Monday, January 31, 2011

The Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine

The Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine, 2010

Everyone who ever appeared on a TV screen is writing a book these days. Third-rate memoirs from minor celebrities or two-bit reality stars are becoming increasingly common, overloading the genre with junk, obscuring the few celebrities who might actually have something to say.

Enter Michael Caine, Oscar-winning movie star, and one of my own favorite actors. I've always thought that Caine was a terrific screen presence and a fascinating personality, so I was eager to read the story of his long career in show business.

And it's quite a story. Caine, who grew up in a working-class suburb, has seen everything, been everywhere and met quite literally everyone. His stories are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always well-told. He has anecdotes about John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, Roger Moore, Nicole Kidman, Laurence Olivier, Scarlett Johanson, John Lennon, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Connery, Bob Hope and just about everyone in between.

Caine is more of a storyteller than a writer, but his style is glossy, readable and informally conversational. He's honest and forthright, but refreshingly positive about almost everything. He's clearly not interested in sharing juicy gossip and tearing down squeaky-clean public images.

There are some great stories in the book, especially during the early chapters. Caine's childhood and the beginning of his acting career are particularly colorful and interesting. He crisply captures the struggle of trying to make it in a profession that many of his family members didn't take seriously. He recounts one early meeting with a casting director that didn't go well:

No Alwyn Fox meant no job for me, so I headed back to Solosy's to pick up another copy of The Stage. My time at Horsham meant that I had left the Assistant Stage Manager category behind and could now (with a certain amount of artistic license) call myself an "experienced juvenile." Unfortunately, my artistic license extended a bit too far and I added the part of "George" from George and Margaret, a popular play that would have been the next production at Horsham, to my list of parts. When I got to one audition, in a theater in the east-coast town of Lowestoft, I was taken aback to find the seventy-year-old director seemed a bit hostile. "It says here, you played George in George and Margaret!" he said. Something was clearly not right. "Well, I did," I retorted, determined to stick to the story. "Well, you're a bloody liar!" he roared. "You've never even seen the play-- or you'd know that the cast spends two hours waiting for George and Margaret to turn up and they never do!"---(page 36)

Caine's writing is confident and straightforward, if not technically perfect (he has a tendency to get snarled in overlong sentences). It's certainly a notch above your average celebrity tell-all, though.

Considering the sheer number of stars that Caine knows, the temptation to name-drop must have been strong. Thankfully, he mostly refrains from it. He also never sounds pompous or self-important; his humility is one of the book's many charms. Though his stories are colorful and sometimes a little racy, it's all in good fun and you never get the impression that Caine just wants to pat himself on the back.

By and large, Caine avoids personal details, instead focusing on Hollywood stories and film anecdotes. He does tell the incredibly romantic story of how he met his wife and shares the experience of finding out he had a half-brother late in life. His writing has strong emotion in these segments and it's wonderful to hear him lovingly describe his daughters and grandchildren.

The book moves briskly between entertaining bits (Caine mercifully spares the reader the saggy sections that most memoirs contain) despite a couple of slightly leaden chapters on the history of Hollywood. Caine is at his best when sharing stories about his experiences and career. Alfie, The Italian Job, Harry Brown, Batman Begins and Zulu all get attention, as do some of his lesser-known films. His has been a rich, varied career and it's fun to hear him give his opinion on it.

All in all, reading the book is like a long lunch with a highly interesting and animated friend. There's nothing very gripping or life-changing being discussed, but it's an extremely entertaining read and it gives a glimpse both into the glamorous world of Hollywood and the life of an intelligent, kind, witty man who will hopefully be around to entertain us for many more years on the silver screen.

NEXT UP: Probably The Brothers Karamazov. Possibly Diana Gabaldon's Lord John and the Private Matter. We'll see.

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