Caine Not So Quiet About 'American'
Sir Michael Caine, at a youthful 69, seems to be at the best creative place of his career admits he charming Brit who has appeared in over a hundred films, some classics, others not so. "I enjoyed this film more than any film I ever made," confesses the actor about his latest movie, The Quiet American, which Miramax is begrudgingly releasing in the US a year after completion. In what is largely regarded as Caine's finest hour on film to date, the Oscar winner plays opium-addicted British reporter, Fowler in 1952 Vietnam during the Vietnamese liberation war from French rule. Caine's Fowler is in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, who is dismayed when a young American CIA agent, Pyle (Brendan Fraser), seems to have eyes for her as well. Based on the Graham Greene classic novel, Caine says that the experience of shooting Quiet American on location in Vietnam remains the highlight of his career, he explains, in a Los Angeles hotel room. "It's a very special part and everything seemed to coincide for me on this. I was experienced enough to know the man that I played and I also knew the man I thought it was based on, which was Graham Greene because I knew him." explains the actor. "I had also had enough experience of life to be as world weary as I was going to be and I had enough experience as an actor to play a character as intricate and subtle as him to the best of my ability, plus we had to the good fortune to go to Vietnam," a location he talks about with genuine passion. "It's like the book is unfolding before your eyes all the time. You are walking along the streets in Saigon and every day you'd see 10 to 15 Thomas Fowlers with a beautiful young Vietnamese girl. So for me it added tremendous things because with a man 55 with a young girl like that it could be funny or revolting but as I saw it all going on around me, the only thing I could add to it was Greene HADN'T been put in there, was the sadness of these people, which was signified with the disgust and sadness of themselves."
While Caine's life's experiences may have enhanced his understanding of Fowler, it was not as easy for the actor to identify with him in other ways. "For starters, I've been married to the same woman for 30 years so having affairs with young girls is not part of the equation any more", he says with a slight laugh. "I suppose that I could relate inasmuch as I'm a man of that age, even older, and that meant that I knew more than he did."
At the time the first film version of the book came out in the early 50s, America was still a nation of innocence. Times have certainly changed. Post-Vietnam, the world is ready for a possible world conflict, so the timeliness of a film such as this is questionable but in comparing the Vietnam conflict, to a potential war in Iraq, Caine sees the film's Pyle character representing "America at the time which was naive and full of good intentions, while today they're still full of good intentions but Americans are certainly not naïve any more. Vietnam was a war they couldn't win because they wouldn't bomb the cities; if they had, they would have won the war. Iraq, for instance, is a war you can't lose but there's a peace you could lose, that's the problem because I think once the war ends is when the trouble will start." So it is no surprise that while The Quiet American was completed over a year ago, in this post 9/11 world, US distributor Miramax was determined to bury the film. Caine feels that the company finally decided to take the risk in releasing the movie because there isn't one, insists Caine. "It's not all about that, 9/11 and the Americans. It's anti the people who took America into the Vietnam War." Caine admits that he helped persuade the company not to bury the film. "My contribution to getting the picture shown was one phone call to Harvey Weinstein, who is a friend of mine. I told him that you have just got to give us a shot. There's a director here, there's writers, a cameraman, you know, apart from me, all of whom should have a shot to try to get a nomination, you know, for an Oscar which should come out at Oscar time. I said I don't think this film is dumpable on January 5, which is the garbage can of movies. I said bring it out and if it is crap I'll bring the shovel and help you bury it in January. So he said all right, I'll call you back. A week went by and the head of publicity called me back and said Harvey said you can take it to Toronto and we'll see what happens."
The gamble paid off. The film received a rapturous critical response and the studio finally decided to release the film for two weeks in order to qualify for an Oscar, prior to a wider release in January. And there is Oscar buzz surrounding Caine's performance, but the actor shrugs off that media speculation. "I've seen some critics have said that but actors don't like talking about Oscar because you could jinx it so I never like talking about it."
Caine admits that at a time when the top box office films are the likes of Eminem's 8 Mile and the latest Harry Potter, a film such as The Quiet American is a harder sell, but Caine remains hopeful. "One of the reviews I like most of this film was that this was a grownup film made by grownups for grownups, and I'm hoping it's about time. Are grownups still going to the Cinema or are they stuck in front of the television? We'll find out."
Caine has been on top of his career for over three decades. He says that he refuses to look back at his earlier work preferring "to look forward and to what I'm doing next." Retirement is something he won't talk about except to laughingly say that "actors don't retire from the business, but rather the business retires THEM." No danger of that happening, as the actor is constantly working, not of a need, as he once did, but out of passion. "What has happened is that I grew up and now, I don't have to work for a living but rather wait for scripts that I absolutely must do. Now, people keep sending me great scripts which I can't refuse such as this, Second Hand Lions which I'm doing now or The Actors, which is a mad comedy I did in Dublin. So if I don't get the scripts I am looking to do I will retire. After all, I have a very nice garden that needs a lot of tending."
Caine says that clearly he must have done something right in his career "because Hollywood is determined to remake them all." The Italian Job is shooting with Mark Wahlberg and his classic Alfie is in the works about which he doesn't mind. "It's very interesting because the script is by a woman and American, who is writing about a male chauvinist pig, so it ought to be interesting to see how that turns out." The working class lad who appeared in his first film in 1956 is now one of the world's biggest stars, and humbly admits that all those years later, he remains dumbfounded by his success. "I'm stunned by it really. A reporter asked me the other day if I believe in God and I said if you had my life you have to."
The Quiet American opens in NY and LA on Friday, November 22 for a two-week run before going wide in January, 2003.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.