Review: ‘What’s It All About?’ by Michael Caine

What's It All About?What’s It All About? by Michael Caine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first half of Michael Caine’s 1992 memoir, “What’s It All About?”, is enthralling. His life is one struggle after another: poverty, escaping the Blitz, unhappy times at school, military service in Korea, one dead-end job after another in hopes of making it as an actor despite his Cockney background and accent.

And then, success. First comes “Zulu,” the 1964 film that earned him his first major notice; then “The Ipcress File,” the first of the Harry Palmer films; and then, of course, “Alfie,” which gives the book its title (courtesy of one of his lines, made the title of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s theme song). Caine revels in Swinging London and his friendships with Terence Stamp, Sean Connery and British Invasion rock stars, then he leaves for Los Angeles and meets the cream of Old Hollywood, including Cary Grant and John Wayne.

He also gets dull.

Well, not dull. I don’t think it’s possible for Michael Caine to be dull. I once interviewed him and he was gracious and funny, and his self-deprecating sense of humor continually pops up throughout “What’s It All About?” Early in the book, he mentions looking back on an incident “when I was living on a Beverly Hill,” and he mentions how “remarkably inefficient” the trucks were in his downtrodden London neighborhood, given that “the amount and variety of stuff that fell off the back of them and found its way into our house was amazing.” Later, referring to the Oscars, he remarks, “The security is heavy and so is the insecurity.”

The book also contains perhaps his most famous witticism, referring to the making of “Jaws: The Revenge”: “I have never seen the film but by all accounts it was terrible. However I HAVE seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

But post-“Alfie” Michael Caine just isn’t as interesting as the struggling version. There are times his stories of childhood and young adulthood give Frank McCourt and “Angela’s Ashes” a run for their money, though in place of McCourt’s deadpan, dour narration – which seems to cloak 1930s Ireland in the gray murk of, perhaps, the 1830s – Caine is always hopeful, if often desperate, which allows a bit of sunshine to break through.

Indeed, he was a lucky man, and he doesn’t take his good fortune for granted, even when it looked like it was running out.

One example: In his late teens, having survived poverty and the Blitz, he’s sent off to Korea. He offers no illusions of military service. His first memory of the Korean peninsula is the smell of human manure that came wafting over to his troop ship; the second is the incredible hardship of the Korean people. He slept with rats and dodged mortar fire. He also made sure to avoid sex, given that the country’s prostitutes were rife with venereal disease. And yet he almost died upon returning, having developed a rare form of malaria. He was saved by an enterprising American doctor with an experimental cure that required him and his colleagues to remain motionless for 10 days. Fortunately, the cure worked, and if he’s been restless since – Caine has often been criticized for taking roles indiscriminately – you can’t blame him.

Still, I wish he’d been more discriminating with his stories of movie success. He’s not a man who criticizes publicly, so except for complaints about high British tax rates and what he saw as an unfair story by Gloria Steinem, everybody he’s worked with is wonderful or talented or both. His marriage to his second wife, Shakira, is made-for-Hollywood fantastical: He saw her on a TV commercial, pursued her, and their marriage has been nothing but happiness. (They’d been married close to 20 years when the book came out; he’s now been with her for 45.) He calls out bigots and refrains from gossip. And except for certain movies – “Sleuth,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” a bit of “Hannah and Her Sisters” – his filmography zips by, a career he sometimes seems to maintain so he has enough money to invest in his homes.

However, he’s such an ingratiating writer it’s hard to complain. I read the original edition, so I do hope his publisher has fixed a number of errors I caught: the great set designer Ken Adam, allegedly a close friend, is routinely called Ken ADAMS; he attends the premiere of “Alfie” with “all four Beatles and all four Rolling Stones” (I wonder which one didn’t count – probably Bill Wyman); and in one paragraph he misspells the names of both the 19th-century British actor Edmund Kean and the 20th-century British actor Paul Scofield. There are also some issues with chronology – I think he mentions the Profumo scandal as happening either a year before or after it actually did, in 1963 – but I’ll forgive those as lapses (or conflations) of memory.

So “What’s It All About?” About 520 pages, of which the first half is rich and savory and the rest … well, consider it a breezy dessert. And Michael Caine, of all people, deserves a nice dessert.

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