Sunday, December 15, 2013

Farewell to an acting legend

Most people, when they hear the name Peter O'Toole, immediately associate that name with Lawrence of Arabia. I guess I do as well, but Lawrence is not my favorite O'Toole film. That distinction is shared by not one, but three films, one he made in the mid-1970s (The Ruling Class) and the other two he made in the early 1980s (The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year). And my all-time favorite O'Toole moment is when, in Year, her utters one of the most famous lines in cinema history: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star." My second favorite is the scene in Ruling Class when he's telling the patrons of a British pub how bones snap when a person is hanged and he breaks into the song Dry Bones.

He was, a movie star of the highest order who was also one of the finest actors ever captured on film.

He was nominated for an Oscar eight times, but never won (although he was awarded an honorary one in 2003). Although I thought he should have won for Lawrence (you can count on one hand the number of scenes in that epic adventure that he isn't in), but I can't raise that much of a stink that Gregory Peck beat him out for the much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I grumbled a little louder when Rex Harrison won in 1964, the year O'Toole was nominated for Becket (it was even a bigger crime that O'Toole's co-star in that film, Richard Burton didn't win). But I was incensed when O'Toole was nominated for The Lion in Winter and Cliff Robertson (c'mon, Cliff effing Robertson?) took home the trophy. In true O'Toole style, I went out and got raging drunk with a couple of writing buddies the night of that travesty.

O'Toole's early education came in Catholic schools in the English city of Leeds. Writing of that time, he said “I used to be scared stiff of the nuns: their whole denial of womanhood – the black dresses and the shaving of the hair – was so horrible, so terrifying. Of course, that's all been stopped. They're sipping gin and tonic in the Dublin pubs now, and a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day." You just gotta love the guy.

O'Toole later won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was in the same class with Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. He was regarded as a superb Shakespearean actor on the English stage. He made his first appearance on British television in 1954 and in film in 1959 with a small part in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. But then came Lawrence (1962), a part he played after Marlon Brando and Albert Finney turned it down. His performance in Lawrence was ranked No. 1 in Premiere magazine's listing of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time,

O'Toole officially retired from acting in July, 2012 and he died today in a London hospital. But the performances he leaves behind reinforces the reason why anyone who cares a whit about great acting must own a DVD player and, at least, eight O'Toole titles. I'm not going to tell you which ones they should be. You won't go wrong with any of them.

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