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BOOK REVIEW: Famed British actor looks back

THE ELEPHANT TO HOLLYWOOD
By Michael Caine
Henry Holt and Co., $28, 320 pages

What a pleasure to meet Sir Michael. Reading Michael Caine's "The Elephant to Hollywood" is like spending an evening at your favorite restaurant with one of your most cherished friends.

This second volume of autobiography is, in fact, more of a revised and updated version of his first volume, "What's it All About," which came out when he was 60, 20 years ago. The first two-thirds of this book are basically the same as the old one. But this should add to rather than detract from the recommendation.

"What's It All About" was a classic: It was one of the finest actor and movie-star autobiographies ever written. And all of it was told in the clear, unmistakable words of the man himself. No semianonymous, "as-told-to" hacks for him. The new material is easily up to the standard of the old.

America has seldom had a more enriching, welcome and plainly joyous immigration stream than the intense burst of British acting talent that has poured into Broadway and Hollywood over the past half century. Mr. Caine is easily among its most distinguished, prolific and just plain delightful leaders.

The longevity and productivity of his career are astonishing - especially because he was such a late developer. He was in his mid-30s and had toiled in the anonymous bellies of many beasts in poor-paying theater repertory work the length and breadth of Britain for more than a decade before he finally hit it big in "Zulu" and "Alfie."

He was 50 before he won his first Oscar, for "Hannah and Her Sisters," and he was nearly 70 before he won his second, for "The Cider House Rules." Even now, he is one of the brightest talents in his reimagining of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's loyal and loving but also truly formidable butler in the spectacular Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale "Batman" franchise. His long-overdue knighthood - a tribute to the queen's good taste rather than that of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, one suspects - came in his later years, too.

This lowest-of-the-low, respectable-working-class son from the Elephant and Castle section of London (Hence the "Elephant" of the title) left school in his teens. He toiled in obscure, unheroic misery as a British army conscript during the Korean War. But his remarkable intellect, unpretentious literary genius and good old-fashioned pub crawler and restaurateur's instinct for a great story permeate every page. It also is difficult to think of another memoir that contains so much good advice about the sheer technique of acting, especially on the big screen.

Mr. Caine's many gems include Sir Anthony Hopkins' memorable description of the working atmosphere on the set of "The Silence of the Lambs" - perhaps the most terrifying mainstream movie ever made: "We had a lot of fun on that one."

Literary great Robert Graves became a lifelong friend once Graves, one of Britain's greatest poets from World War I, discovered Mr. Caine also had served in the London Fusiliers Regiment. He told Mr. Caine over dinner that he was about to visit another London Fusiliers veteran who had gone to live in Israel and then retired. "What did he do?" Mr. Caine politely asked. "Oh, he was the prime minister," Graves airily replied. The old friend of the author of "I Claudius" was David Ben-Gurion.

Mr. Caine's wonderful stories also include how he and his friend Christopher "Superman" Reeve prepared for a kissing scene with each other in a movie where they had to play gay lovers. They got thoroughly drunk first.

His section on his joy at experiencing the annual changing of the seasons with his lifelong love and wife, Shakira, and his children, grandchildren and friends could match anything in Dickens.

Only David Niven among Britain's modern movie greats has produced memoirs that are as comparably entertaining and delightful. Sir Alec Guinness, of course, comes to mind, too, but the notoriously anti-American and even anti-Semitic Guinness (It is no coincidence that in his Fagin for David Lean's "Oliver Twist" and his Professor Marcus for the Ealing studio's comedy "The Ladykillers," Guinness produced easily the two most anti-Semitic and actually repulsive caricatures in the history of the English-speaking cinema) contrasts strikingly with Mr. Caine's unaffected openness and decency, his exuberant joy in good living and sharing good times with his many friends.

It is rare indeed that a theatrical or movie-star memoir rises above the shtick sentimentality and the banal. Mr. Caine's, by contrast, soars into the spiritual stratosphere. It is full of kind, wise and proven advice on how to manage life's many adversities and the unexpected way in which lemons transform into lemonade. Pour yourself a pint of bitter or a generous thimbleful of Scotch and settle down for the evening in the company of this wonderful man.

Martin Sieff is chief global analyst for "The Globalist" and a columnist for Fox News.

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