VENICE, Italy — "I used to do films where I got the girl," said Michael Caine with a roguish chuckle. "Now I just get the part."
He's not complaining. Caine, 66, always ready to admit cheerfully that his 80-odd films have fluctuated from the outstanding to the totally forgettable, is currently enjoying a hugely satisfying career spell: He loved playing a chain-smoking veteran safecracker opposite Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson's "Blood and Wine," while his role in "Little Voice" as a sleazy show-biz manager won him a Golden Globe earlier this year.
And now comes Caine's most formidable part in more than a decade, as the complex Dr. Larch in "The Cider House Rules," directed by Sweden's Lasse Hallstrom ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?," "My Life as a Dog") and adapted by John Irving from his own novel. The film opened in Los Angeles on Friday.
The story is set in New England in the middle years of this century; Dr. Larch runs an orphanage, benignly looks after the children there, and occasionally performs an abortion when he judges the young local woman requesting it to be in desperate straits. Larch can only look on with concern as his favorite orphan (Tobey Maguire) grows up full of moral certainties, then struggles to make his way in the outside world.
"The Cider House Rules," a Miramax movie, was warmly received by critics attending the Venice International Film Festival, and word-of-mouth suggested that Englishman Caine's performance was certain to figure among next year's awards contenders.
Because Caine's cockney accent and languid delivery make his deep voice one of the most distinctive in movies, Dr. Larch marked a significant departure for him. "I never played an American before," he noted, sitting on a sunlit hotel terrace after a triumphant Venice screening of "The Cider House Rules."
"But I had a great [dialect] coach, named Jess Platt. An American accent is difficult for an Englishman. It's similar yet subtly different.
"The attitude we took was, I didn't want to be an English actor doing the best accent I possibly could. I wanted to be like an American actor doing nothing."
This deliberately understated approach to his work is pure Caine.
Never an actor who shows off his screen technique, he aims instead to convey a maximum of feeling with a minimum of outward display. He's an artist who conceals his art.
"One of the most interesting things for me now is to get as far away from myself as I can," he noted. "In fact, I've never played anyone close to me. I've played womanizers, philanderers, villains, gangsters. But I'm a father and a family man. I've been with the same woman for 27 years. I like to [play] what I'm not. And with Larch that was possible."
Caine regards Dr. Larch as "the role I got deepest into," along with his role in 1983's "Educating Rita" as a boozy college professor and mentor to a working-class woman (Julie Walters) trying to better herself.
"Those two roles were the furthest from my own character," he said.
Films With Characters, Not Special Effects
Hallstrom chose Caine to play Dr. Larch when Miramax executives showed him dailies from "Little Voice" before "The Cider House Rules" began shooting: "I could imagine him having the compassion, intelligence and authority of this doctor," Hallstrom said. "I couldn't imagine him with that cockney accent he had. But he managed to get rid of that!"
Of course he did. When you hire Caine, you hire a consummate pro who arrives on a film set fully prepared and ready to work. "Where an actor comes from doesn't mean anything," Caine mused. "One [advantage] for actors is that we've had so many special-effects films, for which you don't need proper actors, but athletes who can do fights and stuff. Audiences have got tired of them and have come back to character films. And the rate of profit in [character driven] pictures is phenomenal. So they come back to actors. I'm too old to do all that running around, fighting monsters and all that crap. All I can do is stand still and act."
As Caine good-naturedly admitted in his Golden Globe awards-night speech, his name has been on a fair share of duds. They came thick and fast at one point: "The Swarm," "The Island," "The Hand," "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure," "Blame It on Rio" and his personal least favorite, "Ashanti," were all released between 1978 and 1984.
Yet Caine was able to rise above his material--maybe because by that point he had amassed so much good will from audiences who liked his earlier films.
Intriguingly, a handful of these films from the 1960s have currently made Caine an iconic hero to a school of young British filmmakers. In the wake of last year's Brit hit "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," there is a rash of London-based gangster films in production, and Caine's laconic, sexy, deadpan style is being widely emulated.