One of the more frequently viewed sights in Paolo Sorrentino’s lush new film, Youth, which screened this morning in Cannes to rapturous applause and a smattering of boos, is Michael Caine’s naked body. The 82-year-old plays a former orchestra conductor holing up at a Swiss spa hotel with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and old movie-director friend (Harvey Keitel), and who is often lounging in a pool or getting a massage from a girl who has braces. Caine is far from bashful at this point in his life. “It didn’t matter to me because it’s the only body I’ve got,” Caine said at the movie’s hard-truths-filled press conference. “An aging body, also, to people who are not old, this is what’s going to happen to you. So don’t get too smart about it.” Hear that, bros? Someday you’ll have Michael Caine’s body. Enjoy what you’ve got while it lasts.
Caine’s is far from the only wrinkled body in Youth, a kind of cinematic symphony of aging. Sorrentino (who won the foreign-language Oscar for 2013’s The Great Beauty; Youth is in English) fills the screen with beautiful shots of old people floating naked in pools, or colliding into each other in electric wheel chairs. Prostate jokes abound, as Caine’s and Keitel’s characters frequently check in with each other about how many times each has peed that day and how many drops. There’s also an MVP performance from Jane Fonda in frightful makeup and a wig as a washed-up actress willing to abandon her oldest collaborator for a TV series where she’ll play an alcoholic grandma who’s had a stroke.
Critics are already calling for Oscars for both Fonda’s and Caine’s performances. But Caine also seems to be past the point where he cares about awards or money anymore; he said he loves Youth so much he would’ve done it for free. Though he was a different man when he last came to Cannes in 1966. “I came to Cannes 50 years ago for a movie called Alfie, and Alfie won a prize and I didn’t,” he said. “So I never came back.”
Instead Caine wanted to talk about the kind of ego blows one has to endure to be an aging working actor. He even recalled the very moment he realized he was old by Hollywood standards. A producer had sent him a script and Caine had sent it back to the producer saying he thought the part was too small. The producer then sent the script back to Caine, telling him he hadn’t meant for him to read the part of the lover, but the part of the father. “And that’s when my career changed,” said Caine. “I suddenly realized I wasn’t gonna get the girl anymore. But I was gonna get the part, and I really did get some parts, because after I lost the girl, I got a couple Academy Awards, so that was okay.”
Part of that ego readjustment has meant coming to terms with his legacy, which is something his character in Youth battles: being conflicted with being known for a single, possibly frivolous, symphony. To the younger generation, Caine said he’s known only as “Batman’s butler,” and to the older generation, he’s only mostly as Alfie, “this womanizer who’s screwing everybody [when] I’ve been married to the same woman for 46 years.” Though he’s willing to reprise the part, he doubts it would play well: “An 82-year-old Alfie wouldn’t be as virile.” (Fonda added that she’s still conflicted about being best known for Barbarella.)
Asked if he’s sad about getting to the age where he’s only asked to play grandfathers these days, Caine retorted, “The only alternative to playing elderly people is playing dead people. So I’m quite smart. I picked elderly people.”
He’s also comfortable letting himself be the joke, such as in the movie’s provocative poster, which pictures Caine and Keitel in a pool staring at a beautiful girl with no clothes on. “We’re just looking at what we’ve lost and what we’re never gonna get again,” said Caine. “That poster makes me cry.” The room laughed, but he meant it.