November 17, 2002 | Michael Caine is, by his own admission, “a news junkie,” the kind of compulsive who’ll reflexively tune his TV to CNN during any lull in a day’s activities. Which is why, on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, while he sat in his London home office, waiting for word from director Phillip Noyce about the previous evening’s New Jersey sneak preview of The Quiet American, he found himself transfixed by the aftermath of the first assault on the World Trade Center.
Then he saw the second plane’s approach.
“And my first reaction,” Caine recalls, “was, ‘Jesus, that’s quick.’ Because, you see, I thought it was one of those planes like they have in California that drop the powder on the forest fires. I thought that’s what this plane was for. And it had only been about a quarter of an hour or 18 minutes since the other plane had hit the building. So I thought, ‘Wow, They got that plane up there so fast, to drop powder on that fire.’
“But then it went straight into the tower.
“And at first, none of it registered. I felt like, OK, I’m not a moron – actually, I feel I’m quite bright. But I was sitting there, stunned, thinking something like, ‘What happened here? It didn’t drop any of that powder, did it?’ It was only about two seconds, I know, but it seemed to me like half an hour. And then I saw the flames – that big woosh! – come out of the building...”
Caine’s voice trails off into a thoughtful silence, as though, even now, he still can’t believe what he saw. And then, as the ghost of a sad smile creases his lips, he continues: “That’s when I knew, I guess, I wouldn’t be talking about The Quiet American that day. Because, really, right then, who cared? Not Phillip. Not me.”
During the weeks and months following the epochal tragedy, however, other people began to talk about the movie. And very little of what they said was good.
Specifically: In the wake of 9/11, preview audiences for the Miramax Films release responded with ever-increasing hostility to The Quiet American. Indeed, Caine, director Noyce and executive producer Sydney Pollack began to hear complaints that the movie was positively anti-American.
The drama -- set in Saigon during the earliest days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and faithfully adapted from Graham Greene’s 1955 novel -- is at heart the story of a romantic triangle that involves Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a cynical yet sage British journalist; Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the dangerously idealistic title character; and Phuong (Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen), the enigmatic beauty loved not wisely but too well by both men.
Like the book, the movie unmasks the seemingly innocent Pyle as a ruthless pragmatist who’s indirectly responsible for a horrifically lethal act of terrorism. He does something unspeakable, with the best of intentions. So Fowler responds by doing the right thing, for the worst possible reasons.
“Which is why I had to cast Michael,” says Noyce. “I knew, right from the start, that I needed an actor who could get away with committing de facto murder -- and admitting it to the audience – and, yes, maybe it’s most likely that he just wanted to off his rival. But at the same time, I needed an actor who could convince us that, OK, maybe it’s just that, but maybe it’s also the result of genuine moral outrage. Both possibilities must be alive and well in our minds, and in our hearts.
“At the end, Fowler is incredibly compromised – he’s won the girl, yes, but she’s a prisoner in a sense, because she has no choice in a sense. But even after all that, we must still retain our sympathy, our empathy, for the character. And that requires a special actor with a special persona, and a special relationship with the audience. Some of it can’t be acted. There’s baggage that every actor brings. And for this part, Michael brought the perfect baggage… because of his humanity, because of his vulnerability.”
“Michael’s really magnificent in the part,” Pollack raves, “because he’s able to play this character who represents all of the civilization – and at the same time, all of the decadence -- of Europe.”
Even so, the title character – “a thankless part,” Caine says, “that I think Brendan pulled off amazingly well” – is not exactly the kind of U.S. government agent that many American moviegoers might want to see on screen during the post-9/11 era. At least, that’s the impression Harvey Weinstein and other Miramax decision-makers reportedly got from the preview-screening response cards. Quiet American, originally set to open late last year, was indefinitely delayed. In time, rumors circulated: the movie would bypass theatrical release altogether, and slip quietly into home-video obscurity.
It took enthusiastic support from Internet-based movie columnists and a rousingly successful premiere at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival (where audiences responded with standing ovations) for Quiet American to eventually muffle most of the negative buzz. The movie opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, as part of a full-court press for Oscar consideration.
Caine, who’s already being chatted up as a Best Actor contender, couldn’t be more pleased by this reversal of fortune. At the same time, he couldn’t be less patient with critics who grouse about the picture’s political content.
“I would never make an anti-American movie,” he insists, sounding more amazed than outraged that anyone would think otherwise.
The 69-year-old actor – who, even without make-up or flattering camera trickery, appears hale and hearty enough to suggest he has a decrepit portrait in his attic somewhere – is seated on the plush couch of the Austin hotel suite that has been his temporary home during on-location filming of Second-Hand Lions, a sentimental drama in which he and Robert Duvall play the mischievous uncles of Haley Joel Osment. Even in casual attire – blue denim shirt, dark slacks and comfy slippers – he effortlessly exudes a worldly elegance. But when discussing (and dismissing) the small-minded folks who have condemned Quiet American without bothering to actually see the movie, his voice reverberates with slivers of his trademark Cockney accent.
“This is a picture that’s anti- the four or five hundred people who took (America) into the Vietnam War. And 90 percent of Americans are anti-them. In fact, according to my recollection, people were rioting in the streets because they were anti-them. Look, I know 9/11 changed all of our lives forever. But it never changed a comma of history. It never changed a comma of the past.
“I knew Graham Greene slightly” – Caine also starred in a film version of the author’s The Honorary Consul, released in the United States as Beyond the Limit – “and I remember once that someone asked him if he was anti-American, and he said no. So he was asked, ‘Then why is Fowler so anti-American and you’re not?’ And he said, ‘No American ever took my girlfriend away.’
“That,” Caine notes with a chuckle, “brings it down to the level of what this story’s really all about.”
But seriously, folks: For Caine, an actor who’s often chided by admirers and critics alike for his, ahem, less than discriminating taste in film projects, The Quiet American offered a unique challenge. And that’s why he seized the opportunity.
“I thought, ‘This is chance now where you drop anything to do with Michael Caine, anything to do with trying to be entertaining as a movie star, anything to do with your personality or what’s left of it, or your fan base or what’s left of it. What you do here is, you go in and you be Thomas Fowler.
“And that’s how it happened, the whole thing. No concessions. No thinking, ‘Oh, they might be bored here, let me liven up things with a little bit of Michael Caine twinkle, so they’ll know it’s really me and all that.’ Nothing. And my reward, if it I get it right, will be, until the end of it, they won’t be saying, ‘Oh, that’s Michael Caine, very good as Thomas Fowler.’ Until it finishes, they’ll be looking at Thomas Fowler, and never be thinking of me.”
As for the movie’s real or perceived politics, Caine – who describes himself as “very much a (Tony) Blair-ite, which is an almost conservative socialist” – is surprisingly blasé. Surprising, that is, until he concedes the Vietnam War didn’t loom large in his consciousness during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“While the feeling against the Vietnam War was mounting in the United States,” Caine says, “I was in discotheques in Europe. I wasn’t political at all about Vietnam. I was anti-Communist, I had fought the Communists in Korea. But my whole attitude was, I’d already done my share, so I just stood back from the whole thing. I had a flat in Grovenor Square, right across from the American Embassy. And every Sunday, I’d invite people over for lunch, and then we’d all go out on the balcony and watch the anti-war riots. That was every Sunday for about 10 years.”
Even so, he occasionally found himself cast in movies of the period that were intended as anti-war statements – movies, he agrees, that really were about Vietnam, but weren’t actually set there. In James Clavell’s The Last Valley (1970), he gave one of his finest yet least appreciated performances as a cold-blooded mercenary who seeks respite from the Thirty Years War. And in Robert Aldrich’s Too Late the Hero (also 1970), he was a sarcastic British solider on a suicide mission in the South Pacific during World War II. Neither film was a commercial success, and Caine thinks he knows why.
“In each case,” Caine says, “I walked in thinking, ‘Why the hell am I making a war film in the middle of the Vietnam War? The last thing that Americans will want to see right now is a story about the Thirty Years War in Germany, or the Second World War in the Pacific.’ And in each case, it turns out, I was right.
“This really hit home for me when I went to Los Angeles to shoot some interiors for Too Late the Hero. I thought, ‘They’ve got this on their newscasts every evening. With their own relations dying, not bloody actors.’”
Which is not to say that Caine avoids films with political content. He is justly proud of co-starring with Sidney Poitier in The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), an anti-apartheid drama filmed long before most Americans gave much thought to racial policies in South African. More recently, he won his second Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for playing a kindly doctor who performs abortions in The Cider House Rules (1999).
“I’m always wary of films that say, ‘I know better than you, and here’s what you should know.’ But I do like to know there’s some content to some of the films I make. The Cider House Rules, that was a pro-choice picture. And I feel very strongly about that. It’s not like I’m pro-abortion. Nobody is pro-abortion. The women who have abortions are against abortions. No one gets up in the morning and says, ‘Oh, great, let’s go out and have an abortion today!’ What I’m against is organized groups, who haven’t been voted by me or my fellow citizens, telling me what to do. I have a tremendous antipathy to that.
“One of my favorite books is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. In fact, my eldest daughter is named Dominique, after (the novel’s) Dominique Francon. I know (Rand) was pretty far to the right and all that. But what I always liked about (architect hero) Howard Roark as a young actor – which is more of a left-wing idea, to me – was that, when they put the Doric pillars on the building, he went and blew the bloody thing up. He said, ‘That’s not my design.’ That’s how I started acting: It’s going to be my way, or not at all.”
He has mellowed somewhat, Caine admits. But he remains demanding – more of himself than others — and, perhaps more important, he finds immense joy in his work.
“Sometimes,” he says, “when you do a movie, you’ll do a scene where you feel you’ve got an absolutely perfect, realistic moment. Where, when the director says ‘Cut!’ -- it’s how I would imagine a shot of heroin is like. And it’s the most wonderful feeling, to get that. When you know you’re there, with the other actors, and you just know it’s a moment of reality. We had it all the time in The Quiet American, in the interplay. And I had it again just yesterday, on (Second-Hand Lions), where I had a long, difficult scene, where I got it right where I wanted it. And I was so elated.
“My wife said, ‘For God’s sake, come down, come down. You look like you’ve been on cocaine or something. It’s only a movie.’ And I said, ‘I know. But I got it right.’