The image of the man that emerges is a likeable one. Caine knows he’s been lucky, whether compared to other boys from the Elephant who never got their break, or his female co-stars who had to contend with the casting couch
Review: Michael Caine's 'Blowing the Bloody Doors Off' offers lessons in hard lines and lucky breaks
If you’re looking for a straight-up celebrity memoir then Blowing the Bloody Doors Off isn’t that book. You’d be better off tracking down Caine’s two autobiographies.
What’s It All About (1992), and The Elephant to Hollywood (2010), detail his Cinderella-like journey from humble beginnings - he was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite in 1933, and grew up in a poor, working-class family in South London’s Elephant & Castle, his father was a porter at Billingsgate Fish Market and his mother a charwoman - to Hollywood stardom.
Blowing the Bloody Doors Off is something of a companion piece to his two previous volumes, and is best read as such, rather than on its own since there are enough occasions in its pages where the author explicitly refuses to repeat stories he’s already treated readers to – such as how he met his wife of 45 years, Shakira.
As such, I’d describe the book as a bonus volume of life lessons Caine’s learnt along the way, although a less generous reader might describe it as a canny publicity stunt – an attempt to get some extra mileage from those anecdotes and stories that didn’t make the cut the first or second time around.
The actor’s descriptions of London in the late 1950s and early 1960s – what he calls “a vibrant, exciting time to be young and working class in Britain” – are extremely entertaining.
“My generation was inventing a whole new technicolour world,” he writes, “overturning the dull and dreary post-war status quo, and there were opportunities for people like me – not just in theatre and film but in fashion, music, art, food, literature, politics – that there had never been before.”
The pages that follow are heavy with name dropping: the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton, Terence Stamp, Vidal Sassoon, and Peter O’Toole, to name just a few.
Caine’s is not a success story from the get-go, though. He was forced to take on plenty of “dead-end” jobs en route to the heights of stardom – from washing dishes to packing laundry and working in a steel yard. He recalls spending afternoons in the basement cafe of the Arts Theatre, just off Leicester Square, lingering over a single cup of tea while chatting with his “broke actor friends” John Osborne and Harold Pinter – before any of them became famous – or standing in the dole queue with Sean Connery.
The life lessons he extrapolates from these early years will certainly stand readers in good stead, but they’re also all pretty standard. “Learn what you can from what you get”; “Be lucky: be prepared”; “Use the difficulty”; “Just say yes”, and “Whatever it is, give it 100 per cent”.
The image of the man that emerges is a likeable one. Caine knows he’s been lucky, more so than others around him, whether compared to other boys from the Elephant who never got their break, or his female co-stars who had to contend with the casting couch. When it comes to the latter, I can’t help but get the sense that it might have been an eagle-eyed editor who reminded him that acknowledging the sexism of the industry is very much necessary in this day and age, although I don’t doubt that his sentiments on the topic are genuine. He admits that he knew all about what went on, saying it was just part and parcel of the business back in the day, but “to my regret and shame”, and he writes, “I never thought too hard about it”. Later on in the book, Caine takes the easy way out when forced to acknowledge the scandal surrounding Woody Allen – who directed Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), the film that won Caine his first Academy Award – claiming that the allegations against Allen came as a “great and terrible shock” to him.
“The Woody I knew was kind and gentle and I learnt a great deal from his craft,” he writes.
Luck isn’t everything, of course. Caine has also clearly worked very hard, and he wants his readers to know that he’s never taken his success for granted.
“Even when you’re making it, you have to keep on making it, day after day,” he reminds us. This is good advice, although I’m not sure we then need so complete a run-down of all the steps he takes in preparation for a day’s performance, from packing his bag the night before, getting a good night’s sleep, and allowing for unexpected delays in the journey.
It’s at points like this that book becomes a little tedious and a tad self indulgent.
At its core though, the book’s message is heartfelt and surprisingly simple. Treat people with respect, value the ones you love, and recognise that they’re the most important thing in your life, not celebrity, fame or success.
Caine not only waxes lyrical about his friends and family but entire sections of the book read like extended acknowledgements to those who’ve helped him on his way, from the bloke at the butter factory where Caine was working who first told him about the Stage newspaper, to Hollywood royalty John Wayne.
There’s something refreshingly wholesome about Caine’s unpretentious attitude, even if it doesn’t always make for the most thrilling reading.