Monday, December 16, 2013

In Memoriam: Peter O'Toole

It's been a bad December for losing people who made the world brighter - Nelson Mandela first and foremost, of course, but also movie stars who helped stir our imagination: Paul Walker, Eleanor Parker, most recently Joan Fontaine, and, of course, the incomparable Peter O'Toole.

One of the greatest actors of his generation, if not of all time, O'Toole - like so many of his British and Irish peers - started off his career in the theater, where he would undoubtedly have made his mark even if he'd never done a film in his life. But besides being a first-rate thespian with the most exquisite diction this side of Richard Burton, he had an extraordinary magnetism, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous looks, that pretty much destined him for the big screen. If the movies hadn't existed, they would have had to be invented for him.

His first big break, "Lawrence of Arabia," was also his best work: if you haven't seen it, do so immediately - preferably on as large a screen as you can find. It's not often that you get such a perfect intersection of a truly great film and a truly great performance, where each mutually enhance and elevate the other. Actually, the film's stacked with excellent performances, but O'Toole's, necessarily, was its beating heart. It's now hard to imagine anyone but him so completely embodying the contradictory, enigmatic figure that was T.E. Lawrence - the intellectual idealist with a streak of savagery, the ambitious eccentric with an impossibly grand vision of his own destiny, the brilliant strategist and charismatic leader who was ultimately tricked by his own ego and naivete into serving as a pawn of the British Empire. O'Toole captured all these facets of the character with both flair and depth, and director David Lean gave him the ideal backdrop to shine: an epic landscape that somehow didn't diminish Lawrence's larger-than-life presence, and complex political undercurrents among both the British and Arab forces that only underlined the sense that he at once belonged and didn't belong in their midst.

(O'Toole received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for "Lawrence," but lost that year to Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." I always thought it a pity they couldn't have tied and understand why the Academy gave it to Peck, but even as a Peck fan, I'd still give the clear edge to O'Toole.)

"Lawrence" was a once-in-a-lifetime-role that others might have found an impossible act to follow. Not O'Toole, who continued to deliver dynamite performances that earned him a record of 8 Oscar nominations and, sadly, zero wins, not counting the consolation-prize honorary Oscar the Academy finally handed to him in 2003. He didn't always make the best career choices, or life choices for that matter, and was almost as famous for being perpetually drunk (he was Irish, after all) and raising hell with fellow acting heavyweights Burton and Richard Harris (but what company to carouse with!) as he was for lighting up the screen. Nonetheless, light it up he did, most memorably as a succession of kings, madmen, and eccentrics; very seldom did he play an ordinary man. That didn't mean he couldn't. Two of my favorites among his performances were the dashing undercover cop who charms the pants off Audrey Hepburn in the underrated caper/art heist flick "How to Steal a Million" and, much later in life, the quietly sympathetic tutor to "The Last Emperor" of China.

I remember, at the time of the latter, my mother, who'd had a crush on O'Toole in her youth, bemoaning how old he'd gotten. I had the opposite reaction. Age, alcohol, and illness, including stomach cancer, had clearly taken their toll, yet I was struck by how much he still looked like the man I knew mainly as young "Orence": the same tall, spare figure, perhaps a little more stooped, a little more fragile, the same full mouth and hollow cheekbones, and, most of all, the same piercing blue eyes with the quietly meditative, contemplative look. Even more years later, I saw him again as Priam in the otherwise-laughable "Troy" (he and Eric Bana were the only good things about that movie) and that look was still there - the look of a poet, a dreamer, and a little bit of a madman. I'm confident that look was with him to the end.


I was also going to say a few words about Joan Fontaine (so memorable as the second Mrs. De Winter in my favorite Hitchcock film, "Rebecca"), but I'll leave that to the much more capable hands of the blogging queen of Old Hollywood, Self-Styled Siren.


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