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Michael Caine's just eating it up

Jane Horrocks and Michael Caine in "Little Voice."

Michael Caine likes to talk. Some actors hide in the mountains, or huddle in private clubs with their friends. Caine opens restaurants. Then he sits in a table near the door--not counting the customers, just pleased to see them.

"It's just sort of hobby, you know," he said.

But if you had no movie career at all, you'd still be successful because of your restaurants. Am I right?

"Yeah, yeah. But it's a hobby and it stays a hobby, I don't spend a lot of time working at it. My partners do all the work. I do it for my own amusement really. Wherever I live, if there isn't a restaurant I want to go to of a certain type, then I open it. That's all. For selfish reasons."

I remember in Budapest, this was in 1981, Caine jotting down the address of Langan's Brassiere in London and telling me to try it the next time I was in town. And walking into Langan's and seeing him at a table near the front, savoring a cigar. He is well-fixed. When he makes a movie, it is because he has a reason to make it. No more "Jaws 4" for him.

"I opened Langan's because London didn't have a brassiere like La Coupole in Paris. It's just a hobby. What I've been doing is, I went away, it must have been about five or seven years ago, and took a year off to write my autobiography. I took another year off because I didn't write it the first year. Then I took another year off. Then I started looking at scripts to do my sort of mini-comeback. But I couldn't find anything. I got scripts where I told them, 'Not only will I not do this, but my professional advice is, you shouldn't make the film'."

In 1993, Caine filmed "On Deadly Ground," with Steven Seagal as a hero fighting against Caine's evil, polluting, ecologically unsound oil tycoon. Then came the years off, which would have been better timed if they had started just one picture sooner. Then in 1997 Caine reappeared in Bob Rafelson's "Blood & Wine," with one of his best performances ever, as a dying British burglar. He deserved an Oscar nomination, and for that matter his co-star Jack Nicholson did work in the movie that was miles better than the performance he won an Oscar for in "As Good As It Gets."

Now comes "Little Voice," with Caine as Ray Say, a failing British club promoter who dreams of turning his career around after discovering, in a small northern town, a reclusive young woman (Jane Horrocks) who does not talk much, but can sing exactly, yes, exactly, like Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and other pop idols.

Ray Say is Caine's kind of character, an easy-living chum with a well-hidden mean streak, who allows himself to be taken home by needy widows. One such escort, played by Brenda Blethyn, is Little Voice's mother. She brings Ray into the parlor, pours a drink, and suggests "Let's roll about." After she puts "It's Not Unusual" on the turntable, a voice from upstairs counters with "That's Entertainment," and Ray knows he has discovered a new star.

The movie, which opened Friday, was a big hit in September at the Toronto Film Festival. That's where we were talking, in a cafe at the Four Seasons. Caine had been doing interviews all morning, and looked as if he rather enjoyed it; like politicians, he does not resent the attention of the press.

"The screening last night seemed to get a good reception," he said. "Or do they cheer at everything? Do they usually stand on their hands?"

Well, they're Canadians, you know. Sometimes they just file out.

"Well, we didn't get that. We got a standing ovation for about two minutes. I'd never seen the picture and I thought it was magical. A lot of this stuff was new to me. Like Ewan McGregor's performance. I wasn't there when they filmed those scenes. It's a very sensitive, small, intimate performance. I loved it. I was very impressed with everybody in it, from Brenda right through to Jim Broadbent."

McGregor plays the telephone lineman who is in love with Jane Horrocks. Because she rarely leaves her room, he courts her from the cherry-picker on his telephone truck. Jim Broadbent, the substantial star of many British and Irish comedies, plays Mr. Boo, owner of a local club where Ray Say tries to get Little Voice a booking.

"One of the interviewers," Caine said, "asked me, 'Do you see the film as a homosexual metaphor?' I said, homosexual metaphor? I'm thinking to myself, I don't think I played Ray Say very gay. Do you? It turns out he was talking about the girl. She had a domineering mother, and she was in the closet, and she came out, and she was Marlene Dietrich. I was stunned by that. I kept answering his questions by rote. I was still thinking about it."

I think of it more as a showbiz metaphor, I said. The plain little wallflower starts to sing and a star is born, that sort of thing...

"Yeah. Jane Horrocks went off and recorded all of those songs. And at a press conference a lot of people said it must have been expensive getting the rights for her to mime to all those people. She does it so well they don't realize that it's not them, it's her. That's really her singing."

It really is. But she sounds so uncannily like the singers she's imitating that it was wise for the movie to announce, in the first end credit, that Horrocks did her own singing.

"When you see how tiny she is, you wonder where the voice comes from," Caine said. "She sounds like a belter -- like Garland and Bassey."

The Ray Say character is on his last legs when Little Voice enters his life. He's down to managing an elderly knife-thrower who hurls blades at his wife to the strains of "Rawhide."

"Especially if you were British," Caine said, "you would know that, since he's a Londoner, going further north means he's not only dying from a business point of view--he's dying geographically. The normal Cinderella story is the boy who was born in the north and makes it to London. This guy's gonna wind up in Scotland, which for an Englishman is..."

Words failed him. "But I loved the character. I've always loved reprehensible people because they're so much more interesting to play on screen. And now as I've been getting to my age, I get the better things to do. You're not just the guy who gets the girl, loses the girl and gets the girl. You're the villain, you're the father, you're the...."

Dying British crook in "Blood & Wine," I interrupted. One of your best performances.

"It just didn't work, did it?" said Caine.

"Blood & Wine" must have broken Bob Rafelson's heart, because that's as good a picture as he's made, I said, of the director who also made "Five Easy Pieces."

"I thought it was a wonderful movie," Caine said. "I asked someone what they thought was wrong with it? He said, 'No one to root for.' Everybody was an (bleep), he said. Next, I'm playing Doctor Large in John Irving's 'The Cider House Rules.' He's an abortionist who runs an orphanage. "

Who's directing it?

"Lasse Hallstrom. I find it difficult to say his name without saying 'Lassie.' Lasse Hallstrom. I've never met him but on the phone he sounds just like a Swede."

He ordered a pot of tea and leaned back with his arm resting on the table.

"If I make a bad film, it's a mistake now. In my early days, I didn't know what a good film or a bad film was, and I was trying to make some money. As it happens I was lucky. I made some good films. The good films are almost as accidental as the bad films. But now I knew 'Little Voice' wasn't a bad film. I know 'The Cider House Rules' is not a bad film. I'm at a stage now where if someone would say, here's $2 million to make 'Jaws 5,' well, I did it before. But I wouldn't do it again."

He made the fourth "Jaws" movie, "Jaws: The Revenge." He was filming it in the Bahamas, and couldn't go to Hollywood for the Academy Awards in 1986, the year he won an Oscar for "Hannah and Her Sisters." Not the sort of film one would choose to pass up the Oscars for.

Did you know there's a continuity error in that "Jaws" picture? I asked.

"I've never seen it," Caine said thoughtfully.

You know the scene where your pontoon plane lands on the water and the shark eats it? "Yeah."

And everybody's standing around on the yacht in tears because you've gone down with the shark?

"And I come up the other side."

You climb on board. "Yeah."

With a dry shirt.

He laughed gleefully. "It was a dry shirt, yeah. What happened was, we stood there for so long waiting for the camera to turn over, and it was so hot the shirt dried out in the sun."

Jane Horrocks was in the restaurant, and came over to our table to chat for a moment. When she left I mentioned to Caine that she was a lot smaller than I had imagined, after seeing her in "Little Voice," "Life Is Sweet" and "Absolutely Fabulous." You never know how tall people really are, I said, because the movies can make them look the same size.

"I did a picture with Elizabeth Taylor," he said, "and she stood on a box for the whole movie to be level with me, and for three years everybody thought I was 5-feet-6 because everybody knew how short Elizabeth was,"

Alan Ladd spent his whole career on a box.

"That was my shortest audition. He was doing 'The Red Beret' in England about paratroopers and they said, 'Next,' and it was my turn. I opened the door and walked in and the guy looked up and he went, "Next!" And I hadn't said anything. 'Next!' he repeats.

"I said, 'Can't I audition or do something?'"

"'No,' he said, 'look at your left.' There was a mark on the doorway. Anyone who was over the mark was out. It was my shortest audition. You had to be shorter than Alan Ladd."

They say that on "Boy on a Dolphin," the director wanted a shot where Ladd and Sophia Loren were walking and talking, and they dug a trench for her. She had to walk in the trench.

"No wonder the guy was a drunk. I mean, the humiliation of all that. He was about 4-feet-11 or something. But Veronica Lake must have been small because they always used her."

He wasn't 4-feet-11, I said. Was he?

"About that. He was tiny but he had big heels on. You wonder how a guy like that becomes a star, you know, because he wasn't a stage actor with a great reputation."

You gotta think like an optimist, I said. Look at Danny DeVito.

"Did you hear about the pessimist who came to visit America?" Caine asked. "He complains about the shop signs. They all say, Yes, we're open! And he says they should say, No, we're open!"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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