O'Toole '07: Still on a Role

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Peter O'Toole's recent Golden Globe nomination for best actor in "Venus" caps a brilliant acting career and strongly suggests an eighth Oscar nomination. But his reemergence as a leading man -- at age 74 -- also sends a defiant message: There's plenty of life in the old boy yet.

As someone for whom the dawn of movies coincided with O'Toole in the 1962 "Lawrence of Arabia," I've revered him from an early age. But for almost as long, I've been fully expecting him to take his place on that Old Vic stage in the sky -- along with the Alec Guinnesses and Laurence Oliviers.

To those who remember his wilder, halcyon days, this seemingly macabre perspective will make sense. O'Toole legendarily caroused in the 1960s and 1970s with Omar Sharif (his co-star in "Lawrence") and the two naughty Richards -- Burton and Harris. That era of boozing when, as O'Toole once described it, "one went for a beer in Paris and woke up in Corsica," exacted its payment in 1974. Was it hard drinking or stomach cancer, or both, that led to surgery to remove parts of O'Toole's stomach and intestines? Accounts differ. But the ravages of alcohol were clear in that haggard (if still lively) face forever more.

Watching O'Toole's slurry but spirited performance in "Uncle Vanya" on the Kennedy Center stage in 1978 -- he was so exuberant, he projected arcs of saliva into the front rows -- was enjoyable and unnerving. The eyes flashed as bright and blue as ever amid that luminously pallid face, and it seemed to me he was neither dead nor alive, but existentially animated. Grateful to have finally seen him in the flesh before he passed on, I mentally said goodbye.

But there I was, in a movie theater in 1980, watching his "comeback" role in "The Stunt Man." O'Toole was terrific, and received the sixth of his seven Oscar nominations. I caught him on television the following year, when he played a Roman general in the miniseries "Masada." And he was back again for 1982's "My Favorite Year," garnering his seventh nomination.

As always, I enjoyed O'Toole's larger-than-life persona, his thunderous projection and that mischievous naughty-boy mien that marks every performance. But I also anticipated reading the final recap of his storied life soon thereafter, under some arresting image of O'Toole in Lawrence's kaffiyeh, glowing with beauty and youth.

O'Toole was having none of this. He kept appearing and reappearing on screen, in memorable and not so memorable supporting roles. ("Supergirl"? "Club Paradise"? What's British for "oy"?) His best small turn: as the British tutor in 1987's "The Last Emperor," in which he seemed to be a variation of Arthur Chipping, the schoolteacher he played so memorably in 1969's "Goodbye, Mr. Chips."

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences contacted O'Toole about awarding him a lifetime Oscar, he asked if they would defer the prize until he was 80, since he was "still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright." They apparently talked him out of it. He gamely accepted the trophy in 2003.

In this age of Netflix and movies on demand, we can appreciate O'Toole's brilliance anytime. So here are some recommendations to launch you on that journey, in chronological order:

"Lawrence of Arabia." Top of the list in every sense. If you can't see this in a theater -- during a retrospective at the American Film Institute, perhaps -- catch it on the widest screen you can mount on a living-room wall. But in any format, he's the embodiment of beauty. Those eyes out-blue Sinatra's and Newman's, and in this epic drama, they portend military genius, moral ferment, and quite possibly madness.

"Becket" (1964). As a feverishly exasperated King Henry II, O'Toole's the one who yells the famous question: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" He's talking about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, of course, played by his pubmate Richard Burton.

"How to Steal a Million" (1966). Forget the bank heist plot in this romantic caper. Instead, enjoy two of the prettiest screen stars of all-time playing kissy-face: O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn.

" The Night of the Generals" (1967). In this murder mystery set in World War II, O'Toole's role as a deranged Nazi officer gives the actor full license to twitch, stammer and reel. Not to be missed.

"The Lion in Winter" (1968). O'Toole is Henry II again, but this time he's even more outlandish -- scheming, shrieking and squabbling with his headstrong wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), over which of his sons to appoint as his successor. One of those filial candidates is Richard, played by a very youthful Anthony Hopkins.

"Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969). Perhaps Robert Donat's turn as Mr. Chipping in the 1939 version is the better, but O'Toole's schoolmaster is a charming, lovable goofball, whose adoration of the classics, his students and a young lady named Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark) draws tears every time.

"The Ruling Class" (1972). O'Toole's the 14th Earl of Gurney, a demented Englishman who believes he's Jesus. How does he know, one woman asks. "Simple," replies the Earl. "When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself."

"The Stunt Man" (1980). As flamboyant film director Eli Cross, who hires a fugitive from justice as his stuntman, O'Toole takes full command of his role and the movie. "If they touch my film," Eli says, referring to all studio executives daring to interfere, "I'll kill them. I'll kill them and I'll eat them."

"My Favorite Year" (1982). O'Toole plays Alan Swann, a satirical version of his offscreen image, a former matinee idol and well-known drunk whose guest appearance in a 1950s-era live TV comedy show leads to predictable anxiety on the set. "He's plastered," complains one of the writers when Swann stumbles into a meeting room, completely inebriated. "So are some of the finest erections in Europe," Swann retorts.

Yes, that's nine. And, indeed, this list could also have contained the thoroughly enjoyable "Lord Jim" and "Murphy's War." But the 10th and final spot belongs to "Venus," which opens here Jan. 19. Watch that film, in which O'Toole plays an over-the-hill stage actor who falls in love with a teenage girl, and you'll see why he will give Oscar front-runner Forest Whitaker (who plays Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland") a run for his money. And you'll also see why this fan has learned to give up the death watch and simply enjoy a great performer and survivor.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company