Peter O’Toole was insouciant, dapper, elegant, somehow intensely English and also outrageously sexy
Perhaps there were other actors as beautiful as Peter O’Toole in his 60s pomp but surely no one had such mesmeric eyes — the eyes of a seducer, a visionary or an anchorite, a sinner or a saint. That long, handsome face compellingly suggested something intelligent and romantic. But there was also something tortured there, sexually wayward and dysfunctional, something that no O’Toole character would ever entirely own up to.
In 1962, aged 30, the unknown Peter O’Toole made one of the most brilliant debuts in Hollywood history, playing the mercurial Arabist and aesthete T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s monumental Lawrence Of Arabia. He made a sensational splash — as big as the one Vivien Leigh had made in Gone With the Wind a generation before. He was insouciant, dapper, elegant, somehow intensely English — though O’Toole himself was an Irishman and proud of it — and also outrageously sexy.
Here was an authentic star who had sprung almost fully formed out of nowhere: different from the new working-class young lions such as Albert Finney or Michael Caine, with a refinement and self-awareness that could be compared to that of Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton. And what was so extraordinary about Lawrence Of Arabia was that it was a movie without any women in it, and O’Toole was a male lead without romantic interest. Lean conveyed as far as he could the hint of homoeroticism. In other roles O’Toole would be very much the ladies’ man, but this element of exoticism and danger never entirely left him.
Incredibly, O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor eight times but never won — and he was not entirely mollified by his lifetime achievement Oscar in 2003. His last nomination was in 2006 at the age of 74, playing the ageing actor Maurice in Roger Michell’s Venus, tormented by desire for a beautiful young woman, played by Jodie Whittaker. It was a classic O’Toole performance in a classic O’Toole role: a little louche, witty and self-mocking, candidly disturbed by his sexual feelings — taking refuge from painful emotions in a brittle parade of erudition and affectation. It all only revealed his vulnerability more clearly.
The 60s were his great period: a dynamic, good-looking star who always promised and delivered something special. He was nominated for Oscars for his performances in Peter Glenville’s Becket in 1964, playing opposite Burton, and in Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter in 1968, with Katharine Hepburn.
Interestingly, in both films he played the same character, the embattled King Henry II. In Becket he faced off against Burton’s Thomas Becket, a saint in the making, and in The Lion in Winter, he struggled against the increasing ambition and resentment of his sons and his wife, Eleanor Of Aquitaine, played by Hepburn. The role brought out the regal hauteur in O’Toole, his highly strung quality, his ability to show the fear and rage of an alpha-male in retreat. It was a showcase for thespian fireworks — and perhaps, it could be admitted, showed O’Toole’s weakness for stagey hamminess, which was to come to full, legendary flower not in the movies but in his stage version of Macbeth in 1981. But these films showed real technique and accomplishment.
In Herbert Ross’s Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), based on the Terence Rattigan stage play, he won hearts as well as minds with a tender performance as the shy schoolmaster who falls in love with Petula Clark, and in 1972 he gave an extraordinary turn in a cult movie rarely revived now, Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class, in which he played a young man who succeeds to an earldom after the ageing incumbent dies in an auto-erotic strangling incident, and reveals that he believes himself to be Jesus Christ. It is a tale of bizarre freakiness and loopiness. Only O’Toole could have got away with its sheer English oddness.
From here O’Toole’s career went into the doldrums, but two remarkable films — both about movies and show business — brought him back to public attention in the 1980s. In The Stunt Man, he was a megalomaniac film director, much addicted to swooping about the place in his crane from which he got a God’s-eye view through overhead camera shots.
And Richard Benjamin’s My Favourite Year (1982) is my favourite Peter O’Toole film. It is based on awestruck reports about the ageing and drunken Errol Flynn’s chaotic appearance on Sid Caesar’s programme Your Show of Shows in the 50s. O’Toole played an amiable but washed-up Hollywood movie star from the golden age who is booked to appear on a top-rated TV variety show.
To the relief and delight of everyone, he reveals himself in rehearsal to be something of a comedy natural, but that is only because he doesn’t fully understand that the show will be broadcast live and that he will not have the movie star’s traditional prerogative of calling for retakes. O’Toole himself was an absolute delight in My Favourite Year, with a superb comic touch and a twinkly eyed sense of how to send himself up.
His legendary status was beyond question and he would continue to work indefatigably, coming out of retirement this year to play the Roman orator Gallus in Michael Redwood’s sword-and-sandal drama Katherine of Alexandria. This was his final film.
But he will always be remembered for his great role, to which he brought such passion and power: T.E. Lawrence, who single-handedly led an Arab force against the Ottoman empire and succeeded in infuriating the stuffy dullards who made up the British army’s officer class. He brought pure sensual excitement and danger to the cinema screen. What a sad passing.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013