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.
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.”
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.
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.