel where he is joined by his old friend Mick, an American film director, played by Harvey Keitel. Fred is fending off attempts by an emissary from Buckingham Palace to persuade him to conduct a command performance of his most famous composition. Mick is struggling to complete the script for what he hopes will be his valedictory masterpiece starring a faded Hollywood diva and former flame played by Jane Fonda.

“The thing about working with Paolo,” Caine says, “is that you get the script and you read it, so you know what’s going on, and you do your bit, and that’s fine. And then when you see the movie it’s completely different from the script.” He laughs. “Your bit’s OK, but everything else seems to have changed. Because he has such an imagination this man. It’s quite unbelievable.”

It is. But Caine gives the performance of his career, striking a perfect balance between melancholia and stoicism in the face of the advancing years. He has twice won best-supporting-actor Oscars (for Hannah and Her Sisters, in 1987, and The Cider House Rules, in 2000), but you feel that this is the role that will finally land him the biggest prize of all.
A conversation with Caine is like a performance. We all have stories that we polish and retell over the years, to identify who we are. Caine has a more extensive fund of stories than most, and because he is called upon to tell them over and over again, some of them you have heard before. So it is that, in a discussion about the fact that you can find as many turkeys as gems in his film résumé, he tells you that he never actually saw Jaws: The Revenge, but that he saw the house the fee bought his mother.

Caine’s mother was a charlady. His father was a porter at Billingsgate fish market, which meant that while the family were poor, they were never hungry. Caine says his father used to steal fish from the market all the time, so he grew up on the stuff. Caine says he did not become an actor to become rich and famous or a movie star — “because obviously that was ridiculous and out of the question for someone like me. I became an actor because I loved it, with the hope of scraping a living and not working in a factory — which I would have done.” His first major film role was in Zulu (1964), in which he was cast as an upper-class officer. He insists he only got the job because the director, Cy Endfield, was American. “I swear to you, no English director, even if he’d been a communist, would have cast me as an officer — not one.”

But it was the role of an unreconstructed cockney in Alfie, in 1966, that made Caine an international star. Looking at it now, one is reminded of just how gifted an actor the young Caine was. What is most striking is the emotional depth he brings to the role, blithe indifference giving way to a dawning awareness of the consequences of his actions.

Caine nods. “The basic thing in acting is you don’t make the gesture until you mean it — and don’t fidget. I only do what people do. I never went to a drama school; my acting lessons was watching people on the Tube and on buses. It’s body language. Powerful people never make gestures, because they don’t have to attract your attention — they’ve already got it. And they speak slower because you’re not going to stop listening. The lower and the poorer people are, the faster they speak, because no one listens.”

Caine’s plans for retirement seem not to be working. He has recently completed a film, Going in Style — a remake of a 1979 comedy starring George Burns — with Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, about three old men planning a bank heist. “There again, it was something I couldn’t turn down.” He pauses.