Hellraising Irish-born British star of “Becket” and “Lawrence of Arabia” who passed away at 81 embodied the Dionysian spirit in cinema like no other
Peter O’ Toole, who passed away this Tuesday aged 81, was Hollywood ’s Golden Boy at a time when its Golden Age was fast withering.
The legend of how chance played a role in his meteoric ascent to stardom in 1962 at age 30, how Marlon Brando and compatriot Albert Finney (despite an impressive screen test) passed over the opportunity to play T. E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is now a hoary one.
Few cinematic performances in history have been as all-encompassing as that of O’ Toole’s T. E. Lawrence – a crafty, masochistic idealist tortured by his sexual ambivalence; an aesthete and adventurer who lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War; an English hero.
The film showcased to the hilt the traits in O’ Toole’s celluloid arsenal - anachronistic madness coupled with a magnetic, almost infectious eccentricity, that were to season his future performances. The performance also contained strains of his future hamminess, causing his dear friend Omar Sharif to quip of O’ Toole: “He was the prototype of the ham.”
The role was to form an aliquot part in all his subsequent performances. Be it Becket, Lord Jim, The Lion in Winter or The Ruling Class - there was something of Lawrence invariably embedded in them.
For no actor - not Chaplin, not Olivier – seized fame with such dramatic audacity or became as identified with his character in his first major film role. So much so that his road to fame appeared to be charted with almost predestined presumptuousness.
O’ Toole’s distinguished physical presence certainly abetted him in this quest, what with his flowing, golden locks, the gaunt and Hellenic beauty of his face, mesmerising, dreamy eyes bluer than the Hope diamond, and a voice that “had a crack like a whip” (as Richard Burton put it).
But it was his Dionysian personality, his dazzling wit and erudition that place him in the league of legends who make the current crop of actors appear Lilliputian and render current cinema in the Western world superfluous.
Peter O’ Toole was perhaps the greatest cinematic English actor of the post-Olivier generation, certainly the most original. No mean feat at a time with Peter Finch and Richard Burton at their peaks and Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Richard Harris were carving out their respective paths to cinematic stardom. All were O’ Toole’s partners in Bacchanalian revelries.
All were imbued with a passion for literature; spouting Shakespeare, indulging in frenetic raconteuring- they constituted a hell-raising clique that elevated acting standards like no other.
Sadly, O’ Toole’s spellbinding talents remained underutilized in the Theatre, where he first enraptured critics and audiences alike with contemporary kitchen-sink roles like Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s Look back in Anger (1957) and the anti-authoritarian Private Bamforth in Willis Hall’s The Long, the Short and the Tall (1959).
But it was his mesmerising portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1960 at 28 that heralded the arrival of a prodigy on the London Stage. O’ Toole was nonpareil in the ability to dominate a cinematic scene. He stole a scene from the crème de la crème without breaking into a sweat.
In doing this, there was none of the profane Sturm und Drang histrionics of Pacino and De Niro which many among the younger audience dub “brilliant acting.”
For O’ Toole did his theatrics with powerful linguistic gymnastics, not slang or earthy profanity.
Take The Night of the Generals (1967) - an unjustly derided murder- mystery set among the Nazi high command and the Wehrmacht during WW2, O’Toole plays the insane General Tanz, a Nazi ‘Jack-the-Ripper’ with a penchant for butchering prostitutes while the war rages on.
The film, an anti Lawrence-epic, featured a stellar cast, reuniting O’Toole with Sharif, who turns in a wonderful performance as a justice-obsessed German detective hell bent on solving the crime.
O’ Toole dominates proceedings with an obscene imperiousness, chewing and molesting every scene with merely an icy twitch of his jaw that would put Hannibal Lecter’s cannibal histrionics to shame.
Likewise, despite Richard Burton etching a complex and fabulous Becket (1964) and Katharine Hepburn acting up a storm as the combative, tigress-like Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968) – both 12 century pageant-dramas lush with verbal fireworks – it is O’Toole, performing as Henry II in both films, who catches you by the throat and unnerves you with a ferocious intensity.
Madness is the common denominator in all of O’ Toole’s performances. There was madness in his melancholia, madness in his comedy, disturbing madness in his turbulence, madness even in his sadness.
His madness, roamed recklessly without system; freed from its cinematic straitjacket, unleashing itself upon mainstream audiences. It was terrifying and beautiful at once. Some truly hideous movie choices abounded in that period which included the cataleptic Rosebud (1975), the weird Powerplay (1979) and the ignominious Caligula (1979) – a $15 million semi-porno flick strewn with classical stage actors of the English stage.
But he rebounded with a hypnotic performance as the power-crazed director Eli Cross in Richard Rush’s dazzling Stuntman (1980) and displayed his flair yet again for broad comedy playing the dissolute, washed out Errol Flynn-like actor Alan Swann yearning for a lost age in Richard Benjamin’s My Favourite Year (1982).
If not an actor, O’Toole most certainly would have become a hell-raising author. The two-volumes of his autobiography, Loitering with Intent: the Child and Loitering with Intent: the Apprentice, bear testimony to that. Their zany prose and jeux d’ ésprit rank with the best Joyce has ever written.
The uninitiated, often vacuous cinemagoer of the day drooling over Benedict Cumberbatch would do well to discover and experience a full-bodied “elemental” O’ Toole performance. Believe me, it is a liberating experience to savour this man who thought his life to be “either a wake or a wedding”.