Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Birthday to Cinema’s Great Bad Boy: Peter O’Toole (8/2/32-12/14-13)

Peter O’Toole was born on this day, August 2, 1932. We tip our bowler to this tremendously talented actor by reposting Christopher Sandford’s affectionate portrait, which appeared in Bright Lights on July 31, 2009.

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“Arriving in Los Angeles for the film’s premiere there, he quickly blotted his copybook by hurling a drink at the producer Sam Spiegel, the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time. Spiegel had ‘massacred’ Lawrence, O’Toole remarked, by cutting twenty minutes of it in order ‘to sell more fucking ice cream to the punters.'”

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There’s nothing like a good anniversary to remind us all of time’s winged chariot — and for that matter, to get us hacks to put pen to paper. The year 2012 is shaping up as a particularly rich one when it comes to celebrating significant events. On the epic-disaster front, there’s the centenary both of the Titanic and Robert Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. If it’s death and global dislocation you want, it’s 200 years since Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, 100 years since the Balkan uprisings that led straight to the First World War, 70 years since the battle of El Alamein that turned the course of the Second World War, and 50 years since the U.S. and U.S.S.R. went toe to toe in the Cuban missile crisis. Closer to our own hearts, perhaps, it’s also the centenary of Universal Pictures and of Gene Kelly. Meanwhile, the Bond franchise turns 50, as do the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, and Tom Cruise. Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson both hit 70 this summer, while Mick Jagger’s turn comes next year. Rounding off the whole exercise, the Piltdown Man hoax turns the big 100 this year, as does the great British politician, classical scholar, soldier, and all-round controversialist Enoch Powell. Julian Maclaren-Ross, a truly brilliant English satirical novelist and the prototype for every elegantly wasted author since, also came to us in 1912. Buy his Of Love and Hunger immediately. And that’s just to begin with. From now on it’s going to be pretty much all-hands-on-deck for the obsessive date-watchers among us — Richard Nixon and Danny Kaye centenaries in 2013, Alec Guinness and Marguerite Duras in 2014, The Birth of a Nation, Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, Muddy Waters, Saul Bellow, and Frank Sinatra in 2015, Gregory Peck, Walter Cronkite, and Kirk Douglas in 2016 . . . until before we know where we are it will be 2078 and — light at the end of the tunnel at last — the centenary of the birth of Ashton Kutcher.

But for sheer theatrical flair, unpredictability, and, at his best, an intoxicating whiff of danger, there’s my old friend Peter O’Toole — born on August 2 1932, and thus also conveniently celebrating an anniversary around now. From about 1960 to 1980, O’Toole was comfortably the most interesting movie star in the world, whether on or off the screen. His tendency to behave like a pantomime Irishman with a taste for the drink (“It was around 1985,” he once remarked, “before I heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination”), not to mention his volatility and blunt rudeness to those he didn’t respect — which may well have been the majority of those he met among the studio brass — were weighed by the moguls who employed him with his undoubted brilliance as an actor, and a star appeal that never fully flowered because of his stubborn refusal to be typecast. Twin devils seemed to exist in his cadaverously gaunt body, one that drove his private life to well-documented excesses with booze and women, and the other in which he sometimes appeared to sabotage his own talent by stooping to satirically unworthy films like Caligula before bouncing back in the ’80s with a succession of over-the-top character roles — notable as the villainous director in The Stunt Man.

We all know about the great breakthrough role in Lawrence of Arabia, which first hit the screen in December 1962 (another 50th) and made an overnight star of O’Toole at age 30 — although by then he’d already had a fairly colorful decade tramping around in English provincial rep, not to mention as a cub reporter and a signalman in the Royal Navy. He took the Lawrence job despite having previously signed a contract that called for him to be on stage several thousand miles away in Stratford-upon-Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC at first threatened to sue, but eventually let him go. Hardly surprisingly, O’Toole was never invited back to Stratford. He brought a wayward charm to the role of Lawrence that soon won over even the film’s director David Lean, not given to effusions of praise. On the first rehearsal Lean looked pleased, more so as the yearlong shoot progressed, and he announced, “There’s a touch of genius there!” The finished product, as we know, was a triumph. O’Toole’s costar Alec Guinness caught the essential duality of the man. On July 29 1961, Guinness wrote to his wife from on location in Jordan: “I like O’Toole very much — and his wife. He’s marvelously good as Lawrence. He’s dreamy good to act with and has great personal charm and gaiety. He obviously goes off the rails every now and then and I should think his wife — who has a sort of strength and wisdom about her — has got as much as anyone could handle, but he has a good heart and wit as well.” Eight months later, Guinness wrote of a cast dinner where O’Toole got drunk, fought with another guest, threw a glass of champagne in his face, and went on to fondle his hostess’s rear. “O’Toole could have been killed — shot, strapped or strangled — and I’m beginning to think it’s a pity he wasn’t.”

What I like most about O’Toole a half-century later is that here’s a man gradually approaching the end of a long and distinguished career who patently no longer cares (if he ever did) what Hollywood thinks of him. Take his remarks about the 2004 so-called epic Troy, and more particularly the film’s director Wolfgang Petersen. In a lapse from the agreed sales and marketing campaign, O’Toole publicly called Troy “a disaster.” And as for Petersen: “That kraut,” he remarked, “what a clown he was . . . When it was all over, I watched fifteen minutes of the finished film and then walked out.” We need more movie stars like this. Even back in Lawrence days, O’Toole wasn’t shy about letting you know what was on his mind. Arriving in Los Angeles for the film’s premiere there, he quickly blotted his copybook by hurling a drink at the producer Sam Spiegel, the most powerful man in Hollywood at the time. Spiegel had “massacred” Lawrence, O’Toole remarked, by cutting twenty minutes of it in order “to sell more fucking ice cream to the punters.” Somehow his career was peppered with such incidents. In September 1980, O’Toole took on not only the title role but the stage management of a now-legendary run of Macbeth at London’s Old Vic. Timothy West, cast as Banquo, remembers a production meeting at which

Peter told us that his original conception of the play involved the use of inflatable scenery. I looked blankly at Mick Wicks, our designer. And Mick looked at the ceiling. “Inflatable scenery?” I ventured.

“Oh yes,” Peter assured me. “I am a director of an Irish concern called La Boota Ltd., so named because an entire set, when deflated, can be packed into the boot of a car. I suggest I bring our designer over at my own expense, set him up in a rehearsal room for two weeks to build the set, and after that time we’ll have a demonstration on stage. We have also designed a lighting rig using very small but very powerful lamps made out of Campbell’s soup tins, which can be operated from a transistorized panel on someone’s lap, sitting in the stalls.”

According to West, when the sold-out opening night came,

I watched, powerless to save the passengers as they pushed their way determinedly up the gangways of the Titanic . . . The audience were at first bewildered by what they saw, then there were some giggles, and when Peter appeared after the murder drenched in blood from head to foot, there was a burst of laughter.

Peter, expert comedian that he is, waited at the top of the stairs for the laughter to subside before exclaiming, “I have done the deed,” which brought the house down. From then on, right up to the final moment of the play when a nervous Dudley Sutton, as the victorious Macduff, retreated in terror before the superior swordplay of a Macbeth in modern baseball boots, not much could be taken seriously. I went home in despair.

Among the morning reviews: “A roaring-boy performance by O’Toole that is about as subtle as a battering-ram,” “Not so much bad as heroically ludicrous,” and — O’Toole’s own favorite — “A cross between Bette Davis and Vincent Price.”

Not, then, the world’s most uniformly conventional performer, or one who necessarily embraced the safe choice. OK, O’Toole’s career moves — with one or two notable exceptions — have become less compelling as the years go by, and we could perhaps have done without his turn in Thomas Kinkaide’s Christmas Cottage, or the voiceover in Ratatouille. But set against this is a body of work , not to mention those famously unrewarded eight Oscar nominations, not only consistently watchable, but at its best mesmerizingly brilliant, with just that hint of danger that’s such a big part of the appeal. There are individual scenes and sometimes whole films where you’re never quite sure what O’Toole will do next; not entirely surprisingly, since he once told me that about half the time, he hadn’t known himself.

Peter Seamus O’Toole was not born in Leeds, England, on June 2 1932. Over the years, some of the best minds in the Hollywood-biography business have worked long hours to determine the exact circumstances of O’Toole’s early life, elusive even in an industry where skinny “Stechetti” Sciolone could become Sophia Loren, and Marion Morrison saddle up as John Wayne. The best bet is that he came among us in August of that year, and probably in Ireland, an itinerant bookmaker’s son. Mainly due to illness, he had a poor education, instead spending weeks at a time in hospital with a variety of stomach and vision problems — he had eight operations on his left eye alone. As a result, he left school at 14, set off as a cub reporter, and eventually wandered into acting class in London, motivated less by artistic ambition than because it was “somewhere to meet girls.” O’Toole won prizes, toured with the Old Vic company, and in 1958 gave a turn as a modern-dress Hamlet, batting his eyes and neurotically sucking on a pearl cigarette-holder, that got the critics talking. An inauspicious film debut followed, before director David Lean came calling with Lawrence. The rest is history.

Of O’Toole’s 60 or so movie roles since then, you could arguably say about a dozen are touched by genius. The Stunt Man (1980) and My Favorite Year (1982) have attained cult status, and both bring the excitement and peril of a bravura performance — again, you’re never quite sure where he’s heading next. But if it’s real eccentricity you want, there’s The Ruling Class (1972), where O’Toole plays the heir to a British lordship who thinks he’s Jesus Christ. He’s at once physically funny, fizzing around with one of John Cleese’s silly walks, faintly grotesque, menacing, and largely unintelligible; even straining hard, you think you’re listening to Dean Martin announcing flight cancellations at JFK. Twenty years later, I saw O’Toole pack them in night after night in the West End theater in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a role perfectly suited to his persona as an endearingly slurred old boozer. Somehow appropriately, it was to prove to be O’Toole’s last-ever performance in front of a live audience, or so he says. A few months later, the playwright John Osborne tried to get him to star in Dejavu, his long-delayed sequel to Look Back in Anger. Osborne told me, “O’Toole was sending postcards telling me he was on, then he was off, then he was on again, only he wouldn’t be around for the summer since he was too busy playing cricket.” Meanwhile, posters went up announcing that O’Toole would star in Dejavu in an out-of-town run in Liverpool, before bringing “the season’s most keenly anticipated theatrical event” to London. They were premature. About a week before rehearsals, O’Toole finally got around to reading the script, which he judged to be in need of an edit. “Sing it, hum it, shout it, speak it, rapidly recitative it, exit and entrance it on golf carts or bumper cars,” he told Osborne, “when Act 11 of DEJAVU is uttered out loud it lasts for approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. That is 5 minutes less than the entire playing time of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.” Dejavu opened with another actor in the lead role and closed again a month later. Around the same time, O’Toole announced his retirement from the stage.

Since then we’ve had a master class in the art of professional decline management, with several superbly accomplished screen performances, a few that were maddeningly self-indulgent, and three or four genuine classics. For me, 2006’s Venus remains a standout. O’Toole performs the lead with all his magnificent authority, and that melancholy sweetness of his, a concavely thin old codger with an eye for the much younger ladies. It takes a special sort of self-possession to do what O’Toole does here, which is essentially to tell the audience: This is all of me, more or less, and you can take it or leave it. It’s such a generous offer that we almost always accept it. Gloria Swanson reached much this same stage of self-portrayal in Sunset Boulevard, just as John Wayne did in The Shootist, and you could argue that Hugh Grant rarely does much else. Anyway, O’Toole is brilliant. He’s randy and arrogant and vulnerable, quite often in the same scene, and we care about it when he dies. It’s hard to think of too many other 74-year-olds who could have brought it off. When it comes to a decrepit ex-matinee idol basically playing himself letching after a 22-year-old woman (who looks about 17), there can be no presumption of the audience’s sympathies. O’Toole, against the odds, wins us over, and he produces a rare sort of alchemy: lewd and ridiculous, but poignant and wistful too. His lion-in-winter tour de force surely deserved the Oscar that somehow instead — no disrespect — went to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland.

And then just the other day came a small gem called For Greater Glory. You should see this film. It’s the sometimes painfully sincere but consistently absorbing true-life story of the Cristero War that took place in 1920s Mexico. Andy Garcia takes the main role as General Gorostieta, a former revolutionary hero called out of retirement to take up the cause of the country’s hideously oppressed Roman Catholics. O’Toole plays the venerable Father Christopher. It’s a muted, somber performance, with none of your stagey mannerisms, just a raspy-voiced old hulk filled out with layers of feeling and pathos. It’s O’Toole going at 50 mph rather than 100 mph, but as he’s better at half speed than most actors are at their full speed, this shouldn’t come between him and another Oscar nomination next January. The scene where O’Toole shuffles quietly off to his death is a little marvel. He brings improbable quantities of dignity, naturalness, and warmth to a man who is being led off by a Mexican firing squad, his once-gorgeous face now wrinkled and pitted like a wedding cake left out in the rain. Although this film may not resonate down the years, it succeeds in the now by presenting characters you can properly care about, a moral center, some stirring action scenes, and a faithfulness to the facts, which doesn’t happen every day when it comes to Hollywood making films about historical events.

Although O’Toole may have tarnished his legend once or twice in the last 20 years — his appearance in Lassie (2005) is as corny as a whoopee cushion — there aren’t many other leading men who have consistently brought off the same mixture of sensitivity, skewed charm, and physical magnetism as he has. I hope he’s with us for another couple of decades or more, but when he eventually dies, you can bet we’ll miss him. It will seem like a friend is gone.