More About Film Acting from Master Michael Caine (& Part 3)

Michael Caine in Batman Begins

My plan was to create 2 posts about actor Michael Caine’s wisdom from the book Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life  (2018). But there’s so much in it, that I decided to do a third one. For the other 2 posts, click on Part1 or Part 2.

Things I Learnt

I learnt a range of accents, from Chicago gangster to Lord of the Manor via Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the north country, which came in very handy years later when Cy Endfield was considering me for the role of the army officer in Zulu. I learnt how to time a funny line. I suffered from terrible stage fright and used to keep a bucket in the wings into which I would throw up most evenings until, gradually, I learnt how to be relaxed on stage.

Michael Caine in Austin Powers in Goldmember
Michael Caine as Mike Myers‘ dad in Austin Powers in Goldmember

A Hundred Directors

I have worked with at least a hundred directors in my seven decades in the movies, including some of the very best in the business. I have learnt to start out from the position of trusting that the director knows what he’s doing. It might not always be obvious to me why he seems to be letting another actor get away with terribly bad acting, or why he has called, ‘Go again,’ for yet another take when I said my lines perfectly, or why he wants me to try it a different way, but that’s because I can’t see the big picture: I can see it only from my limited point of view.

The director might be looking for something I haven’t thought about; he might have seen something I haven’t; or he might be intending to edit things in a way that wouldn’t occur to me. All directors want what is best for the whole picture, and most of them know how to achieve that. So I try to take whatever’s thrown at me and go with it. Whether your director (or your boss) is good, bad or ugly, for the time you are stuck with them, you have to do your best to make it work.

And, whether good, bad or ugly, I have learnt something from every director I have worked with. In fact, although it’s much more difficult to do a good job under a bad director, it can be a valuable experience. I think of it as the actor’s equivalent of an athlete training at altitude and running on sand. It’s bloody hard work and you’re not going to achieve a personal best, but it means that when you get to work with a good director, or run on a hard track, you’re able to perform even better than before.

Working with Laurence Olivier

My favourite directors to work with are sparing in their direction and reassuring about their grip. Joe Mankiewicz, who directed Sleuth, was a master at reassurance. I really needed it on that movie because I was intimidated to be working with Laurence Olivier, who was an iconic actor and an incorrigible upstager and scene-stealer. (An upstager is someone who keeps moving backwards, ‘upstage’, so forces the other actors to turn their heads away from the camera in order to say their lines to him. A scene-stealer is someone who puts in a little raised eyebrow or twitchy nose, drawing focus to them at your key moment. You see it in life everywhere.) Olivier was also an Oscar-winning director, so I wondered how Joe was feeling.

On my first day, before the great Lord Olivier had arrived, Joe watched me walking myself quietly around the set. I must have been exuding unease because he let me finish, then came over and put his arm around my shoulders. ‘Don’t worry, Michael,’ he said, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ It was just what I needed to hear.

Michael Caine

Do your Thing

I tell my grandchildren the same thing. There will always be someone faster than you, cleverer than you, better-looking than you, richer than you, luckier than you. So forget competing with other people: it will just make you bitter, self-pitying, unhappy. Do your own thing, and do it as well as you possibly can.

Keep it Going

(…) I’ve made plenty of flops, often with stunning casts and terrific directors. You just never know how these things will go. But I didn’t sit around waiting for the great director to give me the perfect script. I kept working. I didn’t want it to take five years for my next picture to come along, and then when I got there on Monday morning and someone said ‘Action’, I hadn’t acted for five years. Over and over I repeated the pattern. I made a couple of disappointments but I kept the faith with myself and was always ultimately rewarded, just in time to save myself.

Hits and Misses

The Magus, which came out in 1968, was a dire film but I followed it up with The Italian Job. Saved. A decade later, The Swarm, Ashanti and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure were all awful – great on paper, with terrific casts, but awful in reality – yet sprinkled, like magic stardust, in between were California Suite with Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for that performance, and Dressed to Kill, in which I played a transvestite killer psychiatrist. Thank you, Brian De Palma, for saving my knicker-covered butt. In the early 1980s The Island and The Hand were both mediocrities but I followed them up with three successes: Escape to Victory, Deathtrap and Educating Rita. In the mid-1980s, I snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when Blame It On Rio and The Holcroft Covenant were followed by Hannah and Her Sisters, and Jaws: The Revenge by Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

In the 1990s, after On Deadly Ground and Bullet to Beijing nearly proved to be the deadly final bullet for my career, Jack Nicholson turned up with Blood and Wine. And, most miraculous of all, in the 2000s, when I’d made a series of unremarkable movies – The Actors, Secondhand Lions, The Statement, some so forgettable that I can’t remember them myself – a young man turned up on my doorstep one sleepy Sunday morning, unannounced, and script in hand. ‘Hello, Michael,’ he said, waving a script in my face. ‘Sorry to disturb you on a Sunday but I’d like you to read this.’ ‘Oh, hello,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Christopher Nolan.

Alcohol and Acting

(…) because in my time in the theatre, the movies and the restaurant business I have come across my fair share of towering alcoholics, and seen my fair share of careers ruined and lives shortened by alcohol. I saw Richard Burton’s Hamlet in 1964 and many years later when I met him on the set of Zee and Company, where I was working with his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor, I told him it had been wonderful, but the fastest Hamlet I had ever seen. He looked at me and said, ‘The pubs shut at ten thirty.’ Richard was always very pleasant to me when he was sober, which was almost never. At the end-of-picture party for Zee and Company I said happy Christmas to him and Elizabeth as I left. ‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself’ he growled back.

Perhaps the supreme example was an actor called Wilfred Lawson who played Alfred Doolittle in the film version of Pygmalion with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. You may never have heard of him but every British actor of my generation had. He was a true actor’s actor, and should have enjoyed a long, sparkling career. I saw Wilfred once in a Shakespeare matinee – I think it was Richard III at the Savoy Theatre – with another prodigious drunk, Trevor Howard. They were clearly inebriated and someone in the audience yelled, ‘You’re drunk.’ Trevor just shouted back, ‘If you think we’re drunk, wait until you see the Duke of Norfolk’.

Cockney Caine, 1965

MORE ON MICHAEL CAINE IN OUR POSTS Michael Caine On Acting For The Screen,  More About Film Acting from Master Michael Caine (Part 1) &  More About Film Acting from Master Michael Caine (Part 2).

MORE ON FILM ACTING IN OUR POSTS The King of B-movies, Bruce Campbell, on Film ActingGoodbye to a Master of Acting, Max Von SydowOn Screen Acting According to Edward Dmytryk (and Jean Porter)Joseph Cotten, a Great Autobiography and On Directing: An Elia Kazan’s Masterclass.