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3 veteran actors at ease, aging well

TORONTO--It can be exciting to watch young actors trying as hard as they can to be good. But there's something sort of inspiring about an older actor who has made so many movies over so many years that he knows how to do it without thinking.

Within the first few minutes of "The Quiet American," "Frida" and "The Good Thief," I could tell that Michael Caine, Alfred Molina and Nick Nolte were completely at ease in their roles. They knew themselves, their bodies, their faces, their voices, and they could play them like Willie Nelson plays that old guitar with the hole in it. It's better to have a guitar without a hole, but after you've played it long enough, an instrument is you.

Michael Caine in the right role is a superb actor, something we need reminding of after watching him squirm in "Austin Powers in Goldmember."

Why bother to give Austin a father if you don't write a role for him? Caine is a hardworking actor who cheerfully takes all sorts of roles. (When he won his first Oscar in 1987, he missed the ceremony because he was making "Jaws the Revenge.") In "The Quiet American," playing a London Times reporter in Vietnam, circa 1952, we know within minutes that he is not only right but inevitable for the role.

In Philip Noyce's movie, which plays Monday and again next Saturday at the Toronto Film Festival, he is in love with a taxi dancer (Do Hai Yen), and in competition with a young, confident American (Brendan Fraser), who is in love with her, too--but more earnestly and urgently and "sincerely," which is the way with young Americans. What neither man can entirely admit is that their money has a great deal to do with their appeal.

Caine finds a certain measured pace for the film; he has the leisurely movements of a man long in the tropics and no stranger to opium. The camera does not make the slightest concession to vanity, and we can see all of his years in his face, but because Caine's face has become beloved to us in so many other movies, there is a positive comfort in regarding it. He plays his character, Fowler, as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Just as Caine at 33 was naturally and inevitably Alfie, at 43 had "found his answer" in "Hannah and Her Sisters" and only last year was magnificently human as a dying man in "Last Orders," so at 69 he has found another role completely within his gift and instincts.

Alfred Molina is only 49. I first really noticed him in "Prick Up Your Ears" (1987), playing Kenneth Halliwell, jealous lover of the playwright Joe Orton. There and elsewhere he played an insecure man, unhappy within his skin, but in his new film "Frida" we sense that Molina is comfortable and confident, expansive and roguish. Is this simply the character? Is it because he plays the legendary Mexican painter Diego Rivera? Not really. There is a kind of unstudied confidence in his performance, which seems to feed on his personal style.

"Frida," directed by Julie Taymor, whose "Titus" is an unacknowledged masterpiece, played over the weekend at the Toronto festival. Most of the attention went to Salma Hayek, as of course it should, since she is electric and fascinating as the artist Frida Kahlo, who was (to Diego's astonishment) his match. But her performance certainly benefits from Molina's absolute assurance as Riviera.

In movies such as "Chocolat" (2000), in which Molina played a supercilious count, we feel he's acting. In "Frida" we feel he's expanding with relief into a role that fits.

Now consider Nick Nolte, who is 61 and looks, not older exactly, but more used and worn than his age suggests. In Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief," which screened at Toronto over the weekend, he plays a shambling wreck on the French Riviera, a gambler named Bob who drives himself to smoke, to drink, to shoot heroin. Sometimes he dresses well, but at other times, at night in the rain after bad times, he looks like Swamp Thing. Nolte came to attention as the improbably handsome star of the miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1976) and has been fighting ever since against the pretty boy image--a battle he has decisively won.

There is a moment in the film when the police inspector, who likes Bob, looks at his old mug shots, and one of them is Nolte in the 1970s. Many men would be grateful to be so good-looking, but that was obviously not an image Nolte was comfortable with, and for 15 years at least (since "Extreme Prejudice," 1987, where he was a lean Texas Ranger) he has been perfecting the hero as slob. I swear that one year at the Independent Spirit Awards he was wearing the bathrobe he put on when he got out of bed that morning.

"The Good Thief" is still another movie inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville's "Bob le Flambeur" (1955), which was also remade as both versions of "Ocean's Eleven." Bob the High-Roller is an aging, much-imprisoned character whom even the cops like. He masterminds a complicated heist, and survives its risks because he is true to his essential self--he's a gambler, not a criminal.

Nolte inhabits the role like a bed he wants to sleep late in. We feel we are touching his real nature. He plays a man of huge appetites (look how tiny a cigarette seems in his hand), but the drugs and booze do not fill the empty places. Only romance can do that. Nolte, Molina and Caine are victors. They have survived the countless ways the movies have of wearing actors down and chewing them up.

They have survived by gravitating toward roles they have trained for a lifetime to play. Watching the opening of "The Quiet American," I wondered why I seemed to be smiling a little, and then realized that I felt positive affection for Michael Caine, and I sensed that his character would engage me all the way through. As it did. The movie magazines have the 23-year-old stars du jour on their covers, but let them put in the time and see if they turn out this well.

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