By Ed Garea
It always seems that, while one dies alone, death itself comes in bunches. In just two days back-to-back in December we lost two of the brightest lights in the Hollywood firmament.
Peter O’Toole passed on first, on December 14 at the age of 81, followed by Joan Fontaine a day later at the age of 96. We will cover her career in a subsequent article; for now we’ll concentrate on the great O’Toole and his films.
The thing that always amazed me about O’Toole was that he managed to last so long; one would have thought he would have drunk himself to death long ago. In his last years he sort of resembled an ill-kept grave. But what a talent: O’Toole was easily one of the most talented men ever to set foot on stage or screen. His T.E. Lawrence will always be remembered as one of the greatest performances ever on film, as will his portrayal of Henry II in both Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968).
As far as Oscar was concerned, O’Toole was always a bridesmaid but never a bride. He holds the record – eight – for having been nominated in the Best Actor category without winning.
He cemented his reputation as a brilliant actor in his late 20s, when he became the youngest leading man ever at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford. While there he also cemented his reputation as a hellraiser, fueled by goodly amounts of alcoholic beverages.
It was the latter reputation that almost caused producer Sam Spiegel to overlook him when casting the part of T.E. Lawrence, but director David Lean pitched for O’Toole and was rewarded when Spiegel saw O’Toole’s screen test and admitted to Lean that they had found their Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia took nearly two years to film, but upon its release O’Toole was now Filmdom’s latest superstar. Contrary to popular belief, it was not O’Toole’s first movie. He appeared in three previous films, the best known of which was Disney’s 1960 adventure, Kidnapped, in which he had a small role as “Robin McGregor.” He had third billing in the 1960 crime drama, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, about three IRA men in turn-of-the-century England who plan to rob the Bank of England of its gold bullion. O’Toole is the officer in charge of security at the bank.
Below are my favorite O’Toole performances, sorted by year.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Who doesn’t love this movie? Oh sure, we can find some crank on IMDb who hated it. It was overlong, not historically accurate, etc. However, they’re in the distinct minority. Lawrence is a majestic movie, the sort they don’t make anymore (for one thing, CGI may have killed off the epic). It has a great script, wonderful cinematography and pacing, and, most of all, solid performances from its cast. Despite this, however, the film is structured in such a way that if the leading man fails (most of Lean’s other epics rely on the same formula), so does the rest of the film. And O’Toole makes sure the film doesn’t fail, capturing the spirit, if not the history, of Lawrence the man. It’s a film that, despite its length, I can watch anytime.
Becket (1964): So how does one follow up on a triumph like Lawrence of Arabia? Why with Becket, of course. Using Jean Anouilh’s play as a basis, it’s the story of the turbulent relationship between King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, childhood friends who later became bitter enemies when Becket got religion and stood up for the Church against the King, and was ultimately killed for it. O’Toole’s Henry is up against another heavyweight in Richard Burton’s Becket, in the days before Liz and booze destroyed his career. John Gielgud also turns in quite an effective performance in a supporting role as King Louis VII of France.
The Night of the Generals (1967): This is a nice little gem in the O’Toole oeuvre, a tale about three Nazi generals suspected in the murder of a Polish prostitute in Warsaw, now in Paris, where one is in on the plot to kill Hitler. O’Toole, as General Tanz, gives a good, suspicious performance. Could he be the murderer? Donald Pleasance and Charles Gray, as the other two suspected generals, also give excellent performances, as does Omar Sharif as the investigating officer on the case. The film does lose its focus with the kill Hitler plot in Paris, but overall it’s quite good, especially O’Toole.
The Lion in Winter (1968): O’Toole is once again Henry II, but this time the focus is not on his intrigue with Thomas Becket, but with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s Christmas 1183. Henry, aging but still conniving, calls a meeting where he will name a successor. In attendance are his scheming wife, Eleanor, and his three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John. Also called are his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he hopes to marry, and King Philip II of France. All want his empire, but only one will be named. O’Toole is having a field day. Having played Henry before, he is comfortable with the character. Katharine Hepburn is wonderful as Eleanor (she got the Oscar for her portrayal), and a young Anthony Hopkins shines as Richard. Watching O’Toole and Hepburn engaging in their game of political chess (Henry wants John as his successor while Eleanor favors Richard) is mesmerizing: two pros at the pinnacle of their craft. And for those looking for offbeat Christmas movies, the setting of this film should fit the bill.
The Ruling Class (1972): O’Toole is the mad 14th Earl of Gurney in Peter Medak’s wonderful satire on the upper classes. The Earl believes himself to be Christ, wearing glasses because it’s cold, resting himself on a crucifix, and suddenly breaking out into song and dance numbers. His peers and family think he’s quite mad. Yet, when he undergoes a metamorphosis, dresses as a Victorian gentleman while speaking of capital punishment and superior breeding, his peers think him not only cured but prepare him for his seat in the House of Lords. The real point is that the Earl is not cured at all; he now believes himself to be Jack the Ripper. For those who love dark comedy or simply want to see a different O’Toole, this is one to see.
My Favorite Year (1982): O’Toole is in his element in this hilarious comedy. It’s 1954 and King Kaiser (read Sid Caesar) is the biggest thing on television. His guest this week is swashbuckling actor Alan Swann. Now all Kaiser and his staff have to do is make sure Swann stays sober for his appearance, a task not as easy as it seems. As the dissolute Swann, O’Toole dominates the film. Although his character is supposedly based on Errol Flynn, there are a few touches based on O’Toole himself, such as the habit of not wearing a watch (“I don’t trust them, one hand is bigger than the other.”) and his preference for Pinch scotch. In fact, O’Toole’s performance is so true to his real life self that it’s hard to discern where Flynn ends and O’Toole begins. The idea of having junior writer Benjy Stone babysit Swann is based on the real-life incident of having then Caesar show’s junior writer, Mel Brooks, chaperone guest star Flynn around before his appearance on Your Show of Shows.
Ratatouille (2007): Having provided the voice of Sherlock Holmes in a series of animated films for Burbank Studios in Australia, O’Toole was no stranger to the genre. In this heartwarming animated movie from Pixar and Disney about a rat who dreams of becoming a great French chef, O’Toole supplies the voice of Anton Ego, food critic for “The Grim Eater,” and someone whose word can make or break a restaurant. Though he initially comes on as the villain of the piece, his character is the heart of the film because of his love of good food and his honesty. A large part of the fun in watching Ratatouille is listening to O’Toole resonant voice as Ego. Besides, if I didn’t mention this film, Steve Herte would never forgive me.