Peter O’Toole Has Left The Room

Art & Culture

This is not a life obituary, since he has not died (he will be 80 on August 2nd), but Peter O'Toole has announced his retirement from acting, so this seems like a good time to reflect on a career that has spanned over 50 years, but really began in 1962, when he was cast as Lawrence of Arabia.

It's hard to believe it, but Marlon Brando was originally the actor of choice for the role of the complex Englishman whose name is still legendary, nearly 100 years after he first became famous. Brando, thank goodness, was unavailable, since he was buggering around on the set of Mutiny On The Bounty, making a really bad job of pretending to be English. The next name chosen was Albert Finney, and a picture exists of him in costume, looking remarkably like the real man. But he decided he didn't want to be a star (Tom Jones changed that 2 years later), so his RADA classmate, O'Toole was chosen.

The rest is cinema history. David Lean's epic film achieved huge critical and commercial success, and is as great a film now as it was half a century ago – possibly greater. If you ever get the chance to see it on a big screen, grab it. Although O'Toole bore little resemblance to real Lawrence (see this picture), he created a charismatic hero who has remained larger than life ever since. He didn't win an Oscar, it went to Gregory Peck for playing Gandhi's younger brother in To Kill A Mockingbird, but it did establish him with a star status that he did his best to piss away over the next few years. Incidentally, he ended up with 8 Oscar nominations, but never won once, being awarded an honorary Oscar a few years ago.

The thing to remember about O'Toole is that he saw himself as an outsider, a bad boy and a troublemaker, along with his mates like Richard Harris, and therefore he presumably got as much pleasure from getting into trouble and winding up the establishment, as he did from acting. He certainly gave that impression. He managed two more good performances in the 60s, playing the same character, Henry II. In Becket, he costarred with Richard Burton (I assume the drinking reached Olympic levels), and in The Lion In Winter, his queen was Katherine Hepburn. The rest of the decade was forgettable.

I have a soft spot for a film called The Ruling Class made in 1972, in which he plays an aristocrat who has a nervous breakdown, which is very funny, but not a lot else of interest happened until 1980, when he got another Oscar nomination for a now-forgotten film called The Stunt Man. Much better was My Favorite Year in 1982, in which he played an Errol Flynn-like film star who has to be shepherded round New York by a nervous young man, in a scenario not a million miles from My Week With Marilyn – but without the erotic undertow.

Another 5 years passed, and then he appeared in a supporting role in The Last Emperor, Bertolucci's overrated epic, before lapsing back into mediocre films once again. He is possibly the only actor to have played both Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle (Holmes's creator), but in neither of those roles did he distinguish himself, and it was not until the 21st century that he once again reminded us of how good he could be.

In Venus, he plays an old bloke who unexpectedly becomes the friend and confidante of a much younger girl. It's a beautifully observed relationship for which he was given his 8th and last Oscar nomination. Better still, though, is his role in Dean Spanley, a film that everyone who loves films should see, as an old man mourning the loss of one son by being unpleasant to the surviving one. It's such a perfect performance that I can almost forgive him for how much time he wasted on inferior films over the previous 50 years.

I'm glad to say he never accepted a knighthood, and pleased that he has chosen to call time on his own terms, rather than slogging on till the bitter end. It may be that there are only a handful of great performances to be cherished, but at least we have those to remember him by.

By Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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