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Screening Room Special: Michael Caine

  • Story Highlights
  • Roles in "Get Carter" and "Alfie" have made Caine a British film icon
  • Caine's latest film, "Sleuth" is a remake of the 1972 film he originally starred in
  • Caine won Oscars for "Hannah and her Sisters" and "The Cider House Rules"
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By Mairi Mackay
For CNN
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(CNN) -- Michael Caine has been personifying British cool since the swinging sixties.

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British film icon Michael Caine talks to CNN's The Screening Room

He has brought some of British cinema's most iconic characters to life and introduced his very own laid-back cockney gangster into pop culture.

The cool-as-a-cucumber working-class wide boys he portrayed in films like "Alfie" in the 1960s and 1970s are quintessential Caine and continue to exert a powerful influence on contemporary British directors, like Guy Ritchie.

Caine's distinctive voice and cockney accent have also installed catchphrases from "Not a lot of people know that" ("Educating Rita") to the immortal "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!" ("The Italian Job") firmly in the pop lexicon.

Such is the currency of Caine's early work that Hollywood -- in keeping with the current fashion for remakes -- has already updated some of his best-loved films -- with varying levels of success.

Mark Wahlberg starred in a remake of "The Italian Job" (2003) which was followed by a new take on "Alfie" (2004) starring Jude Law, while Sly Stallone baffled audiences as the lead in a sanitized version of "Get Carter" (2000) set in Los Angeles.

With so much of his past work dubiously rehashed, it's something of a surprise that Caine's latest film is a remake. Stranger still, he's starring in the new version of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Tony award-winning "Sleuth" (1972) -- for the second time.

Caine explains it was only possible to remake the film because the script -- completely rewritten by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter -- was so different from Anthony Shaffer's original screenplay.

"We had made a very good picture, but then we got this script by Pinter which was so full and we did it in a different way," Caine said.

"Sleuth" is a psychological thriller detailing the relationship of a cuckolded husband and the man who has stolen his wife. In the original, Caine played young hairdresser, Milo Tindle, while Lawrence Olivier took on the role of Andrew Wyke, the wronged husband. This time, Caine takes on Olivier's role and Jude Law, no stranger to Caine remakes after "Alfie" (2004), stars as the younger man.

The differences between the two films don't end there.

"The first movie was very little rehearsal and we shot for 16 weeks rehearsing on the set. This one, we rehearsed intensely for three weeks and then shot in four weeks intensely, so the whole thing was like some great big adrenaline rush," said Caine.

The decision to concentrate the film's action on only two characters (the original film had six) is certainly an ambitious proposition, but one Caine feels the all-British team were ready for.

"It was a glorious challenge to be able to do something that intense, that violent, that funny," he said.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh and produced by co-star Jude Law, the project is entirely British, a fact Caine is particularly proud of.

"You have Caine, Law, Branagh, Pinter, they have been produced in England and this is what they have been together ... it's a tremendous success for us," he said.

Law, a BAFTA-award winning and Oscar-nominated actor in his own right, says acting with Caine was an education.

"I learned so much just from watching how he monitored his performance, and also how little he has to do. He's a master technician and sometimes he was doing stuff I didn't see, I couldn't register. I'd go back and watch it on the monitor, it was like 'Oh my God, the amount of variety he's put in there is breathtaking'," he told CNN.

Part of Caine's magic is his combination of a working-class voice with a very sophisticated intelligence, according to Kenneth Branagh.

He doggedly retained a regional accent at a time when the plummy tones of Received Pronunciation were considered obligatory. It is a sweet irony that his accent has become his calling card.

"I kept my cockney accent in order to let other working class boys know that if I made it they could do it too," Caine explained.

Of course, Caine -- who trod the boards as a theatre actor for nine years before going into movies -- can pull off upper-crust with the best of them. His breakthrough role was as an aristocratic officer in the film "Zulu" (1964).

A starring role in "The Ipcress File" (1965) first brought him to the attention of the American public and he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in "Alfie" the following year.

Caine's acting abilities have always been taken more seriously in the U.S. and he continued to be nominated for Oscars with frustrating regularity until finally winning one for his role in the Woody Allen romantic comedy "Hannah and her Sisters" (1986).

Like many actors, Caine suffered some lean years, particularly during the '90s when he filmed a string of box office flops like Steven Segal's martial arts film "On Deadly Ground" (1994) and "Jaws: The Revenge" (1987) for which he was nominated for Worst Supporting Actor at the Razzie Awards.

Caine brushes aside any pretensions that what he does for a living is glamorous.

"You know, people think movie stars and actors are people in...discotheques and all this and with beautiful girls and parties and stuff and Rolls-Royces. They don't think about a wet November Monday when you've got to wake up at six o'clock in the morning and learn ten pages of dialogue," he said.

It was his self-deprecating turn as cockney scumbag Ray Say in "Little Voice" (1998) that finally won over British audiences, who approved of his status as a cultural icon -- but had never previously embraced him as a great actor.

This kick-started a revival in Caine's career and in 1999 he won his second Oscar for "The Cider House Rules," based on the book of the same name by John Irving.

Although he doesn't need to, Caine continues to work and is constantly on the lookout for the next script.

"I like to do great scripts. 'The Quiet American' was a great script, 'The Cider House Rules' was a great script, 'Little Voice' was a great script, and I now work because I want to, with whom I want to, when I want to, and where I want to. I'm not trying to pay the rent or anything, I'm trying to enjoy myself," he explained.

And the latest project to tickle his fancy? A low-budget British film called "Is There Anybody There?" The story is set in a nursing home and Caine plays a magician who helps a little boy hunt for the ghosts of his friends.

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"This is a wonderful script with a wonderful new director called John Crowley ... I'm doing it for nothing so it must be good!" he laughs.

After all, Caine is one of only two actors (alongside Jack Nicholson) to have been nominated for an Academy Award in every decade since the 1960s. And not a lot of people know that. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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