Man in the Mirror, part 4

'But I was listening to Dustin Hoffman talking about violence in the movies, and there is a correlation. It begins with cartoons. These cartoons are nothing but violence. The anvil drops off the skyscraper and flattens Tom, and up he gets. It's not the violence per se, it's the fact that you don't see any cause and effect. And that's how you end up with the Jamie Bulger case, I reckon. They were only little boys. They just tried it out because they'd seen it.'

Caine made two of his best films in the early Seventies: Sleuth (1972), for which he was nominated, along with co-star Laurence Olivier, for an Oscar - Brando receiving the award this time, for The Godfather - and The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Rudyard Kipling's tale of freemasonry in Victorian India, in which he gives an extraordinary performance as Peachy. The later Seventies and early Eighties saw him mixing big-budget action films, best represented by the twin hits of 1976, The Eagle Has Landed and A Bridge Too Far, with films such as Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1977) and The Swarm (1979) which are best forgotten. Throughout Caine's career, it would seem that playing opposite legendary actors, such as Olivier or Connery, would bring out the best performance in him. He seemed to be bettering his rivals for superstardom, almost as though they alone could constitute a new, energising challenge to the south-London boy who had managed to lay the world at his feet. As ever, Caine won.

In 1973, Caine had married former Miss Guyana, Shakira Baksh, in Las Vegas, and started to build a mansion in Hollywood. He returned to England, as a semi-resident, only in 1984.

Openly prepared to work solely for the vast fees he could now command, Caine's return to form in the mid-Eighties came from playing the pimp in Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986) and Mia Farrow's unfaithful husband in Woody Allen's Hannah And Her Sisters (1986) - for which he finally received an Oscar. That Caine should enjoy renewed critical success during the zenith of Thatcher's enterprise economy is an ironic coincidence which fuels the political ambiguity with which he is surrounded as a celebrity. On the one hand, his best films - The Ipcress File, Get Carter, Sleuth - show him portraying the reactions of underclass or underworld characters to their handling by fate; on the other, both these characters and Caine himself (as a shrewd investor and independent businessman) possess a muscular individualism which is as intolerant of England's attempts at liberalism as it is to the traditional temperament of English society. Neither they nor Caine can countenance what Mrs Thatcher once famously described as 'moaning Minnies'.

'The same thing's wrong with England as has always been: we're an island and we're not aware of what's going on in the rest of the world. For a start, we invent all those bloody things and then we never back our own people. We're always negative about everything; the press is negative over here, and that's because the people are.

'I mean, you get the press and the police you deserve. I'll give you a for-instance: I'm building a restaurant out in Miami, and out of the 12 guys working on it, nine are British. They've come over for the work! In America, when you're hiring people, they ask, 'What are the wages and what are the prospects?'; in England, they ask, 'What time do I have to start and when can I knock off?' It's no coincidence that we've got the longest-running bloody soap opera in the world and 21 million people have sat and watched it for 25 years. It's because everyone gets home in time! We've got an entire bloody population who know every word of Coronation Street!

'Now, I don't mind people doing a 38-hour week, but who's doing the overtime? We've lost everything - cars, shipping, the lot. Would you have believed, 30 years ago, that the British car industry would be owned by the Japs and the Germans? You'd have thought I needed putting away if I'd have said that. You see with Tony Blair, now he's really going to the Right to get in - and I'm really pleased with that, I hated all that old cloth-cap and let's-bring-'em-down stuff, because we had all that and it didn't work.

'The thing with me is that I'm not, by any shades of political opinion, a rabid socialist. But I am a free-market spirit, because I just go off and do whatever I want to do. And I don't care. But eventually, you have to have a conscience about what's going on. I do have a great deal of faith in England, and I think Blair might well get in and it won't be a bad thing. So long as he doesn't start putting all the taxes up and nationalising everything - because we've had all that before as well, and that didn't work either.'

Over the past decade, Michael Caine has become a major personality within the iconography of English popular culture. He is as celebrated for representing the first pop glamour of London in the Sixties as he is for the films that first made him famous during that period. Hence his memorable contribution to Madness's melancholy elegy on identity in which his speaking voice is sampled, 'My name is Michael Caine', and more recently - as British pop recycles earlier British popular culture - the Divine Comedy's song Becoming More Like Alfie and the rehabilitation of Roy Budd's haunting theme from Get Carter to the pantheon of Easy Listening revivalism. And, as London is presumed to be swinging again, with the magazines GQ and Newsweek recently trumpeting 'Best Of British' and 'London Rules' respectively, Caine's latest return to prominence allows an original to comment on the copy.

'It's like with the Sixties, when I said we didn't know about it until Time magazine told us. Now it's all happening again. Nobody knew we were in the Roaring Nineties or the Naughty Nineties, or whatever it is, until Newsweek came out. But you always have a great burgeoning talent in England. Take something that I don't know much about, and that seems to me to be quite superficial - dress designing. Now, you've got your John Galliano and that bloke McQueen, both of them great British dress designers. Well, what have they done? They've gone, that's what. They're in Paris, as the head of Dior and Givenchy. I know all this from my wife, you see, because she's into all this stuff. Mind you, now they've got these computerised things they'll be making movies with Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe instead of us lot soon! They can do it, you know.'

Will Caine's next battle be with virtual celebrity? His own place, one feels, is secure: somewhere between the immortality of an icon and the everyday contentment of a movie star who owns five restaurants.

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

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