The British invasion that hit these shores during the swinging ’60s went beyond such musical acts as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
There also was an army of acting talent that charged into U.S. movie houses, a dazzling array of angry young men and alluring mod women who held us captivated through much of that turbulent period and beyond.
Many have since gone on to that great Carnaby Street in the sky: Alan Bates and his Georgy Girl, Lynn Redgrave; Peter O’Toole, who redefined the words “matinee idol” in “Lawrence of Arabia”; Oliver Reed, who so unforgettably wrestled sans attire with Bates in “Women in Love”; Richard Harris, the essence of machismo served raw in “This Sporting Life”; David Hemmings, the smug photog caught up in a conundrum in “Blow-Up”; Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde as predatory males trying to catch Julie Christie’s wandering eye in “Darling.”
But more than a few of the English icons who burst onto the scene back then are still at it as they add new chapters to their cinematic legacy. In fact, an age-defying quartet of U.K. stars are earning stellar notices and Oscar buzz in year-end releases opening in December:
Here is a quick primer on each, including four of their most essential films and an assessment of how likely these venerated Brits will get a chance to go for the gold.
Persona: Colorful Cockney raconteur and ladies’ man
Breakout performance: Being cast against his working-class image in his first major film role in 1964’s “Zulu” proved to be an advantage for Caine. He rose to the challenge of embodying a pompous, aristocratic British officer engaged in the ambitious South Africa war epic and soon became a hot commodity as a result.
Four essential films:
“Alfie” (1966): Caine’s portrayal of a blue-collar Casanova with a misogynistic streak as wide as the Thames launched him into stardom and granted him sex symbol status thanks to his irresistible combination of nonchalant charm and caddish smarm. It also earned him his first Oscar nomination.
“Get Carter” (1971): To this day, the actor has rarely been as nasty and vicious as he was as a ruthless London gangster hell-bent on avenging his brother’s death while making his way through the seedy criminal underworld of Newcastle. Whether zestily putting down his thuggish foes (“You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape”) or confronting would-be attackers in the nude, Caine’s Carter established an admirable new high in low anti-hero behavior.
“Sleuth” (1972): As a hairdresser dallying with an elderly crime novelist’s wife, Caine went mano a mano with the great Laurence Olivier — who attempts to humiliate his rival by putting him through a series of elaborate stunts — and more than held his own in this twisty mystery thriller. He would go on to play the cuckolded writer in the 2007 remake. The source of his second Oscar nod.
“The Quiet American” (2002): Caine eschews all vanity and is at one with his character, a weary newspaper reporter stationed in ’50s Saigon who is obsessed with a Vietnamese dance-hall girl and hooked on opium, in this bittersweet tale of love and espionage. The source of his sixth Oscar nomination.
Also of note: His six collaborations with the filmmaker Christopher Nolan (as man-servant Alfred in three “Batman” adventures in 2005, 2008 and 2012; “The Prestige,” 2006; “Inception,” 2012; and “Interstellar,” 2014) have kept Caine fully stocked with mentoring opportunities opposite younger co-stars.
Current role: “Youth,” an English-language film directed by Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”), is a visually surreal symphony that unfolds at a scenic Alpine spa resort. It’s a grand late-life vehicle for Caine as a retired British composer and conductor debating whether he should agree to a command performance for the queen. In between, he shoots the breeze with Harvey Keitel’s still-active American director who is plotting his next film as they grasp at fading memories, compare conquests past and share details about their incontinence woes.
Oscar chances: This season is overwhelmed with powerful male lead performances and most prediction sites have Caine just bubbling under the top five. Working against his chances this year: The academy has acknowledged his work on a regular basis, bestowing him with a pair of supporting trophies for “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1987) and “The Cider House Rules” (1999) along with four other nominations. Two points in Caine’s favor? That it has been 13 long years since he last competed and he has never won an Oscar as a lead.
Persona: Prim, imperious and utterly British, but often with a carnal undercurrent
Breakout: Originally a stage actress, Smith earned the first of her six Oscar nominations as a red-maned Desdemona, vividly holding her own opposite a rather flamboyant (and, unfortunately, blackface-wearing) Laurence Olivier in the title role of the 1965 version of “Othello.”
Four essential films:
“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969): The source of Smith’s first Academy Award win remains her signature role, a controversial teacher at a Scottish all-girls school in the ‘30s who sings the praises of Fascist leaders and fills the heads of her students with romanticized notions. Her motto: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” The lessons she teaches, including those on love, eventually come back to haunt her as her girls grow into women.
“A Room With a View” (1985): Oscar nod No. 5 came courtesy of this more humorous than usual Merchant-Ivory period affair with Helena Bonham Carter as an eligible young woman on a holiday in Florence. She is lucky enough to have Maggie Smith’s entertaining cousin Charlotte as her chaperone, a highbrow sort whose gifts include meddling and gossiping. In other words, she’s a rehearsal for Violet Crawley aka the Dowager Countess on TV’s “Downton Abbey.”
“Gosford Park” (2001): Another snooty grande dame, another Oscar nomination. In Robert Altman’s crowded upstairs, downstairs ensemble piece set in England, Smith manages to be a standout in a Agatha Christie-style murder piece as the Countess of Trentham, whose acerbic tongue gets a full workout during the course of the period drama. Smith mines gold with every comment, including such observations as “It’s absolutely glacial in here.”
“Quartet” (2012): Smith is on her high horse again, this time as standoffish opera diva Jean Horton, who is forced to convalesce at a retirement home for musicians alongside ex-husband Reg (Courtenay). She hems and haws when urged to reunite with him and two other singers for a gala performance of their legendary version of “Rigoletto,” more out of fear than arrogance. First-time director Dustin Huffman coaxes a more delicate though still commanding performance out of Smith, and as she has shown in her “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” films, she plays well with her peers.
Also of note: Smith enchanted a entire generation of school-age moviegoers with her portrayal of Minerva McGonagall, the Scottish-born Transfiguration professor and eventual headmistress of Hogwarts, in seven of the eight Harry Potter films. J.K. Rowling has said that the actress was her first choice to bring the strong-willed and wise witch to life, a character who Smith has described as “Miss Jean Brodie in a wizard’s hat.”
Current role: Smith re-creates her fact-based stage triumph as an itinerant bag lady who forms a symbiotic muse-artist relationship with noted British playwright Alan Bennett—while camping out in her vehicle, parked in his upscale London driveway for 15 years—in “The Lady in the Van.” What should be a pathetic figure is as regally righteous and iron-willed as any of Smith’s grande dames, just a bit more out of touch with reality and far less hygienic.
Oscar chances: It’s hard to be arrogant when the world is your bathroom, but Smith manages to invest this wretched creature with an odd sense of dignity and allows us to laugh at her expense while admiring how easily she manipulates indulgent liberal types. Alas, the Academy might not be so easily swayed by this mirthfully melancholy tour de force, especially since, like Caine, Smith has been nominated six times previously and has won two.
Persona: A giant of the stage, a soulful presence on the big screen
Breakout: Courtenay came to embody the defiance of post-war British youth as Colin Smith in 1962’s “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner” and became one of the working-class heroes of post-war social-realism dramas. Gaunt and grave as a juvenile delinquent in a reform school who is able to escape his demons while running solo in cross-country races, the actor turned a not always sympathetic character into a highly relatable one.
Four essential films
“Billy Liar” (1963): Courtenay, who understudied Albert Finney in the stage version, is a sort of British version of Walter Mitty and shows his comic side as a meek undertakers’ clerk who daydreams about being a hero in a mythical land and regularly invents fibs about himself. Matters get complicated after he becomes engaged to two women and falls in love with a third, who happens to be Julie Christie.
“Doctor Zhivago” (1965): Courtenay as Christie’s revolutionary husband Pasha was the only actor to be Oscar-nominated in this sprawling epic that unfolds in Russia around the time of the Bolshevik takeover. While the doomed affair between Omar Sharif’s poet/battlefield physician and Christie’s Lara takes center stage, it is Pasha who undergoes the greatest transition from uncompromising idealist to cruel Red commander.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1970): The actor is front and center as the title character in this adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, based on his time as a prisoner enduring the travails of being in a Soviet gulag during the ‘50s. From his punishment for oversleeping to his triumph of receiving a bit of contraband sausage, Courtenay fully exhibits the pain, suffering and small triumphs of imprisonment.
“The Dresser” (1983): Finney is an overbearing Shakespearean actor who is slowly losing his mental faculties while Courtenay is his put-upon though devoted man servant who finds much-needed comfort in his handy flask. The relationship is not unlike King Lear and his Fool, and Courtenay is once again sublime in a quieter role of an outsider that builds to a heartbreaking emotional catharsis that concludes the film. Both actors were Oscar nominated as leads, and rightly so.
Current role: Courtenay’s initial subdued presence proves a plus as Rampling’s longtime mate who receives news of his former flame’s preserved body being found encased in ice in the Swiss Alps a week before the staid couple’s 45th anniversary in “45 Years.” The actor magnificently reveals his character’s slowly growing obsession with his decades-ago past that has suddenly come back to life while trying to act as if everything is still normal.
Oscar chances: Courtenay may have a harder time gaining favor with the voters than his flashier co-star. But he more than deserves recognition, if only for the scene where he and Rampling make a sweetly desperate but ultimately failed attempt to reignite their sex life.
Persona: A dangerously daring slice of a fab femme fatale-ness
Breakout performance: Her hedonistic Meredith in 1966’s “Georgy Girl” was the original Mean Girl, one whose cruel beauty allowed her to get away with horrendously selfish behavior and whose hurtful words to her plump flatmate Georgy were as cutting as her razor-sharp cheekbones. Her reaction when gazing upon her newborn daughter for the first time would send a chill up even Hannibal Lecter’s spine: “It’s hideous! I want it adopted immediately!”
Four essential films:
“The Night Porter” (1974): Rampling was so convincing as the detestable Meredith, she had to look beyond England to Italy to find interesting assignments, such as the tragic wife of a German industrialist whose family is mired in moral decay in Luchino Visconti’s sprawling 1969 World War II soap opera “The Damned.” But no role defined her knack for making sexual perversity appetizing (including the notorious image of her topless save for suspenders while jauntily sporting an SS cap) than her Holocaust survivor who resumes a sadomasochistic relationship with the Nazi officer who tortured her.
“Stardust Memories” (1980): Woody Allen has had his share of hypnotic onscreen muses over the years, but few left as lasting an impression as Rampling’s Dorrie. He managed to coax the actress back into action after a three-year hiatus to play his filmmaker’s former paramour who continues to linger in his reveries. The actress exposed a rare vulnerability as a lithium-popping neurotic who exudes a sinewy sensuality even while wordlessly staring into the camera.
“The Verdict” (1982): Rampling continued to step up her game as an actress in this tough-minded courtroom drama, and the presence of Paul Newman as her co-star didn’t hurt. She is a cool customer Lauren Bacall class albeit a fellow alcoholic who lures Newman’s disgraced lawyer into bed with stony indifference. Her betrayal during his chance for professional redemption comes at a price: A slap to the face so forceful that knocks her to the ground.
“Swimming Pool” (2003): Filmmaker Francois Ozon did right by an older and bolder Rampling as the distraught wife of a man who suddenly disappears while on a beach getaway in 2000’s “Under the Sand” and does even better with this erotically charged and ambiguous thriller. She’s an uptight blocked British crime novelist who finds inspiration and then some at her publisher’s vacation home in the South of France in the form of his frisky young daughter (the divine Ludivine Sagnier), whose nightly dalliances fires up her writing skills.
Current role: In “45 Years,” Rampling — still supremely sexy and in full command of her art — manages to channel a career’s worth of hard-won experience into her stunning performance as a childless retiree whose comfortable British countryside existence with her longtime husband is shaken to the core by a blast from his past. Her ever-shifting jealousy over the revelation hangs heavily over her efforts to plan their 45th wedding anniversary party, tainting even the songs they have chosen to play.
Oscar chances: Visconti once said of Rampling, “If she so wished it, she would be a star.” Though she occasionally has dabbled in populist fare such as “Orca” (1977), she has always been better served by foreign offerings and indie outings. Which is why, despite collecting several overseas honors over the years, Rampling has never been considered for an Academy Award. She faces tough competition from the youthful likes of Brie Larson in “Room” and even those in her age group, such as Lily Tomlin in “Grandma.” But “45 Years” is a rarity on her resume — an almost conventional character that nearly any woman of a certain age could relate to — which is one reason some pundits are betting she could claim the fifth lead-actress slot handily.