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'American' evangelist

Stumping for a film that was nearly DOA, Michael Caine savors work after retirement.

November 30, 2002|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Michael Caine is wearing mascara. The redoubtable English actor, now Sir Michael Caine, is not performing a replay of his famous cross-dressing psychiatrist from "Dressed to Kill." In fact, the 69-year-old actor is merely noshing on potato-encrusted salmon at Beverly Hills' Peninsula Hotel, in a black shirt and jacket and blue pants -- an outfit more professorial than fashionable.

While he was never blessed with chiseled matinee idol looks, his face hasn't lost its impact as it ages. It's an expanse of bland English features, ruddy but unlined, punctuated by a fiercely impudent nose and animated by an unruly, unpredictable intelligence and mercurial cerulean blue eyes, one just the tiniest bit sleepy.

The mascara is courtesy of one of Caine's self-devised acting tips, which he promulgated in a now famous acting tape and book on acting: If you have blond lashes, always darken them, or, as he noted, "you might as well be in a radio play." He demonstrates another dictum -- never blink to the camera -- opening his eyes to their fullest, and suddenly what had been rather kindly grandfatherly orbs radiate with the cool intensity of every evil character he's ever inhabited, like the crime boss in "Mona Lisa." It's simply a display of technique, but it winds up being intimidating, perhaps because Caine believes that "cold people you play on technique because cold people live on technique. Cold people are easy to play because there's no emotion. They are sort of acting with you."

It's not surprising that so much of his acting advice focuses on the eyes: They're the hallmark of his naturalistic acting style, which has never been more on display than in his turn as British journalist Thomas Fowler in the new film "The Quiet American." Almost his entire performance is carried in his gaze as it flows from cynical to crafty to wearily despairing. The eyes are forever registering subtly shifting degrees of loss.

The film, which debuted last Friday, is set in 1952 Vietnam. It details Fowler's love for the young Vietnamese beauty Phuong and her relationship with his rival for her affections, Alden Pyle, a seemingly idealistic American aid worker who in actuality is a CIA operative.

Caine is wearing the mascara because he's just emerged from several photo shoots. Part "Quiet American" evangelist, part perpetual one-man dinner host, Caine is determinedly stumping for the film, and is scheduled to appear in publications from Time to Modern Maturity as well as on talk shows. November has become the kickoff of the Oscar season, the time when contenders emerge from their tinted-window limousines to attend swank private parties and industry-heavy affairs where Oscar voters are known to lurk. (As an Oscar contender, Caine is hardly alone in his sudden ubiquity. Jack Nicholson, another strong best actor candidate, for "About Schmidt," has even been spotted flirting on "Access Hollywood.")

In the last four days, Caine has not only done a junket for "The Quiet American," but also attended the film's premiere and an AFI retrospective on his career, and he is soon off to give talks to members of the Screen Actors Guild and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Although Caine and his wife of 30 years, Shakira, usually leave their home in the English countryside for the winter, this year's destination is Beverly Hills, in part to be around to promote the film.

Caine's mission has special urgency partly because the film almost was a victim of Sept. 11 jitters. Although Joseph Mankiewicz's 1958 film version of the novel betrayed Graham Greene's vision, turning Pyle into an innocent businessman and Fowler into a communist dupe, this version, directed by Australian Phillip Noyce, is much truer to the prescient darkness of Greene's book. The first test screening took place Sept. 10, 2001, with subsequent test screenings going badly. The film's fate hung in the balance for months until it was finally scheduled for release in January, usually a dumping ground for films.

"It was going to be dumped like it was the worst movie that ever happened. It's anti-the CIA, who took America into Vietnam, which everybody computes as being anti-American," Caine says. "Not in my case. I'm the most pro-American foreigner you've ever met, and I would never make an anti-American film. I have a feeling that a couple of critics that [Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein] knew in New York had seen it and didn't like it, and I think they had had an effect on him."

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