The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

Ariel Schudson looks at the films of Michael Caine, an actor so sexually potent that he broke the fourth wall.

Ariel Schudsonby Ariel Schudson

The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

When your film career has included a spy series rivaling that of James Bond, several British gangster roles, inspired a pop song, and made you the subject of parody for well-loved comedy sites like Funny or Die, you’re a good candidate for the Myth of Macho, regardless of your participation in the most current stream of Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman films. While we have discussed other contributions to the world of masculine cinema, few actors exist whose career longevity and acting breadth has stayed the course like Sir Michael Caine. Yeah, the guy got knighted too.

We can all admit that there will never be anyone like Arnold. He really will always be the Austrian in the Room. And without Lee Marvin, The Professionals wouldn’t be anywhere near as professional; The Dirty Dozen nowhere near as dirty. These men, however, upon working in different film genres, still maintained their “tough guy” persona. You could take the guy out of action, but you couldn’t take the action out of the guy. With Caine, there is something that tends to be a little bit different. His depiction of masculinity, whether it’s within the action milieu or in a comic performance, carries with it a sense of style and effortlessness. While he primarily plays characters of a lower class and many times represents figures of a criminal or unpleasant disposition, Michael Caine possesses a personal charm and charisma; there is a charm that is singular and like no other. Michael Caine’s masculine reflection is simply to be Michael Caine.

The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

Caine may play figures going by the name of Alfie, Jack Carter or Matthew Hollis or any number of things but Caine’s masculinity revolves around the fact that his identity is simple and, although not amiable in every film, always intriguing and attractive based upon notions of straightforward male sensibility mixed with his own personal brand of allure. It is the feature that allows the men in the audience to identify with him, idolize him and understand him. It is what makes the women in the audience be attracted to him or, in certain cases, sympathize with him, and thusly enhance his image as a Major Figure of Masculinity. Michael Caine is sexy, strong, and all man from all angles. He’s also been been rocking this position like a champ since the late 1950s/early 1960s. If there were an award given out for the actor who is still pulling off intimidating, macho and hardcore roles well into his twilight years, that statuette would go to 79-year-old Maurice Micklewhite from London, England.

Michael Caine has perfected the role of the working-class male in a way that removes it from “dirty criminal” and keeps it a just a hair away from white trash. He may play low-life scoundrels and violent criminals, but Caine always seems to retain a unique refinement in each of his characters. His attempts to access the highest levels of charm and sophistication from each character, no matter what side of the tracks they may be from, is one of his greatest abilities. While I would love to detail Michael Caine’s career in all of his glory, it would be impossible to do so in a short span of time. This is an actor who has 154 titles listed on IMDb, ranging from war epics to family comedies to crime and action cinema to superhero pictures. Oh, and then there’s Woody Allen. He’s awfully good as Mia Farrow’s husband Elliot in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Since that film happens around Thanksgiving, I always seem to think about that particular Michael Caine role around this time of year. Definitely worth a spin.

His career has outlasted some people’s lifetimes but his ability to relate to the male public has never quit, no matter what country they might be from. As far as powerful and interesting male performances go, I cannot think of a single actor who has been chosen to directly address the audience not once, but twice in films that relate to issues of troubled masculinity and sexual intimacy. These films, while markedly different in storyline, bear more than a passing resemblance to one another in the manner in which they are told and the themes that they work with. While they come from different eras (the first one based in the 1960s, aka Swingin’ London, the second taking place in the 1980s, aka the Decade of Excess), they operate from the same central themes.

The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine  The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

Stanley Donen’s Blame It On Rio (1984) and Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) both feature Michael Caine in fascinating examples of male development. Through the application of direct address as the primary storytelling method, each film dissects the theme of masculinity by underscoring the narrative. Much like the buck, the shared space don’t stop here. In addition to a common storytelling methodology, both movies purport themselves to be comedy. The question is… are they? While there is a great deal of humor in each, these are films that exist more towards the edge of the “slightly uncomfortable” genre due to open and intense discussions of taboo sexual topics.

The worlds of Alfie and Blame It On Rio both appear to be fun and games until the games reveal some pretty decent sized problems in the arena of intimacy and sex for the central male protagonist. All of a sudden, happy sexy times explode in everyone’s face and the film’s comedic milk turns a wee bit sour. This is why they are actively important films but on that same token, they could also, as one friend of mine noted, tend to “squick” you out a bit.

The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

Alfie is the story of a young man who has a way with the ladies. And hey, more power to him. He really gets that playboy thing to work in his favor, on paper at least. Alfie goes from lady to lady, never truly committing, and is really pretty successful at the whole thing. However, we watch as his life (and everyone’s else’s in it) takes a surprisingly dark and gloomy turn by the finale. Alfie is most certainly not the film it starts out as, by any stretch of the imagination.

Blame It On Rio (from here on out, referred to as BIOR), tells a completely different tale but contains the same logic behind it: “what you see ain’t what you get.” BIOR follows two middle-aged fathers going on vacation with their teenage/young adult daughters in Rio. While there, one of the men, Matthew Hollis (Michael Caine), gets seduced by Jennifer (Michelle Johnson), his pal’s overly nubile offspring. The subsequent fallout is simultaneously hilarious and awkward. While many have viewed this film in terms of its age-to-sexuality impropriety, it may be more valuable to look at it in terms of the real issues at hand: Matthew Hollis’ difficulties with intimacy and his problematic relationships with the women in his life. Attacking BIOR on an “OMG, ew! That movie’s so weird! He’s so much older than her! Ugh!” principle negates the fact that there is far more going on within Hollis’ own psychology than a standard expression of a mid-life crisis or anything as customary as that. Studied closely, the film reveals the struggles of a man who is far more complex (and good intentioned) than your average pervert.

The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

Structurally, both of these films use a narrative approach that is rarely seen in cinema: talking right at the camera/to the audience. You know that sacred fourth wall that they always talk about not breaking in theater and film classes? Well, these two films take that rule and just chuck it right out the window. Thing is, it actually works with Alfie and BIOR due to the fact that the star was Michael Caine. It doesn’t appear heavy-handed or unprofessional as it might if the protagonist were someone else. In fact, the films benefit from having Caine as the narrator. Michael Caine’s easy accessibility to the audience and previously established masculine identity lay the groundwork for these characters and make the space for these films to be able to explore socially uncomfortable zones like pregnancy, issues of age, sexual exploration, and, most of all, male intimacy.

But what made Michael Caine, in particular, so accessible? Why not choose another actor to play these roles who also had sex appeal and a real sense of masculine distinction? These roles required approachability and they needed to be user-friendly. Michael Caine’s greatest strength and what he is known for is being “part of the people.” His Cockney accent has always given him “working class” cred, and his physical look? Well, unlike the cluster of modern action heroes, Caine’s looks never slated him as being too pretty to touch. While certainly attractive, Caine’s magnetism came from the fact that he was a fine balance of rugged and tough looking (he has certainly always looked “mannish” not “boyish”) while being a regular Joe.

The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

The characters of Alfie and Matthew are quite specific male types with certain qualities, attributes and backgrounds. However, Caine’s ability to universalize a role and make even the most difficult character seem somewhat appealing is why direct address was likely the only way to go with these stories. Alfie and Matthew as characters are complete stereotypes. Alfie is a young, misogynistic playboy, who takes full advantage of every woman he meets until it backfires on him completely. Matthew is a 40-something year-old businessman in a troubled marriage with a teenage daughter. Both his wife and daughter seem to regard him as impotent and useless, thus disregarding him completely until he pursues another path: his friend’s daughter. This also backfires on him completely. What Alfie and BIOR work to do is rip apart and examine the issues contained within male misbehavior. Neither film condones the way these characters act. In fact, they do the exact opposite: by letting the main characters speak for themselves, admitting every error and shortcoming down to the letter, these films serve as potent “how-not-to” guides for the sensible male.   

BIOR’s study on male sexuality mirrors Alfie’s. While the focus is different in each film and the masculine challenges and questions that each film poses are pitched in a slightly differently manner, these films are both meditations on the same premise of relationships, emotional maturity and intimate behavior. While BIOR primarily reflects on age, appropriate sexual interaction and issues of fidelity, Alfie’smajor themes have to do with youth, masculinity and issues of intimacy. In many ways, it seems that Matthew Hollis is Alfie all grown up, married and settled down.

The Myth of Macho: Michael Caine

And while it’s virtually impossible to label either character as entirely likable, you also can’t classify them as horrific either. Due to our engagement with them as our friendly narrator, we are aligned with them directly. We have no choice but to be on their side, in a sense. We assume that the experiences Alfie and Matthew are sharing (not all of which portray them in a positive manner) with us are the truth of the story in its naked glory. On the other hand, because the story is entirely in their hands to tell, and we have no idea how reliable either Matthew or Alfie are. Is it possible that they are complete liars, trying to gain sympathy from the audience? In either circumstance, we are intimately involved in the storyline and protagonists, and must decide for ourselves what side of their ethics we stand on: the set that they are just coming to terms with, or the possibility that they have none at all.

BIOR and Alfie are not easy feature films to sit through. BIOR openly defies commonly held standards of social acceptability in order to dig through a man’s personal struggles with intimacy, while Alfie exposes how the stereotype of the no-strings-attached fun-loving male is really nothing but a frightened and lonely boy, a case of arrested adolescence, unable to move past his own needs to see someone else’s. Matthew and Alfie are both in that dilemma: neither of these men has the ability to put someone else’s needs before their own. Matthew Hollis pursues an empty relationship with Jennifer and then attempts to exit, based upon social guilt and a sense of betrayed loyalty to his friend, her father. His own daughter continually points out how self-involved he is and how he cannot think about anyone else but himself. While these are angry teenager’s words, they echo the words of one of the characters in Alfie. Alfie states, “I don’t mean to hurt anyone,” and his friend answers, “Yeah, but you do.” As Alfie goes through women left, right and center, we see this to be the case.

These films bring solid issues of male values into question: treatment of women and the ways that men treat themselves. Michael Caine’s portrayal of the average man makes these characters palatable and, more than anything, empathetic. But the essence of these films is to put these behaviors and traits under review. They’re not questioning sexual promiscuity nor making judgment calls on partners. What the content of the films does is begin the conversation about how men move forward from the stereotypes that they have existed as into the people they want to be.

Glad you could make it for another salacious selection of Myth of Macho. Please join us again next week!

Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile