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Man in the Mirror, part 2

The traditionally working-class experience - of life being encompassed by rigid local boundaries - would turn Caine into a human stick of rock with 'London' stamped right through. This would become the hallmark of his acting style and the mythology that has grown around him - the home-grown glamour of the ordinary bloke, with just a faint whiff of the underworld. But in The Ipcress File (1965), Agent Courtenay's assessment of Caine's character, Harry Palmer, could be seen to describe the actor himself: 'You're not the tearaway they think you are. You also like books, music, fine cooking . . .'

'That fairly summed me up, that did,' says Caine. 'And it's quite strange, really, cos obviously Len Deighton didn't know me when he wrote the book of The Ipcress File. I can play the tearaway, but I don't think you become an actor in the first place if you have a tearaway mentality. You must be more sensitive than that. Also, like in my own case, even though the Elephant & Castle in the Fifties was extremely rough, I was a big movie buff. I spent all my time in the cinema. I didn't spend my time on the streets. I'd been taken off the streets by a guy called Reverend Butterworth, who had this youth club called Clubland, and that's where I started acting - cos I joined the amateur dramatics. So I was different from the cockney tearaway, but I can quickly revert to it - usually as a self-defence mechanism.'

Clubland - where Maurice Micklewhite gave his first public performance, as a robot in Capek's political allegory, Rossum's Universal Robots - gave Caine his first sense that acting might save him from terminal drudgery. But from the very beginning, Caine's desire was to be a movie actor - in the classic, big budget, Hollywood sense. And, in perfect biopic fashion, as recounted in William Hall's authorised biography Raising Caine, he decided upon his screen name one August day in 1954, having glimpsed the sign for The Caine Mutiny above the Leicester Square Odeon from a coffee bar.

By this time, he had managed to get some stage-work, serving as an electrician at the Horsham Repertory Company, then at the Lowestoft Theatre, where he met his first wife. His new name would be credited for his first walk-on part in a TV play, Joan Of Arc. But Caine's particular presence as an actor would require the big screen - his first love - to catch the quality of understatement that was vital to his magnetism, and to his manipulation of ordinariness which, paradoxically, would make his style unique to the point of self-caricature.

'I always had the view of movie acting per se as being different from theatre acting. I thought theatre acting was what I'd call real acting - acting that you can see. In the theatre, if you can see the wheels and the mechanism of the acting, that's brilliant - and the more you see it, the better. In the movies, it's the opposite. Movie acting is behaviour and reacting. In the theatre, you know it's a cardboard tree because it wobbles when they slam the door; in the movies, it's a real tree, and you've got to be a real person. People think that's easy, you see, and they say you're just playing yourself. No one plays himself! In a movie, with 67 guys standing around looking at you with their arms folded, or picking their noses, with fags in their mouths, when you're doing romance or comedy at 8.30 on a wet Monday morning, you're not playing yourself!

'With me, I've always tried to seem like a real person. In the early days, I used to get asked, 'What sort of actor are you?', and I'd tell them that most actors held up pictures for you, but that my acting fails if you don't believe you're looking in a mirror. I hold up a mirror and I say, 'This is you, not me.' Which is why in the street I'm not regarded as some great unapproachable movie star - people think they know me. Of course, it can be a bit self-defeating, because people always think you're playing yourself. My God! If only I knew who myself really was, I'd play him! To the hilt. But you never know who you are, not really.'

Caine's big break came in 1963, when he scored a critical triumph playing, ironically, the decidedly upper-class Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, of the South Wales Borderers, in Zulu, Cy Endfield's epic reconstruction of the British defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879. The celebrity rollercoaster of London in the Sixties - a much-mythologised combination of time and place that Caine came to personify - began for him with the success of this role. Caine was very much a product of the now determinedly smart, working-class aristocracy, along with David Bailey, Terence Stamp and Richard Harris, whose suits, cars, addresses and girlfriends had to be of the highest quality.

This article by Michael Bracewell appeared in The Guardian Online on 8 February 1997, and, as such, is © copyright Michael Bracewell/Guardian Media Group.


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