The celebrity memoir isn’t a genre I care much about, but I had so enjoyed Frank Langella’s Dropped Names that, when I finished it, I was eager to try again. I looked for another that focused specifically on the theatre, but couldn’t find one that quite fit the bill. (I’m doing these as audiobooks, and want the experience of having the author as the reader.)
So I landed on Michael Caine’s Elephant to Hollywood. I’ve always admired Caine’s film acting (his stage work was limited to England during the earliest part of his career), and thought his distinctive voice would be fun to hear as I walked to and from work.
Indeed, it was a pleasure to hear Caine – in fact, that’s what kept me going. Had I been reading rather than listening, I doubt I would have made it past the first few chapters.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad book, as these things go. But Caine is content to largely skim through his career with a few tidbits here and there, but very little deeper insight. It surprised and disappointed me in part because when I’ve heard him interviewed about the craft of film acting, he’s notably articulate and intelligent. But that doesn’t translate here.
What was interesting was listening to Caine’s book so soon after I’d heard Langella’s – the two could hardly be more different. Langella eschews conventional memoir in favor of writing about his famous friends – what we learn about him, we learn through his canny observation of others. Caine follows the standard, chronological “and-then-I-did” format. Langella is so detail-oriented, he’s almost microscopic – and he’s committed to telling the story even when it’s unflattering. Maybe especially then — reading Dropped Names, one gets the feeling that Langella enjoys his occasional shock tactics.
There’s none of that from Caine in Elephant. In the few instances where he expresses displeasure, it’s usually at himself. He’s downright gentlemanly about his colleagues, and a sense of old school courtesy permeates his reminiscences. Less pleasurably, there’s also some old school language about gay people and women – but mostly, Caine seems exceptionally genial.
That’s a quality I enjoy about his film performances. Caine has played a wide range of characters, but what I always notice and especially appreciate is a certain breezy, unfussy confidence in his acting.
Unfortunately, that kind of geniality doesn’t work so well in writing autobiography, and Elephant left me feeling the best stuff was left, as it were, on the cutting room floor.
As readers, too, Caine and Langella are near-opposites. Langella adopts quiet, confidential tone – until he’s speaking in the voice of one of his celebrity friends, which he mimics with astonishing accuracy. Caine is content merely to gesture at how other people talk (there’s an occasional, general American accent, for example), and more often talks in a hearty voice that might be how he’d tell a story to an admiring, assemble crowd at a party.
It’s fine as far as it goes, but I wish the party were more fun.