Monday, February 10, 2014

Peter O’Toole and the Modern Breed of English Movie Actors

Before Peter O’Toole died in mid-December at the age of eighty-one, he was probably the greatest male actor in the movies; if you wanted to be more circumspect you might have tied him with Michael Caine. His career in film stretched back more than half a century, on TV and in live theatre even farther. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1952 and 1954, where his classmates included Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Brian Bedford – just a sample of what can only be assumed to be the most amazing generation of British actors in history. Think about it: O’Toole’s cohort also included Maggie Smith, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Richard Harris, Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Rosemary Harris, Tom Courtenay, Diana Rigg, Claire Bloom, Joan Plowright and Julie Christie. Their predecessors had included such luminaries as John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, and of course Laurence Olivier: classically trained stage actors who conferred a kind of aristocratic status on the projects in which they were involved. They were strikingly different from their American peers – classier, better spoken, more pensive, with vastly more impressive dramatic ranges but (with the exceptions of Guinness and Olivier) less star dazzle. England didn’t cultivate stars; the English film industry, for all its virtues, was more sedate, more modest, a little grayer. O’Toole’s generation was more dynamic. They came up after the war, and the Suez crisis, which denoted the last gasps of the British Empire, helped to form their world view. When they began their careers the Angry Young Man playwrights were transforming the English theatre: Burton, Bloom, Plowright, Bates and Finney appeared in the exciting film versions of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. They married the same fastidious classical training the preceding generation had received with a more democratic sense of what theatre could offer, an instinct for the camera, the uncorseting influences of the American Method and the sixties, and a willingness to explore sexuality as part of the process of building a character. And they didn’t just want to be stage and TV actors; they wanted to be movie stars too, and many of them became just that.

In the late fifties and early sixties, moviegoing adults who were fed up with glossy, watered-down, neutered Hollywood product gravitated to the art houses to see the first flowering of the French New Wave and the Italian New Wave and the most provocative new pictures out of Great Britain: not just the Osborne adaptations but also Room at the Top with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, Sons and Lovers with Wendy Hiller and Trevor Howard (and the American actor Dean Stockwell), A Taste of Honey with Rita Tushingham, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. But when audiences saw O’Toole in the title role of Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, the dividing line between the art-house British import and the cross-Atlantic movie star cracked forever.

Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

David Lean was the right director to effect the shift. Though his early movies had been collaborations with Noël Coward and warmly received adaptations of Dickens novels, though his lifelong subject was what it means to be English, Lean was the first British filmmaker to make an international blockbuster, the multi-Oscared 1957 war picture The Bridge on the River Kwai, which had both a British star (Alec Guinness) and an American one (William Holden). From that point on, Lean was in the business of making expensive roadshow movies. Lawrence of Arabia ran four hours with an intermission (the first two and a half are stunning, until the picture sinks into incoherence). And its protagonist was an enigmatic war hero with pale blue eyes and golden hair and a charismatic swashbuckler presence who looked gorgeous – and strangely angelic – in flowing white and gold robes that reflected the Sahara sand and the metallic sun as he led the disenfranchised Arabs to victory against their Turkish oppressors. The movie audience on both sides of the pond had never encountered anything quite like Peter O’Toole. He had all the established English credentials, including a staggering vocal instrument – the equivalent of anyone’s in his peer group except perhaps for Richard Burton’s – and the ability to make contemplation dramatic. But he was also as sexy as anyone who had ever come out of Hollywood. And his T.E. Lawrence, with his attraction-repulsion engagement with violence and his unacknowledged but implicitly gay sexuality (which Lean and the screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson keep hinting at, mostly through indirect means), was as Freudian a specimen as the characters created a decade earlier by the Method movie stars – Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Their psychological specialty was the child inside the unformed man whereas O’Toole’s Lawrence dabbled in masochism, but like them he wasn’t afraid of exposing the feminine within a classically masculine specimen. It wasn’t O’Toole’s first movie (it was his fourth, not counting a trio of British TV movies), and it made him a huge star. He led the way for the British invasion in the movies that came around the same time as it did in pop music. Albert Finney played the title role in Tom Jones the next year, Julie Christie co-starred in Doctor Zhivago (for Lean) the year after, and the 1966 Academy Award nominees included Michael Caine and Vanessa Redgrave for the roles that had made them stars in Alfie and Blow-Up.

O'Toole and Peter Sellers in What's New Pussycat?
Mesmerizing as O’Toole was in Lawrence of Arabia, though, he didn’t become a great film actor until the late sixties. While he played Hamlet on stage – directed by Olivier, the production initiated the new National Theatre – his subsequent movies were not overwhelming. He plays the young King Henry II opposite Richard Burton in Becket, a stupefyingly dull movie version of the phony-poetic Jean Anouilh play, where clumsily staged raucousness stands in for dramatic action; he’s livelier than Burton, who seems to be sleepwalking, but though he does a lot of acting in it none of it is memorable. He gets to reprise Lawrence in Richard Brooks’s watchable but mediocre Lord Jim, which reduces Conrad’s novel to an exotic and rather gabby romantic narrative; there’s one terrific scene, where his best friend (played by the future Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami) dies in his arms during a rebellion O’Toole’s Jim has encouraged and he has to face the young man’s grieving father. He co-stars with Audrey Hepburn in William Wyler’s heist picture/romantic comedy How to Steal a Million, a glossy-bland item that doesn’t give either of the actors much to work with. My favorite O’Toole movie from these years is What’s New Pussycat, a messy but hilarious screwball farce written by Woody Allen and directed by Clive Donner: as a compulsive womanizer whose scorecard drives his shrink (Peter Sellers) wild with envy, O’Toole both plays the impossibly handsome camera object the world had fallen in love with three years earlier in Lawrence and parodies it. It wasn’t a big deal, sort of like a guest spot on a TV variety show, but for the first time you could see that his arsenal of skills included comic ones. (He has a marvelously funny drunk scene with Sellers; the idea of putting these two together turns out to be weirdly inspired.)

You can never predict the role that can turn a talented movie star into a great one, and you wouldn’t have guessed that in O’Toole’s case it would be one he’d played before: King Henry, this time at fifty, in The Lion in Winter (1968). O’Toole was only thirty-six when he took it on, opposite Katharine Hepburn, who was sixty-one, and again it’s based on a wobbly stage property, this time by James Goldman. It’s a prestige picture, directed without distinction by Anthony Harvey and built around the two stars, who play the king and (imprisoned) queen of England as if they had been reimagined by some unholy combo of Edward Albee and Neil Simon. Hepburn is mannered and self-imitative as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she keeps melting into sentimentality. But O’Toole is something else again: carnal and vulgar yet indisputably majestic, alive on camera in a way that he hadn’t been before, with a rugged masculine presence drained of the neuroticism of his Lawrence and Lord Jim – a quality that must have seemed to mid-sixties audiences as if it would dog his acting forever. He reads the cut-rate, self-consciously clever dialogue as if it were out of a Restoration comedy, and the performance has authentic depth, especially in the scene where he bemoans the way all three of his sons (who are grappling for the crown) have betrayed him. The Lion in Winter marked the beginning of O’Toole’s glory days, which miraculously didn’t end until his death.

Katherine Hepburn & O'Toole in The Lion in Winter

What a run he had – great star performances, great supporting performances, great cameos. Yes, he worked constantly and not everything he appeared in was worthy of his gifts. But there’s surprisingly little in the O’Toole canon that isn’t worth a look, even if he’s the best or the only good thing in it. He had a reputation for being erratic as a stage performer; I saw him only once, as Henry Higgins in a late-eighties Broadway revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion, and he was indifferent; Amanda Plummer as Eliza acted circles around him. Perhaps he was bored, since he’d already played Higgins in a TV movie in 1983 opposite the elfin-faced, Canadian actress Margot Kidder. This version is a rarity but it’s worth looking for on YouTube – it’s a charmer. Kidder is the most sheerly lovable of Elizas, and O’Toole’s Higgins is anarchic, a savage, a crowing Peter Pan of a man who can’t control his outbursts and sees no reason to. They leap out of his mouth like soaring birds; the lines are familiar but O’Toole’s readings are so wild and unexpected that you laugh at them as if you’d never heard them before.

Peter O'Toole in High Spirits
The single remnant of how good he could sometimes be on stage is Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, a terrifically entertaining pastiche Keith Waterhouse wrote for him to perform at the Old Vic that was televised in 1989. In it he impersonated a real-life journalist whose drunken escapades were legendary, and it’s one of the most extraordinary exhibitions available of modern star acting. Gleeful, almost supernally relaxed, technically flawless, he magically bridges acting at the end of the twentieth century with the acting one reads about from the nineteenth, where icons like Kean and Booth held breathless audiences in the palm of their pancaked hands.

But he almost always brought his A game to the movies. The 2004 Troy is utterly without poetry except for him, but in his handful of scenes as King Priam he carries the tragic dimensions of the story in his soft sea-blue eyes and his elevated brow and the rich music of his voice. When Priam comes disguised to the tent of his enemy Achilles (Brad Pitt) to beg the return of his slaughtered son for burial, his reading of the line, “I loved my boy from the moment he opened his eyes to the moment you closed him. Let me wash his body,” transforms it, lending it a Euripidean grandeur. The image of his grief-torn face as he watches his city burn at the hands of the Greeks is a great silent-epic moment, worthy of D.W. Griffith. When he plays blind Captain Cat in the 1972 adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s radio play, Under Milk Wood, his voice is soft and high, with a sweetly tentative quality, as if he were digging in the sound-dense air for something he can only see with his memory. It’s not much of a movie, but when the director, Andrew Sinclair, cuts from Captain Cat’s reminiscences of being a young sailor, brawling and romancing and in love with Rosie Probert (the affectingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor), to this gray-bearded old man, begging her to come back to him from beyond the grave, tears choking that magnificent voice, it catches you up. He has one scene in Bright Young Things 2003), Stephen Fry’s noble but failed attempt at adapting Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies to the screen, as an eccentric old codger whose mischief-making borders on the lunatic, but it’s uproarious – caricature of the Dickensian order.

In Neil Jordan’s screwed-up, enjoyable Ireland-set ghost comedy High Spirits, he plays a bankrupt proprietor of an Irish castle struggling to save his family manse. He elongates that already elongated face, he stretches out the syllables of certain words so they sound foreign or invented (“Malibu” becomes “Mah-lee-boo,” all three syllables even accented; the end of “sabotage” sounds like the “Taj” in “Taj Mahal”), and he seems to be continually looped. In Fairy Tale: A True Story, a lovely, passed-over English picture from 1997 (directed by Charles Sturridge), set in the final days of the Great War, he plays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with hair elegantly combed back, setting off a magnified brow, and a natty mustache, giving him an imperial look. In one scene, challenging the committed skeptic Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel – a promising casting idea that doesn’t quite pan out) about the existence of the supernatural, he recalls a séance where he claims to have heard the voice of his dead soldier son, and his face seems to pull back, through his eyes and his forehead, to expose a layer of exhausted grief beneath his panache and Edwardian reserve.

Jessica Harper, Mark Linn-Baker & O'Toole in My Favorite Year
If a single idea runs through all his performances it’s aristocracy. Democratic his generation may be in comparison to their predecessors, but O’Toole was too enormous a camera (and soundtrack) phenomenon, too improbably handsome, too vocally commanding, to play an ordinary man. But his characters weren’t all the same kind of aristocrat. In Rogue Male, a quite good 1977 TV movie based on the exciting Geoffrey Household novel about an English sportsman who sets out to assassinate Hitler, he comes closest to the kind of upper-crust Britisher we associate with the Empire: stoically uncomplaining, instinctually gallant, his life on the lam after he’s caught by the SS and escapes a daily embodiment of noblesse oblige. (The performance has an emotional center, though: his memories of the woman he loved, murdered by the Nazis.) O’Toole is a master of the grandiloquent gesture; here it’s the way he slashes his leaking pen through the air after he’s refused to sign a document claiming that he’s the emissary of his government rather than a free agent. In My Favorite Year (1982), where he plays an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckling star and notorious dipsomaniac and skirt chaser – the Hollywood star as aristocrat – put under the guardianship of a young writer (Mark Linn-Baker) during his week rehearsing a guest appearance on a fifties-era sketch-comedy TV show (based on The Sid Caesar Comedy Hour), it’s the way he waves a prop sword at the cheering live audience as if he were dancing, his weary smile lifted by the light in his eyes. This is a wonderful comedy, written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo and directed by Richard Benjamin, and O’Toole gives one of his most memorable performances as Alan Swann. His sublime farce takes, which rival those of the great silent comics, give way to poignancy in the last half hour, when the character has to face up to his failures. (One of the movie’s triumphs is that it acknowledges the character’s weaknesses without ever punishing him for them.) He can change a tone or deepen an emotion with just the tiniest shading of a line, as when the writer’s larger-than-life Jewish mama (Lainie Kazan) wags a finger at him for not having visited his young daughter for over a year and he murmurs, echoing her admonition, “Shame on me indeed,” giving shame an emphasis that slips almost imperceptibly from mocking to self-deprecating.

O'Toole in The Stunt Man
In The Stunt Man, Richard Rush’s brilliant Pirandellian comedy from 1980, he’s a John Huston-like movie director named Eli Cross, a megalomaniac magician who rides through the sky on a chopper or a crane, improvising and playfully manipulating cast and crew as he says things like “If God could do the tricks that we can do, He’d be a happy man.” In the title role, a Vietnam vet running mysteriously from the law who gets pressed into service on Eli’s anti-war epic, Steve Railsback’s intensified self-romanticizing plays off O’Toole’s existential-theatrical romanticizing, so that it seems as if Cross invented Lucky (as he’s renamed) for his own purposes. In Man of La Mancha (1972) O’Toole plays Don Quixote, whose imagination turns him from an ordinary Spanish country square into an itinerant chivalrous knight. The movie, culled from a sappy stage musical with achingly banal tunes and directed by the hopelessly square Arthur Hiller, is a creaky apparatus, a holdover from the crippled final days of the big-studio era, when Hollywood churned out overweight, over-budgeted musicals that the counterculture audience had no interest in trekking out to see. But O’Toole doesn’t just transcend it; he damn near transforms it, at least in some sequences. At the beginning he plays the poet Cervantes, imprisoned by the Inquisition, and his two-toned beard accentuates his angular face, but when he dons theatrical facial hair to play his own creation, Quixote, for his fellow inmates, he makes you think at first of a Greek tragedian and then of a figure out of Samuel Beckett via Buster Keaton, simultaneously antiquated and absurdist. His hair is glued up like a patched mane while his Vandyke pulls his face in the opposite direction, and his armor hangs off his bony frame so bizarrely that as he shuffles along he suggests a Renaissance-era Tin Woodman. But in that long, waxy face his eyes are vivid under quizzical eyebrows and above deep furrows, and in some unfathomable, fucked-up way he’s truly majestic. When he finds a whore at an inn named Aldonza (played by Sophia Loren) whom he reinvents as the paragon of maidenly beauty and virtue, he looks befogged with wonder, and when he starts to sing “Dulcinea” (the name he gives her), his trembly rendition is touching just because of its reediness and wandering tone. This is surely the most uncategorizable great moment in any Hollywood musical.

O'Toole & Jodie Whittaker in Venus
What was O’Toole’s greatest performance? Perhaps, given his longevity, it would not be too indulgent to pick two. For me the runner-up would be Venus – also his last great one, released in 2006. He plays Maurice Russell, an aging actor who develops an unlikely friendship with a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) who’s moved to London in search of a modeling career. They aren’t an easy fit: she’s moody and quick to anger, she isn’t always kind, and he isn’t always reliable. She’s aware that her nubile young body and her sexual ease turn him on, but the combination of his age and his enduring sexual interest – which he doesn’t have the physical ability to act upon even if she would let him – doesn’t disgust her. In truth, it touches her. He calls her “Venus,” and she grows to like the way it sounds. Maurice isn’t a pathetic case, and he loathes self-pity. When he and his actor buddies hang out at a local café, mulling over the obits of people they knew, their vanity and competitiveness – they want to know how many columns each new casualty has earned, implicitly assuming each of them will merit more – are hilarious. They’re constantly amusing each other and themselves. They don’t act like men who are waiting around to die, and Maurice in particular isn’t the type to go gentle into that good night. His erotic spark keeps him ferociously alive. O’Toole is such a vivifying actor that you have to figure the screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi, wrote Maurice with him in mind. Early on, Maurice drags himself out of bed and in front of a mirror, and propels himself out into the world by yelling, “Come on, old man!” at his reflection. O’Toole reads the lines staccato, punching each of the four syllables, as if he were beating dust out of an ancient rug. Those famous blue eyes register every injustice inflicted by fate and his worn carcass, but there’s a lively intelligence sparkling in them too; Maurice is far too savvy not to be capable of mordant wit at his own expense and ironic bemusement.

O'Toole and Petula Clark in Goodbye, Mr. Chips

First place in my personal O’Toole pantheon would go to a performance he gave much earlier in his career – in 1969, in a musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips adapted by the playwright Terence Rattigan and directed by Herbert Ross. The material is a small novel by James Hilton that was very popular in the thirties, and there was a more famous movie of it in 1939 for which Robert Donat won the Academy Award. The role is a classics teacher in an English boys’ school, seen over the course of a long life and career, and Donat played it charmingly, as a gentle man whose quirks – and whose tendency toward strictness with his pupils – are ironed out by the kind-hearted woman (Greer Garson) he meets on holiday and brings back to the school as his wife. She dies young, but his life is forever altered by her influence. In the musical (which is hampered by insipid songs by Leslie Bricusse), O’Toole makes Chips conservative and pedantic, given to orneriness, with clipped, elegantly emphatic diction and a surprisingly athletic loping run – a genuine eccentric, as much so in his way as the retiring classics instructor played first by Michael Redgrave and then by Albert Finney in films of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version. (You can’t help making the comparison, what with Rattigan writing the screenplay – he borrows from himself in the early scenes – and Redgrave showing up as the headmaster.) But a romance with a London musical-comedy star (Petula Clark) whom he runs into on a trip to Greece brings out qualities in Chips he had no idea were there. When he’s out at dinner with her, you can see him fighting his own impulse to make love to her, which he neither recognizes nor understands; his emotions get ahead of him, and he gets so confused that he doesn’t realize how distanced he is from his own desires when he tries to promote another man’s cause, that of the friend who introduced them in London and who has been courting her in vain. It’s an astonishing performance: a portrait, rendered in high-romantic style, of a man whose repressed feelings find exquisite (and deeply moving) expression when love knocks him sideways.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips contains what may be his greatest scene. His wife Katherine retires from show business to become a provincial schoolteacher’s wife, but during the war (in this updated version it’s World War II) she makes trips back to London to entertain the troops, and at one of them the concert hall is bombed and she’s killed. (Hilton’s Mrs. Chips dies in childbirth.) Meanwhile he’s just been promoted to headmaster and his students, who adore him, write him notes of congratulation, some of them comical, and pile them on his desk. But when he steps into his classroom upon learning of his wife’s death he’s so devastated that he looks at the boys as if he were seeing them through a fog. All he can focus on is the envelopes in front him, and he sorts through them fastidiously, as if he were afraid of breaking them – really, of course, of breaking himself. It’s one of the most eloquent and heartbreaking depictions of grief I’ve ever seen. God, I loved the man. He left behind a legacy of moments, portrayals like this one, that can stand alongside the achievements of any actor who’s ever held the camera.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment