Two-time Supporting Actor Oscar champ Michael Caine ("Hannah and Her Sisters," 1986; "The Cider House Rules," 1999) is a strong contender to reap a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Fred Ballinger, a retired conductor considering one last performance in Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth." Sir Michael is one of only four performers to reap Oscar bids in five consecutive decades, the others being Laurence Olivier, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep (Paul Newman contended in five different decades, but not consecutively.)
Two years ago, Italian auteur Sorrentino won the Foreign-Language Film Oscar for "The Great Beauty." He wrote this, his second English-language feature, with Caine in mind. In the seriocomic tale, Caine's character is holidaying at a Swiss spa with his long-time friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a director determined to make one final film.
While Fred is visited by his daugher Lena, 2005 Supporting Actress winner Rachel Weisz ("The Constant Gardener"), Mick is content to spend time with a gaggle of screenwriters who are plotting his screen comeback. Another two-time Oscar winner, Jane Fonda ("Klute," 1971; "Coming Home," 1978), has a small but pivotal role as Brenda Morel, a fading film star.
Many of the critics have made special mention of Caine's performance. Below, just a sampling of his stellar notices.
Jay Weissberg (Variety): "Caine’s very English reserve, vocally expressed via his line delivery in phrases, forms a terrific contrast to Keitel’s more flowing Americanisms, yet both men use their natural characteristics to convey a lifetime of success as well as delusions, love as well as pain. Mick still wants more out of life; Fred, less comfortable with emotion despite an inner ocean of feeling, is more resigned to letting go."
Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) notes: "The title has literary resonances with Conrad and Tolstoy, but the youth evoked is mostly that of young women and young women’s bodies, whose allure never fades for men as they get older. It is all incarnated in Michael Caine, whose face here is an inscrutable mask of worldly disillusion, breaking occasionally into a droll smile."
And, as Eric Kohn (IndieWire) observes: "It's Caine's sunken features and muted delivery that guides the movie through familiar thematic turf. "
"Youth" reaped five nominations at the European Film Awards, which will be handed out on Dec. 12 in Berlin. Among these, Caine contends for the first time on his own in the Best Actor category. Back in 2001, he and his castmates from "Last Orders" lost this award to Ben Kingsley ("Sexy Beast"). One of those co-stars, Tom Courtenay, is in the running this year for "45 Years." The other nominees are Colin Farrell ("The Lobster"), Christian Friedel ("13 Minutes") and Vincent Lindon ("The Measure of a Man").
Even if Caine loses this race, he is assured to pick up a prize as the European Film Academy just announced that he is to be feted with a honorary award. As EFA chair Agnieszka Holland and EFA president Wim Wenders said: “We have come to the decision that we are long overdue on paying special tribute to Sir Michael Caine. This recognition to an outstanding film personality is coming from the bottom of our hearts, and has only been presented twice in the almost 30 years of the European Film Awards: to our founding member Manoel de Oliveira and to Michel Piccoli.”
Caine has made more than 100 movies, reaping the first of his four Best Actor Oscar bids with "Alfie" way back in 1966. In a testament to his longevity, those nominations have been spread out over five decades with his other three coming in 1972 ("Sleuth"), 1983 ("Educating Rita") and 2002 ("The Quiet American").
While he was widely expected to contend for those first three films, that 2002 nomination came as a surprise to us Oscarologists. We could be underestimating this Hollywood icon yet again. He currently sits in sixth place on our Best Actor chart, with six of our 22 Experts (drawn from major media who cover the Oscar beat year-round) predicting him to be nominated.
At 82, Sir Michael would be the oldest Best Actor nominee in Oscar history, a record currently held by Richard Farnsworth, who was 79 when he contended in 1999 for "The Straight Story." The oldest Best Actor winner to date was Henry Fonda, who finally won at age 76 for 1981's "On Golden Pond."
That picture was produced by his daughter, Jane, and marked her only entry in the Supporting Actress race; she lost to Peggy Ashcroft ("A Passage to India"). Ashcroft was 77 when she prevailed with her first Oscar bid but ill health prevented her from attending the ceremony. That is the same age that the fighting fit Fonda is now. She turns 78 in December and would be the oldest-ever winner of the category.
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Photo: Michael Caine in "Youth" Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures