As I thought about Peter O’Toole and his films last night, in the wake of his death yesterday at 81, I realized that, push comes to shove, he’s my favorite actor. I don’t make any claim that he’s the greatest actor ever, but I have gotten more pleasure from watching him act than any other man, I think. I suppose the closest competition would be Humphrey Bogart, but Bogie could never have played someone who thought he was Jesus.
I haven’t seen all of O’Toole’s films, the most notable exceptions being Lord Jim and Goodbye, Mr Chips (the latter being the only one of his eight Oscar nominations I haven’t seen), but I’ve seen all of the other big ones and been delighted by all of them. I suppose he first came to my attention in Lion in Winter, one of the favorite films of all time, which I saw first when I was in my early to mid teens. Then, when I was in college, I saw The Stunt Man, which was something of a comeback for him after a quiet decade or so (perhaps the low point being his turn as Tiberius in the pornographic Caligula). Both of these performances, as Henry II and megalomaniacal director Eli Cross, were larger than life, with more than a serving of ham.
Then, for me, came My Favorite Year, a thoroughly entertaining film that sees O’Toole as the Errol Flynn-like movie star Allan Swann. O’Toole was a movie star, but unlike Flynn he was trained on the stage, and never lost the knack for projecting to the back row, even on celluloid. Swann says, in the key line of the film, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” but O’Toole was also an actor (once Laurence Olivier chided him, asking him if he wanted to be a household name or an ac-tor, but O’Toole was both).
In the years since I caught up with the rest of his filmography. I think I first saw Lawrence of Arabia sometime in the mid-eighties (at least on screen–I’m sure I saw it carved up and served in five sections on the 4:30 Movie) and agree with those, such as Entertainment Weekly did about ten years ago, that it’s one of the greatest performances in movie history (they had him at number 1; I still have to go with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront). O’Toole, in his first major film role, is far more restrained than he would be in later years, but managed to convey the brilliance of his character. It’s hard to act smarter than you are, but O’Toole does it with aplomb. A lot of his lines from that film live in my head, none so much more than what he says to the officer who tells him he’s in for a rough time in Arabia. “No, it’s going to be fun.”
I haven’t seen Becket in years, but I remember it and Lion in Winter for his complete command of playing a king. As Shakespeare wrote, his Henry II was “every inch a king.” He’s one of a few actors to earn two Oscar nominations for playing the same character, and the only one that was in two films that were not connected to each other as sequels. What a daunting task to play opposite Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane, but he more than holds his own. She had most of the good lines in that one, but I can still hear him, when she implores of him what he wants, when he says, “I want a new wife.”
There have been more roles to enjoy since those. Another Oscar nomination came in The Ruling Class, in which he plays a member of nobility who thinks he’s Jesus. O’Toole really lets it fly there, and it’s the acting equivalent of a Keith Moon drum solo. It may be scenery chewing, but no one did it better. In his golden years he acted all the time, in many films that were otherwise forgettable, such as his last Oscar nomination, Venus (how I remember the crestfallen look on his face when it was revealed he did not win the Oscar; surely he knew it was his last chance). In his last years he specialized in playing ancient men of prestige, such as the the Pope Paul III in The Tudors, the Emperor of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, or King Priam in Troy (that last one was one of the few he did that annoyed me–I hated the way he pronounced “gods” as if it were “gawds.”
In looking over his filmography, I had forgotten his wonderful voice performance as the restaurant critic in Ratatouille, his touching Arthur Conan Doyle in FairyTale, and the sybaritic lead of What’s New, Pussycat, Woody Allen’s first film and a role that was initially created for Warren Beatty.
I even managed to see O’Toole on stage, on Broadway in Pygmalion. As one might expect, it was all about him–I have no recollection who played Eliza Doolittle. He was a renowned actor before he turned to film–his Hamlet and Uncle Vanya were acclaimed. But I remember that while I was in college he had one of the most disastrous performance ever to blight the West End. His MacBeth was apparently so bad that it was discussed the entire theater world over.
So what about O’Toole’s acting impresses me? I think it’s a multitude of things. I like the languorous way he holds the camera–he moves like I imagine I do. And how he wraps his mouth around words, as if they were candies. He hated naturalistic acting–no Method for him–and there’s a theatrical quality to him that’s hard to resist. I remember auditioning for the part of Mercutio and doing the Queen Mab speech as I imagined he would have done it. That was pretty dumb of me–an actor should be himself, and besides, I’m sure no one but me would have recognized any O’Toole in my performance.
As good an actor as O’Toole was, he was also a great character. He was a marvelous raconteur on talk shows–I remember him telling David Letterman a story about how he and Richard Harris rode white horses in Ireland while completely smashed. Of course he was a drinker–he was Irish, after all, but he did outlive Harris and his fellow great Richard Burton. These three were the epitome of British acting through the sixties and seventies, and none of them ever won an Oscar.
O’Toole did eventually win an a lifetime achievement Oscar, the “sorry we didn’t give you one before this” award. He initially refused it, stubbornly thinking he could win one in competition. He relented, and when receiving the award, he let bygones be bygones and said, “Always a bride, never a bridesmaid–my foot.”