Man of many parts

Michael Caine: a class act

Christopher Bray <em>Faber & Faber, 358pp, £20</em>

ISBN 057121682X

Promotional language can crush a good book and a deserving author before you've read a word, and here it is (from Faber, no less) on the front flap of Christopher Bray's Michael Caine: "The biggest star Britain has ever produced - indeed, his life story is the story of Britain in the 20th century."

It is not just fanciful but inflationary to put Caine in the class that includes Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins. Moreover, it is patently fruitless to think of Caine as being a model for British history, or even anyone concerned with it. Which is not to say that our Sir Michael, by way of Maurice Micklewhite, is a less than interesting fellow.

Caine is 72 this year, and Bray's filmography (ending with The Statement), includes 99 films. He is well past the ton by now; his briskness has an air of garbage in, garbage out. Caine is not the first person to admit that that number is far too high. Indeed, Bray claims that eight of the films have never even been released, and there are those who feel that Sir Michael's slack, self-admiring grin - the one that has never seen a cheque he wouldn't swallow - is not quite adequate an explanation for a host of films that could have gone unmade without depriving our culture of one atom of pleasure: take your pick from Deadfall, Battle of Britain, Peeper, The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, The Hand, Escape to Victory, Jaws: the revenge, Without a Clue, Bullseye! and Blood and Wine, all of which were made in the years of Sir Michael's maturity and at a time when it was hard to believe that penury was pressing.

A shorter list could be drawn up, involving the films in which Caine was a lead player carrying the project, or in which his personality was vital. This would comprise Alfie, Get Carter, Sleuth (maybe) and The Man Who Would Be King. What follows from all this, I think, is that Caine is a supporting actor, or a character player, fully aware that he flourishes in a fickle business only so long as he works. To put it another way, he is rather less "a class act" than a lower-class kid who has never come to trust the upper class that ordains who is in the movies and who is not.

Bray has thought hard about this man, and he has a fascinating story to tell, of a Caine tied by guilt to his family and his attempts to support them. Caine's bond with his mother was vital, but as late as 1991 he discovered the existence of an older half-brother - or maybe brother. This situation is oddly referred to in Last Orders, perhaps the film that comes closest to the Micklewhite family.

Family earns the shrewdest writing in this book from a talented young voice in film criticism. Bray graduated in film and literature from Warwick University, and he has written for a number of papers. This is his first book, and it is welcome, even if Bray may have been torn, as I suspect, between a tough view of Caine the compromiser and his need to serve up a superstar for Faber. Time and again I found myself agreeing with Bray's subdued response to even Caine's best-known roles, including his two Oscar-winners, Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules.

He might have been more acerbic on one of the larger riddles that hangs over Sir Michael: the notion that he is an authority on acting - as perpetuated in a very thin book and a videotape that passes on helpful hints (these might be more useful for a politician taking on television than an actor with a large imagination). What emerges in every interview with Caine (and he interviews remorselessly) is the contrast between some shallow remarks on acting and its art and the uncritical way in which he takes on so much drab work. An actor is also an actor when he chooses his parts. And Caine has been in a position to choose for decades.

I am being tough on him, but only because the world has been far too kind. Caine can do good work, in a limited range: he is very interesting in The Quiet American, though he fails finally to be the nasty intellectual that Graham Greene requires. Why? I think Caine is held back by his class origins and by his longing to be liked. I forgive him his knighthood (though I have to note his steadfast lack of interest in any political view of life). And I remember the great days of a supporting actor who was invariably brilliant and often heartbreaking, and who never got a knighthood or a gong - Claude Rains.

David Thomson's most recent book is The Whole Equation: a history of Hollywood (Little, Brown)

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Guantanamo