The 1970s films of Michael Caine: California Suite

The title card for California Suite, reading "Neil Simon's California Suite".
Share this Article:

We continue our look at the 1970s films of one Sir Michael Caine – this time, it’s 1978’s California Suite…

The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.

Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…

Spoilers for California Suite lay ahead…

Directed by: Herbert Ross (The Owl And The Pussycat, Play It Again Sam, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Pennies From Heaven, Footloose, Steel Magnolias)

Tagline: “The best two-hour vacation in town!”*

*This tagline is misleading for two important reasons. One: the film is not two hours, it’s one hour 43 minutes. Two: the film is rubbish.

Other Featured Geezers: Jane Fonda as Hannah Warren, Alan Alda as Bill Warren, Maggie Smith as Diana Barrie, Walter Matthau as Marvin Michaels, Elaine May as Millie Michaels, Richard Pryor as Dr. Chauncey Gump, Bill Cosby as Dr. Willis Panama, Gloria Gifford as Lola Gump, Shelia Frazier as Bettina Panama.

Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Peeper
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Harry And Walter Go To New York
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Eagle Has Landed
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Silver Bears
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in A Bridge Too Far
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Swarm

What’s it all about, Alfie?: An anthology comedy revolving around four separate groups of people, who happen to be staying at the same luxury LA hotel, and their trivial and tedious relationship problems.

These include Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith), an English actress nominated for an Oscar, and her husband Sidney Cochran (Michael Caine) who is tagging along. A long-separated couple, Hannah (Jane Fonda) and Bill (Alan Alda), who are arguing over who their teenage daughter gets to stay with. Walter Matthau as Marvin, a man who is visiting town for his nephews Bar Mitzvah but gets in trouble with a sex worker, and finally Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby as two competitive doctors, Dr. Chauncey Gump and Dr. Willis Panama (their names are the funniest/most creative things in the film), holidaying together, along with their wives, who get into various slapstick mishaps.

Caine-ness: The cast is listed in alphabetical order and so Caine gets second billing (after Alan Alda, who has an unfair advantage in the alphabetical name game) and he first appears onscreen three minutes into the runtime asleep on a plane beside Maggie Smith (sadly something you never get when flying EasyJet).

Caine is playing a bit posher than normal and there’s not much of his signature shouty pointy acting as his character here is a calm, level-headed, laidback charmer.

Caine plays Sidney Cochran, the long-time husband of famous actress Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith). A former actor himself, he’s now an antique dealer (but “perfectly happy selling my 18th century door knockers”) who accompanies his wife on all her glamorous travels.

However, it’s later revealed that this is a marriage of convenience as Sidney is either bisexual or gay, and their relationship has not had a physical component for quite some while (if it ever had one, it’s left a bit vague) and he’s been semi-openly carrying out affairs with men to Diana’s knowledge whilst using her glamorous connections. In spite of all this Diana is still smitten with Sidney and yearns for their relationship to be more traditionally romantic rather than the loving, but platonic, state it currently is in.

Caine and Smith are a believable long-term couple. They sell the teasing but warm banter of a pair at ease with one another with a charming lightness of touch. Whether it’s Diana worrying that she looks like she has a hump or admonishing Sidney on how much he’s had to drink (“How many gins and tonics have you had? “Three gins and one tonic.” “Well catch up on the tonics.”). Even their more cutting remarks (Sidney saying to Diana; “What a nasty streak you have when you drink…and also when you eat… and sit and walk”) are laced with affection rather than any real venom. They are a joy to watch onscreen together and I wish the whole film had been about them.

Disappointingly, although theirs is a complicated and dramatically interesting relationship, Neil Simon doesn’t appear to have the insight or ambition to properly explore this in his writing and so, in spite of the heavy lifting of Caine and Smith, it’s left somewhat emotionally unsatisfying and underdeveloped in the end.

This is a good performance from Caine, but I think the character is underwritten and it’s a shame that he didn’t get better material to work with. On a plus side we do get to see him uneagerly, and very slowly (I imagine there were a lot of takes to get through), tuck into some incredibly unappetising looking nachos and dip (which he describes as looking like “they run the front lawn through a blender”). He seemed much happier when he was munching his way through a massive box of caviar (which I bet he asked for multiple takes of).

An interesting bit of trivia is that in the play that the film is based on Diana says that she wishes Michael Caine could accept her award for her as he would be witty and charming. In the film this line is changed to David Niven.

Caine-nections*: Two wife connections for Caine here;

Although they don’t share screen time in this film, Jane Fonda played the wife of a villainous, saxophone playing (that’s not connected to his villainy, his saxophone playing is innocuous) Caine in the 1967 drama Hurry Sundown pictured here;

Diana and Sidney have an exchange where she asks why they’ve come to the Oscars to which Sidney says Because it’s free darling” to which Diana responds “Glenda Jackson never comes.” Glenda Jackson was Caine’s wife in The Romantic Englishwoman (and I can see why she wouldn’t have wanted to show her face at the Oscars after that one).

*I’m only counting from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu onwards.

Best Non-Caine Actor: Maggie Smith’s Diana Barrie is the first character that we see in a film within a film that she’s watching on her flight en route to the Academy Awards. Talking about her nomination Diana says “It’s bizarre, eight years with the National Theatre, two Pinter plays, nine Shakespeare, three Shaw and I finally get nominated for a nauseating little comedy.

This mirrors Smith’s situation in real life as she received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for California Suite, which definitely is nauseating and allegedly a comedy. However, unlike her character, Smith actually won it! This made her, so far, the only actress to win an Oscar for playing an Oscar loser (Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for playing the Academy Award winning Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator).

Smith had also previously won Best Actress for 1969’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which made more sense. She is good in California Suite but it seems like the voters may have just gotten confused, thought Diana Barrie was a real person, felt a bit sorry for her losing in the film and so gave Smith the Oscar as a consolation.

Smith was up against Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter (Streep’s first Oscar nomination) which, however much I like Smith, seems like a more deserving winner. I think Streep probably behaved a little better than Diana did after losing. After retiring to her hotel room with Sidney, she admits to having “just thrown up on some of the best people in Hollywood.”

Smith does do some top drunk acting, throwing apples at Caine and roaming the empty hotel corridors scouting out abandoned food trays before tucking into a lone abandoned chicken drumstick (I think this is what won her the Oscar, she really looked like she wanted that chicken).

Jane Fonda and Alan Alda don’t have much/any chemistry as the annoying separated couple meeting to discuss their 17-year-old daughter, who has gone to live with Alda in LA against the New York-situated Fonda’s wishes. Their story starts with some sublimely clunky exposition; “When you haven’t seen your ex-husband in nine years, your eyes have to adjust” and doesn’t get much better from there on. They anemically bicker for a bit at a restaurant, then move outside to bicker for a bit on the beach, bicker in the car and finally bicker a bit more at the hotel all whilst I struggle to care. Although I don’t actively dislike them, they are also actors who I can’t say I instantly warm to in projects either, which didn’t help endear me to their characters.

On the flip side, I do always enjoy Walter Matthau, and he’s clearly giving it his all in his role here whilst gurning away with high energy, and his flies wide open, for nearly the whole of his time onscreen – but sadly I found his plot cliched and annoying.

This storyline gets off to an unsettling start when he meets his sex obsessed brother whose genital outline you can clearly see in his horrible blue tracksuit (I hope they never do a 4K restoration as this would immediately get an X-rating. If you saw it in IMAX it could have your eye out. I’m not going to include a screenshot for obvious reasons). His brother has paid a sex worker to be in Matthau’s hotel room and in the morning when he wakes up, she is dead out of it as she drank a whole bottle of tequila the night before and he can’t wake her up or move her. He has also overslept and his wife (played by Elaine May) is imminently arriving and so ensues some very forced farce.

May is wasted as just “the wife” character but they do get one funny exchange when May says “You’ve missed me? I’ve only been away one night” to which Matthau responds “Yeah but there’s a three-hour time difference”.

Lastly there’s the plotline with Richard Pryor and, unfortunately for everyone, Bill Cosby as a pair of competitive friends holidaying with their wives who suffer a string of bad luck. First their car breaks down on the highway, then they find out one of their room bookings hasn’t gone through and so Pryor has to stay in a room that is having “a few little repairs”, then they get into a car accident, then there’s some pretty weak slapstick on a tennis court (Cosby gets accidentally hit over the head with a tennis racket, Pryor trips over the net and falls on his face) and lastly they have a fight where Cosby throws Pryor into some trellis leaving them all to go home nursing various injuries.

Their section did have one of the better gags of the film. When we cut from Cosby’s nice room to Pryor’s, in which we get to see what these “few little repairs” were, and it’s completely flooded with a maid mopping in the background and Pryor describes what he’s been doing; “Just watching the toilet flush. Been flushing about two hours now.”

Why was everyone’s hair so bad in this film?

My lack of emotional engagement in the film was such that I couldn’t stop noticing how bad everyone’s hair looked. Was this just what things were like in the late 1970s? Even Maggie Smith (not sure if it was in character or just the actress noticing and they kept it in) says directly at one point; What’s wrong with my hair?”

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: I had high hopes for this – a screenplay by Neil Simon, a writer whose other work I have enjoyed (The Odd Couple, The Out-Of-Towners, Murder By Death), based on his own play, and featuring an award-winning performance from Maggie Smith. Unfortunately, it was a massive let-down.

This is the 19th of Caine’s films that I’ve covered for this site and although I wouldn’t say it’s his worst, it is perhaps his least interesting. It’s certainly the one that I had the least thoughts or opinions about whilst watching. It just washed over me, with me perking up occasionally when Maggie Smith ate some chicken or Caine had a quip, but then zoning out again whenever any other character was on screen.

Caine’s section was the only one that I enjoyed. The Alda and Fonda storyline was boring and the other two parts simply consisted of stale slapstick and tired comic situations (there’s a woman in the man’s bed and his wife is coming! Oh no!) and became irritating quickly.

It’s hard to care about any of the characters issues as all of these people are very well off and their problems are comparatively trivial. That’s not to say you can’t care about characters like that (I love Succession; simultaneously hating and caring about all those characters) but the writing needs to be stronger and this is a weak effort from Neil Simon.

In the original play each story was a different act set in the same hotel room, over different periods of time, with the same actors playing different characters in each part. That would at least have made it slightly more interesting, especially if it was Caine and Smith playing the leads in each section.

Also, visually, this film isn’t pleasant to look at. It’s very drab and washed out. However, since I haven’t had much nice to say about this film, I will say this below image caught my eye as being a nice composition and also works neatly as a visual representation of my overall opinion of the movie; a load of old balls.

Trivia (courtesy of IMDb): Walter Matthau’s son, David Matthau, appeared in a small role as a bellboy.

According to Maggie Smith, the director Herbert Ross was difficult to work with and allegedly reduced Walter Matthau to tears (hopefully not in front of his son David Matthau whilst he was appearing in a small role as a bellboy though, as seeing that happen to your father at work could traumatise a young man).

Overall Thoughts: I didn’t hate this film, it’s just dull and nowhere near funny enough given the calibre of the cast and creative team. Caine and Smith are the standouts with the only section that kept my attention and so, if you’re a big fan of either actor, it’s perhaps worth watching just their parts and skipping the rest.

Rating: 2/5 Pilfered Chicken Drumsticks (1 for Caine and 1 for Smith)

Where You Can Watch This: This is currently available to rent through most streaming services but appears to be out of print on physical media in the UK.

Up Next: It’s a movie that Caine has named as one of his worst, an epic adventure film about slave trading. Oh boy, buckle in for Ashanti.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this