I was saddened by the recent death of Eleanor Parker. I was very saddened by the recent death of Audrey Totter. And now, Peter O'Toole has died, and the news hit me like a punch in the belly. O'Toole was one of my favorite actors, my favorite artists, and losing him truly does feel like a loss to the world.
To be sure, his death (at age 81) isn't that surprising. His history of carousing and unhealthy behavior is already legendary, and he has been clearly, visibly frail for at least the last decade. But still...His talent was so very much larger than life, it could lead one to have hope that such a fierce talent would somehow sustain, somehow keep going for...If not forever, at least for longer. Now he is no longer. But what a legacy he has left behind.
But let me begin by speaking heresy: Despite my deep appreciation for his work overall, I am not particularly a fan of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Yes, yes - I know it's supposed to be his keynote performance, and a great film. I'm not denying that, or the film's place in cinema history. (It was one of the first films I showed when I had my Classic Matinee series at the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington years ago.) Though I can happily watch movies all the day and all of the night, I have never done well with long films - and Lawrence, at nearly four hours, is a very long film indeed. It will be discussed and examined everywhere for all eternity, so I won't dwell on it here.
And, let's also be honest: Like any artist, Peter O'Toole had projects that are best left unremarked and barely remembered. How to Steal a Million (1966) is a would-be lightweight comedy caper that drags like a car with three flats and is about as light and airy as an unleavened poundcake. Which is still better than Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Rainbow Thief (1990), which I couldn't even finish. King Ralph (1991) and a little gem called Caligula (1979) are also ones that O'Toole himself probably didn't keep on his resume for too terribly long.
But when he had material that fit him, he could be radiant, transcendent, immortal. As I've thought about O'Toole and his body of work over the last twenty-four hours, it struck me that the films of his that I enjoy the most, and that I think show him at his best, are all stories that allow his character(s) to make a broad arc from mirth to madness.
In The Ruling Class (1972), O'Toole plays Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, who is considered quite mad, simply because he believes he is Jesus, and wanders the family estate preaching peace among men. This type of behavior is quite unacceptable to his family, and, long story short, by the end of the film, he is "cured." Jack is back to being Jack - Jack the Ripper, that is. There is more to it than that, of course, but the brilliant screenplay by Peter Barnes (based on his play) allows O'Toole to not only run riot, but also to run through a full range of human emotions and motivations (from good to evil) and even to sing and dance a little. It's a big, big role, bursting with energy and big ideas, and I can't think of anyone but O'Toole who could have done it. The last scene, in which Jack ascends to the House of Lords, and we see the world as he sees it - his fellow Lords are all cobweb covered corpses - is one of the most chilling scenes ever. And O'Toole conveys both the wonder and the horror of the moment almost entirely with his eyes - there is no dialogue, just a close-up of his face.
Nearly a decade later, O'Toole made The Stunt Man (1980), a film about making films. He played Eli Cross, the director of the film within the film, who puts the title character, a stunt man played by Steve Railsback, through his paces. Cross makes an excellent stand-in for Hollywood, half Angel, half Devil, forever beckoning Railsback's character deeper into a world of sex, violence and make-believe. Eli Cross is not so much a director as a manipulator, and O'Toole plays him to the hilt, charming as can be one minute, cold as ice the next.
However, my favorite O'Toole film, and one of my very favorite films, period, is My Favorite Year (1982). It's a film I've probably watched at least once every year since it came out. Though some find it corny, or old-fashioned, or overly sentimental, I think it's a near perfect film, utterly charming and very funny. As the drunken, has-been movie star Alan Swann (loosely based on Errol Flynn), O'Toole, already showing the ravages of time, is in his element, working from a strong script, and supported by a great cast. Once again, this is a role that is difficult to imagine anyone else playing. Even Peter O'Toole doesn't so much play Swann as inhabit him. The role allows him to range from nearly full-on slapstick to drunken tragedy, and he does it all without missing a beat. I personally think that in many ways it's his best work. The fact that he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the film bears this out. My Favorite Year is, at the end of the day, very much a comedy, and it is extremely rare for actors to get Oscar nominations for performances in comedies. (Ben Kingsley, who played the title role in Ghandi, won Best Actor that year, so O'Toole didn't really have a chance.)
Though there are many great lines from My Favorite Year, the scene that always gets me, the part where I cry every single time I see the film, comes near the end. Swann, drunk and in danger of being deported, has seemingly blown his last shot at redemption - a guest appearance on a comedy TV program. Said program is currently being demolished by local racketeers, on live TV, and the young writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) who got Swann signed for the show has come looking for the washed-up swashbuckler, hoping he'll help, hoping that he'll do something. Swann, afraid, refuses, and I think the dialogue that follows sums up the curious and emotional relationship that exists between performers and their audience:
Benjy: Alan Swann, afraid? The Defender of the Crown? Captain from Tortuga? The Last Knight of the Round Table?
Swann: Those are movies, damn you! Look at me! I'm flesh and blood, life-size, no larger! I'm not that silly goddamned hero. I never was!
Benjy: To me you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to me! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don't tell me this is you life-size. I can't use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them. And let me tell you something: You couldn't have convinced me the way you did unless somewhere in you you had that courage! Nobody's that good an actor. You are that silly goddamn hero!
So if the roles that Peter O'Toole so memorably and immortally inhabited are larger than life, it's probably because the man himself was in many ways larger than life. When he truly burned, he burned bright, and the lights and shadows he brought to life will beguile and entrance people for as long as there is a human race. Coming from humble roots, Peter O'Toole was truly one of the greats. As Alan Swann so memorably said in My Favorite Year, "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" Peter O'Toole was both, and we are richer for having had him among us.
Rest in peace, Mr. OToole. Those silly goddamn heroes (and villains) meant a lot to me. Thank you.
December 16th, 2013