The first time I saw Peter O’Toole was either in CLUB PARADISE or CREATOR. Neither of those are movies I suspect meant much to him, or to most of the film fans who love him best. CLUB PARADISE would have been on my adolescent radar due to its being a Harold Ramis joint. I may have came for Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy, but I came away with the sense that the old British guy was pretty cool, in a louche way. He was a little more soulful in CREATOR, I think. Unfortunately I don’t remember much from that movie beside Mariel Hemingway being naked in it, but I’ll grant the whole thing was over my head at the time and I focused on the parts I could handle.
What I didn’t know at the time, as a foetal cinemaphile, was how important an acting career Peter O’Toole had. He was a stage actor in England, with an emphasis on Shakespeare, before his worldwide success after taking on the lead in David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. O’Toole was startlingly beautiful in that film, and in several to follow. After much hard living, his looks eventually faded to the point where he resembled everyone’s favorite grandma, but seriously, there will be few O’Toole retrospectives today which will avoid fixating upon his appearance in his youth.
He had the presence and the skill to match: If we must measure an actor in terms of Academy Award nominations, it should be noted that he was nominated for eight over the course of his career, never taking one home until 2003, when they gave him the honorary Oscar. The majority of those nominations (including those from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, BECKET, and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS) came from the first phase of his career, when he was anchoring weighty and ambitious epics and dramas. Even a cursory glance over his filmography would lead the armchair observer to conclude that O’Toole quickly lost interest in being an international star, or at least had other pressing concerns. That’s generally how you go from LORD JIM to Zaltar in SUPERGIRL.
The book HELLRAISERS by Robert Sellers is an irresistible, if gossipy, read, as it lumps O’Toole in with the other great problem drinkers of the British stage and the worldwide screen — Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed. It’s problematic to link four phenomenal careers on the basis of off-screen alcohol-fueled antics alone, but this is a heavily-detailed account which aggregates a lot of interesting information on the films as much as the brawls and the womanizing. O’Toole outlived them all, and his quotes stand out as the wittiest in a book that has no shortage of quotable moments.
It certainly isn’t that O’Toole never appeared in a worthy film after the early 1970s; more that his roles, especially in the better films, relied on O’Toole as an icon, a shorthand for a film’s desire for cinematic import, rather than as an actor. MY FAVORITE YEAR, for which he was again nominated by the Academy, is the best first example of this trend. For every one like THE LAST EMPEROR, there are more like KING RALPH. O’Toole, along with Julie Christie, was trotted out for 2004’s TROY as an attempt to give the movie more of a grand imprimatur than it deserved. It’s arguable that his last truly noteworthy and memorable role was as Anton Ego, the intimidating food critic, in 2007’s RATATOUILLE.
As unknowable as O’Toole was in his most famous role in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, that’s how wry and witty I remember him from some of those junkier paycheck movies he did, and how he is in the great under-recognized cult classic THE STUNT MAN, and certainly that’s how he was in print and interviews. Looking up some of those would be a nice way to remember him today.
I’ve only written about Peter O’Toole and his movies twice, and both times rather briefly, but the films I chose to write about are films which represent two of his finest moments. Here are my pieces on THE STUNT MAN (1980) and of course LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). Thanks for reading.