His face is smooth and pink, with just a hint of jowls; the eyes a deep, stormy blue; the drooping lids more pronounced now, especially on the left. Just two months shy of 70, Michael Caine -- sorry, Sir Michael Caine -- is kicking back in Beverly Hills with the ease of a man who has been part of the scenery for a very long time.

In the next room is his wife, the ever-stunning Shakira Caine, a Guyanese-born beauty queen. By his side, childhood friend and press agent Jerry Pam. They're just back from lunch at the Grill, where Caine greeted old friends like Hollywood hostess Barbara Davis. The shoes are off, the blue-stockinged feet propped up on a coffee table in the Hollywood composer Leslie Bricusse's art-laden family room -- Caine's home away from home.

Oh yes, life is good. The day's Wall Street Journal is laid out on the coffee table, open to a reverential analysis by critic Joe Morgenstern of Caine's starring turn in "The Quiet American," a post-colonial drama set in Vietnam that opens Friday in Washington. The actor has practically committed it to memory.

"Read the last line," he says in a voice both silken and unimpeachable. We do, of course: "Over the years and the decades, Michael Caine has given one peerless performance after another with so little fuss, let alone flash" -- Caine leans forward for this last part and joins in -- "that it has hardly looked like acting at all."

All those decades, all those movies (85 by his count, more if you include television), all those Oscar nominations (including two wins), all that money, that fame, that privilege (have we mentioned the knighthood?) add up to a handful of words in tomorrow's fish-wrap that finally, as he sees it, got it right.

"It's my favorite review ever," he explains, his Cockney lilt softened by years of paddling in the Hollywood pond. "I don't normally read my good reviews, but someone has finally got it. He said exactly what I'm trying to do."

What is he trying to do, exactly? At an age where pals like Roger Moore have set off for sunny retirement, Caine has been busy biting into one chewy role after another, from "Little Voice" in 1998, to "The Cider House Rules" in 1999, to "Quills" in 2000, to this latest in "The Quiet American."

Caine has been winning not only accolades and awards but also a sort of artistic freedom that comes, perhaps, with practice, practice and more practice. It's as though with all this heavy lifting late in life he has finally distilled the essence of his own prodigious gifts.

"Movie acting is about covering the machinery," he says. "Stage acting is about exposing the machinery. In cinema, you should think the actor is playing himself, if he's that good. It looks very easy. It should."

But it's not, he assures you.

"To disappear your complete self into a character is quite difficult," he says. "I've tried it 85 times, and I've succeeded two or three times."

'Hide the Work'

Michael Caine has always hovered somewhere between Actor and Star. He came to prominence in his native England, where acting has traditionally involved a posh accent and a matching attitude. Instead he had a two-bit accent and an attitude more rough than toff, which only made him more determined to succeed. He honed his craft onstage before launching himself into film, then left to chase the fame of a Hollywood leading man, but it never came, so back he went.

He has taken good roles in lousy movies and lousy roles in lousy movies, but often enough Caine has been indelible in films that became instant classics -- "Alfie" and "The Man Who Would Be King," to name just two.

He has appeared in some decent little films ("Get Carter," 1971) and some godawful big films ("Get Carter," 2000). Sometimes he did it just for the money, and said so. He famously remarked that he never saw the stink bomb that was "Jaws: The Revenge," but he saw the house it bought (his mansion in Oxfordshire) and it's terrific.

Now in the Age of the Celebrity, Caine seems to have come full circle. He approaches his seventies with his abilities more honed, more subtle than ever. His work on-screen is unfailingly interesting, even when it's in "Austin Powers 3." At the same time, he cherishes his precious comforts -- his wife, his two grown daughters, his gardens back home in England.

"I've now got the chance to do what I want," he says. "I don't work for economic reasons, though I do get paid. I work because I want to. It has to be a script I really want to do."

One of those scripts was certainly "The Quiet American," a small film based on a 1955 novel from the roving pen of British writer Graham Greene. Directed by Phillip Noyce, Caine stars as Thomas Fowler, a jaded, opium-inhaling correspondent based in Saigon for a British newspaper, observing the end of the French colonial experience and the incipient American one.

The American experience arrives in the form of young, handsome Alden Pyle, played by Brendan Fraser, an aid worker involved in the delicate (and not so delicate) political maneuverings of the time. When Pyle falls in love with Fowler's young concubine Phuong (played by Do Thi Hai Yen), the entanglement is played out against the backdrop of a land where few things are what they seem.

The film has been praised by critics for its languorous aura and its subtle weave of drama, politics and sex. Caine loved everything about the film -- the script, the shoot, the end result. "I regard the film as extraordinary because it has an incredible sense of time and place," he observes. "That doesn't exist, and Phillip Noyce put it there."

The actor had a lot to go on in creating Thomas Fowler. He had served in the British army in Korea as a young man, and he'd met Graham Greene, whom Fowler resembles. (Here Caine digresses, as he does frequently in this conversation, to the time he encountered Greene in a London restaurant, after having appeared in "The Honorary Consul," a film based on another of the author's novels. "He told me he thought it was a load of crap," Caine recalls, adding, "But we became friendly because he liked my performance.")

To continue: Caine knew a bit of Southeast Asia, and the film was shot in Vietnam. "I was away from my own environment, surrounded by Thomas Fowler's world. I'd see dozens of Fowlers with their concubines walking around -- middle-class Englishmen disgruntled at England. I was steeped in it. . . . It was Graham Greene-land, it really was."

Whatever the reasons, Caine's delivery seems to have conquered any last reticence critics may have had about him. "Caine gives the kind of seemingly effortless performance it needs an entire career to prepare for," wrote Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. "Caine's Fowler, open to tears, to rage, to disappointment as well as love, seems actually to have the character's life."

Wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times: "Fowler may be the richest character of Mr. Caine's screen career. Slipping into his skin with an effortless grace, this great English actor gives a performance of astonishing understatement."

These notices please the actor no end, and he makes no attempt to disguise it. If anything, he's happy to elaborate. "I become," says Caine, when asked about his craft. "I have my own principle, which is to hide the work. You should think, 'I wonder what's going to happen to Thomas Fowler?' not, 'Isn't Michael Caine doing a great job?'

"It's always a gamble. It's a high-wire act, and if you fall off you die. If I feel a performance is going pear-shaped, I'll muck about with it. But I never mucked about with Thomas Fowler. I was just him. I do nothing with Fowler except be him. You can like him, dislike him, you can find him funny, unfunny, stupid, not stupid. He's just there. And you can make up your own mind."

Not Being 'Quiet'

Audiences came very close to not being able to make up their minds at all. Shot in 2001 for Miramax, "The Quiet American" was put on the shelf after 9/11 as too politically touchy. Hollywood didn't want to release movies that might make America look, say, morally ambiguous.

When Caine got the news last fall that Miramax planned to release the film in January 2003 -- "dumped," Caine said, into the tar pits of the movie year -- he picked up the phone and called Miramax head Harvey Weinstein.

"I said, 'Come on, give me a break. A lot of people could get nominations when the Oscars come around,' " he recalled saying. "How many more chances will I get? I'll be doing 'Driving Mr. Daisy' or something when I'm 82, and that'll be it."

Weinstein agreed to put the film in the Toronto Film Festival to test audience response. Both the critics and the public were enthusiastic, which led to the film's release in Los Angeles and New York for an Oscar-qualifying run in December. Now with Caine talking the Noyce film to death (as is the case with all other prospective nominees) and the critical raves, he seems a likely bet for a Best Actor nomination (he's already gotten a Golden Globe nomination).

But he has also already gone on to other projects. Caine co-starred in what he calls "a mad Irish comedy" called "The Actors," about a theatrical group putting on "Richard III." Caine gets to play a roaring bad version of Richard, the closest he'll apparently ever get to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He's equally proud of an upcoming turn as a Texan in "Secondhand Lions," with Robert Duvall, a comedy about a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who is forced to spend the summer with his eccentric great-uncles (Duvall and Caine), cowboys with mysterious and dangerous pasts. To do the film he studied the local twang with a dialogue coach. But even then, he only spoke in Texan when delivering his character's lines, and he refuses to demonstrate now. The visitor's request, however, leads to a digression about Caine's friendship with John Wayne. Caine stands and stumbles sideways across the room, the Cockney doing the John Wayne walk.

The Man Who Would Be Star

"I think he's had three careers," says his old friend Jerry Pam. "There was that first period, with 'Sleuth' and 'The Ipcress File,' then a second with 'Educating Rita,' then he went down for a time. Then he's had a third career starting with 'Little Voice.' "

There was no reason to believe Michael Caine would have any career in the movies. He was born Maurice Micklewhite to an impoverished family in South London during the Depression. His father was a fish porter, his mother a charwoman, and the family lived in a two-room apartment that shared a bathroom with five other families. The harsh deprivation of Caine's early life -- which followed him well into adulthood -- made him determined to find a way out of his family's economic straits. And once he started to make a few quid, he was happy to spend it on luxuries.

After his discharge from the army in 1953,, Caine took menial jobs while he studied acting at night. He landed jobs in the theater -- first bit parts, then larger roles, eventually adopting a stage name from "The Caine Mutiny." He first attracted attention in the 1964 film "Zulu" with his portrayal of a frightened British lieutenant trying to hold his outnumbered garrison together. Caine had also begun acting in TV shows, and his film career expanded, aided by a series of thrillers starting with "The Ipcress File," in which he played master spy Harry Palmer.

With 1966's "Alfie," in which Caine played a womanizing Cockney with a vulnerable streak, he became a big star at home, with big paydays; he made the unforgettable "The Man Who Would Be King" and "A Bridge Too Far."

But in his own mind, he still wasn't a Hollywood star. Midway through the '70s, Pam called with a chance to be in a big studio production, a disaster movie called "The Swarm." It was about an attack of killer bees.

"I said, 'The only way to be an international star is to be in Hollywood,' " Pam recalls. Caine took the part, moved to Hollywood and the movie was an unmitigated disaster at the box office. But Caine stayed on and won roles in a series of big studio productions, from "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" to the Brian De Palma slash-fest "Dressed to Kill." He mixed high with low, and then made another classic, "Educating Rita," in which he played an ornery, effete professor who befriends a working-class woman at a university. That led to Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters," for which Caine won his first Oscar, as Best Supporting Actor.

But the accomplished Caine again tarnished his star by taking roles in boilerplate productions, the worst of which was undoubtedly "Jaws: The Revenge," in 1987. That led to a decided downturn in his Hollywood standing. Caine noticed that he was starting to get scripts that had coffee stains on them from previous actors who had read them and passed. He moved back to England, pretty much bowed out of show business, invested in a handful of restaurants in London and Miami, tended his plants and sat in the sun for several years.

Then in 1996 in Miami he got a call from an old friend, Jack Nicholson, who had a part for him in "Blood and Wine," a film with Nicholson as a Florida lowlife up to no good with Caine as his partner. The script was good -- plus they were shooting in Florida! The experience revived Caine's artistic juices and won the notice of old friends in Hollywood.

From there he made "Little Voice" -- the story of a tiny girl with a gift for big torch songs, with Caine as an oily impresario who uses her to hit the big time. The quirky film won wide acclaim in Britain and the United States.

Caine followed up that success with his portrayal of an abortionist in "The Cider House Rules," for which he won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

"Everything changes. Nothing is simple," Caine says after recounting these ups and downs. "A reporter once said to me, 'What do you think is your greatest talent?' And I said, 'Survival.' And I was right. It's 40 years later, and I'm still above the title."

In Review

Caine doesn't just spend his time memorizing his good reviews. He memorizes the bad ones, too.

The first review he recalls reading was of his performance in "Alfie," which most critics loved. It was a film, as Caine remembers the review, " 'destroyed by the central performance of Michael Caine as Alfie.' "

The other day he got another bad review in a British newspaper (back home they love to knock him around) marking the release of " 'yet another film proving Michael Caine can't act,' " according to the actor.

Why does he bother reading these, much less memorizing them? He chuckles. "I read 'em because I think it's silly," he says. "It makes the critic look a fool. You get those kinds of reviews of people like me because they don't know what they're talking about, and they've got to impress an editor." A pause, a sniff and a wry smile. "You know, to say Michael Caine can't act is a bit silly."

The actor with wife Shakira. Of his career he says: "A reporter once said to me: What do you think is your greatest talent? And I said: 'Survival.' "A master of the understated performance: Caine with Sean Connery in 1975's "The Man Who Would Be King," for which the British actor earned much praise.A career speckled with parts that have been all over the road: Caine with Beyonce Knowles and Mike Myers in "Austin Powers in Goldmember."Caine in 1967, right, before starring several years later in the first incarnation of "Get Carter"; and above with Sylvester Stallone is a less-kindly received remake."I have my own principle, which is to hide the work," says Caine, whose performance in "The Quiet American" earned a Golden Globe nomination.