The Five OTHER Peter O'Toole Movies That Thou Must See
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Tim Wilson : The Five OTHER Peter O'Toole Movies That Thou Must See
When Peter O'Toole passed away in 2013 at age 81, he still seemed too young to leave us. Between the time he spent on stage (primarily in plays by Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett) and breaks for his poor health, we simply didn't see him in enough movies.
His performance in Lawrence of Arabia was so overwhelming, and the movie itself so very nearly perfect, that it's easy to forget that Peter's resume is full of performances at least that strong – even if the movies themselves were only occasionally even close to Lawrence's league.
For that matter, some of Peter's best work was never nominated for Oscars at all. He of course never won, making him the actor with the most nominations to still fall short. His performances rarely did, though. Here are five movies to set the record straight: Peter O'Toole brought us more than Lawrence. There was never anyone like him, and here are some examples of why there never will be.
THE RULING CLASS (1972)
Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney is a paranoid schizophrenic who accidentally becomes the 14th Earl of Gurney. His delusion that he's Jesus Christ is a problem for his membership in the House of Lords, so his family conspires to get him out of the way. O'Toole is both sweet and charismatic as the "God of Love," gently dismissing naysayers with open arms, and a beatific expression lit from within. Nobody was ever as luminous as O'Toole was in roles like this.
The second half turns very, very dark. Attempts to "cure" him work in one way. Jack is no longer "Jesus, the God of Love," but now, Jack The Ripper – a vile, murderous misogynist who has cultivated the skill of appearing civilized when needed for his public political life.
Jack eventually makes a ranting, psychotic speech extolling corporal and capital punishment on the floor of the House of Lords, to rioutous applause. So there it is: preaching love, he's seen as a madman. Ranting hate, he becomes a political hero.
Parts of the satire seem dated, and were pretty heavy-handed for the time. The priesthood, the debauched peerage, social norms – all of this and more comes under fire, and in most ways, falling short of the standards of British satire from decades earlier. Yet even as the heavy-handedness feels dated, it also feels far more relevant than when I first saw it 30 years ago.
Here's the thing though: it gets DARK. REALLY DARK. One of the blackest of black comedies I've ever seen. I can't imagine the viewer who won't come out of it disturbed, and maybe a little sickened. But my my my, this is one of the most powerful performances in the history of movies. O'Toole is so persuasively light and dark, entirely organically integrating both, that it's almost impossible to believe how naturally he reveals both sides of Jack's character.
Apparently effortless and overwhelmingly powerful at the same time, and absolutely indisispensible. If you want to see what bravura acting is all about, start here.
The unfortunate news is that this one won't be easy to come by. The 2001 Criterion DVD was a limited edition (100,000 copies) and all-but-vanished. It's worth hunting down though, if for no other reason than a nifty commentary track from O'Toole, director Peter Medak, and writer Peter Barnes, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel. The addition of Medak's home movies from the set aren't essential, but they're fun. Worth hunting down, though.
"The Ruling Class" Trailer
THE STUNT MAN (1980)I actually came within a hairsbreadth of putting this in my top slot for must-see O'Toole performances. It's breathtaking, in a movie that should be much better known than it is today. O'Toole won his sixth Best Actor Oscar nom for this one, which also won nominations for director Richard Rush and his adapted screenplay, co-written with Lawrence Marcus.
This thing is insane, as is the making of the movie. The first 8 years of its journey were tangled up in financial disaster and artistic head-butting. As Rush observed later, "They couldn't figure out if it was a comedy, a drama, if it was a social satire, if it was an action adventure...and, of course, the answer was, 'Yes, it's all those things'. But that isn't a satisfactory answer to a studio executive."
O'Toole felt especially strongly about the film's potential, reportedly telling Rush, "If you don't give me the part, I will kill you." Watching him in it, it's not hard to believe. It's another of his most complex, nuanced performances: charming, abusive, generous, visionary, manipulative, benevolent, cruel – sometimes all of these in a single line.
What's especially fun for movie-philes (even more than cine-philes) is the playful look at moviemaking with O'Toole as Eli Cross, a director with a God complex. God? Cross? GET IT? That's about as subtle as the movie gets – to the extent that you can figure out what's going on at all. The movie plays with reality for the viewer, leaving us constantly wondering what we're looking at. The actors in the movie being made feel the same thing we do as we're watching: "Is he trying to get a realistically terrified performance out of me, or is he is REALLY trying to kill me?" The actor is never clear on this, and neither are we.
Clip from "The Stunt Man"
It's so hard to find your footing, that I understand why it took another two years after it was made to find a distribution deal. Response was divided among critics and audiences, with a recent thread on the IMDb discussion board with the subject, "Can anyone explain this movie?"
Here's the answer in eight words: Peter O'Toole at the very top of his game. Four more words: filmmaking without a net.
Not always pleasant, but I really do recommend this one extremely highly.
Fortunately, it's easier to find than The Ruling Class. Amazon Instant has it, and it's available on Blu-ray and DVD. Those disk versions are the ones to go with if you can, featuring another nifty commentary by O'Toole – who observes "This movie wasn't released – it ESCAPED" – along with director/author Rush, actors Steve Railsback (playing the stunt man) and Alex Rocco in a variety of features and commentaries.
The original 2-disk DVD set also includes a separate feature, THE SINISTER SAGA OF MAKING 'THE STUNT MAN.' What a mess that thing is. Very informative, but turn of the century "edgy" DV filmmaking at its absolute worst. Still, you can get it for under $3 used, and if you like The Stunt Man as much as I think you will, you'll enjoy this making-of feature. Enough. Once.
BECKET (1964) / THE LION IN WINTER (1968)
Not that they're the same movie by any means, or even much related. I much prefer the first, which puts O'Toole toe to toe with Richard Burton at his most gorgeous. The two were both nominated for Best Actor, much preferable to the contemporary dodge of artificially pushing one of them into the supporting role – where in fact, John Gielgud had been nominated for this film as well.
Anne V. Coates was nominated for an Oscar for her editing, having won for Lawrence of Arabia. The total of 10 nominations for Becket included Best Picture, Best Director, and "Best Cinematography, Color" (except for 1957, color and B&W were separate categories from 1939-1967), with a win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The deeply passionate, conflicted relationship that Burton and O'Toole portray was rendered as unambiguously platonic, no winks whatsoever, and if we could, pretty please, use the word "homoerotic" entirely devoid of literally sexual connotation – IT'S NOT ABOUT SEX – an exceptionally powerful and profoundly moving example of it is here on full display.
This is also a reminder of the days when actors themselves provided the spectacle, bursting out of the Panavision frame. You really don't want to miss this one.
Hey, and a funky historical footnote: O'Toole dropped out of the original stage production of Becket to star in Lawrence of Arabia!
A LION IN WINTER takes place in a single year contained in Becket's epic sweep. It's a bit harder to watch, even though Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor of Acquitane (in the only tie for Best Actress in Oscar history, with Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl), more than holding her own against the once again Oscar-nominated O'Toole. The screwball-style interactions between them – rapid fire, sotto voce – are anything but comic though. They're kind of mean, with Eleanor definitely taking the worst of it.
It's not technically in my overall Peter O'Toole top 5, as it's really more of a great Katherine Hepburn movie than a great Peter O'Toole movie, but I can't think of Becket without thinking of this. Still, it's an outstanding movie, winning 3 of its 7 Oscar nominations (Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Score), and if the notion of these two titanic talents going full-tilt at each other sounds appealing, you won't be disappointed.
"Goodbye Mr. Chips" Trailer
GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (1969)
An almost perfect remake, for all the right reasons: take a beloved black & white picture from 30 years earlier that was feeling more dated than it deserved, update it with the beloved Peter O'Toole still ascending, make it widescreen, and add indelible, musical moments courtesy of the luminous Petula Clark.
Honestly, it feels a little odd to be adding yet another Oscar-nominated role to the list of his overlooked performances (his 4th of 8), but dagnabbit, I don't hear people talking about this one as much as it deserves. Critical reaction to the movie as a whole was mixed at the time, but not the praise for these two actors, who are both fantastic. (Critics might have been somewhat divided, but audiences weren't divided at all: universal love for both the actors and the picture.)
O'Toole is more than the title character. He's the way we experience the changing world of English boarding schools from the time between the World Wars through the late 60s – but that comes nowhere close to doing justice to the wondrousness of his performance.
The other movies on this list see O'Toole exploding out of the screen with the overwhelming scale of his performance, but he breaks through this time through the quiet intimacy of his performance. It's so deeply felt, so completely human, so utterly HUMANE, that if you're not moved to tears at least twice during the picture, I don't want to hear about it.
WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT (1965) / LORD JIM (1965)
Even though O'Toole is theoretically the lead (you can tell, because every woman in the picture is in love with him), Peter Sellers shares top billing as O'Toole's psychiatrist, who happens to be stalking one of his patients, who happens to be in love with O'Toole's character. Even though it's intended as a light comedy, a swinging sixties take on French farce – Everybody winds up in the same country inn! On the same weekend! And none of them know it! – it's kind of creepy.
The energy cannot be denied, though. Sellers was in manic mode, famously drugged up offscreen, and turned up to 11. One can only imagine that O'Toole and any number of bottles of brown liquid were finding their way to each other as well. Things were so out of hand that the theatrical trailer opens with two bloopers!
Plus the Oscar-nominated title track by Burt Bachrach and Hal David, with Tom Jones singing the snot out of it. Plus the poster art by Frank Frazetta.
And yes, Peter O'Toole, neither bellowing nor intimate, just blasting his way through an iconic performance that became an archetype, and later, a caricature. This kind of self-indulgent, big-budget disposability, created and delivered with little regard for the audience, is the kind of thing that eventually sent the entire decade of major studio filmmaking off the rails, and didn't do anything at all for the health of its leads...but if you can get past the sexism, it's a wild ride. Frankly, it's remarkable that anyone survived the making of it. That O'Toole still manages to somehow tower over the madness is almost stupefying.
Wikipedia reports without citation that, despite it undeniably falling flat, O'Toole later said that Lord Jim was the finest role he did. ABC's obituary quotes him saying, "[My performance] was a mistake and I made the mistake because I was conservative and played safe." There's an extent to which the truth lies somewhere between, and another extent to which both are entirely, 100% true.
When I said at the beginning of this article that we'll never see another one like him, consider this: he made Lawrence, Becket, Lord Jim and What's New, Pussycat? IN A ROW, between 1962 and 1965, and still managed to take a little time off to play Hamlet, under Laurence Olivier's direction in the Royal National Theatre in 1963.
There are many other even more deeply hidden gems in Peter O'Toole's filmography, but add these five to the two that most O'Toole fans have surely seen (Lawrence of Arabia and My Favorite Year), and you'll have witnessed more magic, more power, and more sheer delight in the power of performance than most actors delivered in careers with 10 or 15 times as many pictures.
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