“I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.” That was the pledge the late Peter O’Toole, who died in December at age 81, made to himself as a teenager. He lived up to those words and then some.
In one of his finest films, My Favorite Year, his character declares, “I’m not an actor! I’m a movie star!” One could say he was both. It would be more accurate to insist that he was far more the former – his credits as a serious stage actor are impressive indeed even if his film work was what made him internationally known and celebrated – and that it was his talents and not some sort of celebrity that made him the latter in a way that lit up the screen with a brilliant aura and crackling presence whenever he appeared.
He did so for me in an incomparable fashion when I was eight years old in Lawrence of Arabia, his first starring role is what is, as much as I am loath to offer “best above all else” statements about artistic works (art is qualitative not quantitative), the finest epic film ever made. Lawrence instilled in me a sense of cinematic greatness, and O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence is at the core of a movie that epitomizes just about every quality of superb moviemaking. Yet he drove its superlative accomplishments, and without him, it could never have been all that it is.
It was many years later, well into adulthood, that I realized that O’Toole also showed me how, contrary to usual gender role descriptions, that a man could be breathtakingly beautiful. In one article that followed his passing, the writer said that in his later years the had “lost his looks.” Balderdash! As I watched him in Venus, his 2006 late-in-life triumph as a lead actor, and the lines on his face and what some may call the ravages of age brought a character to his visage that still brimmed with true human beauty.
O’Toole was nominated eight times for a Best Actor Academy Award, more than anyone else who never won, starting with Lawrence and last for Venus. That fact is a stain on the already questionable credibility of the Academy. When he was given an Honorary Award in 2003, he tried to turn it down, explaining how he was “still in the game” and wished to “win the lovely bugger outright.” He deserved far better than “honorary,” even if he lost to such superb performances as Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962 and Forest Whitaker in 2006 in Last King of Scotland (plus far lesser actors and roles in other years).
In life as well as his work, to me he embodied the full range of what I expect from a “Best Actor.” The man rose from less than advantageous circumstances yet played Shakespeare (accounts say) like he was born to excel in the Bard’s creations. He was a truly world-class eccentric and a prodigious drinker and carouser until it took a toll on his health. His life seems characterized by a rare brio and profound sense of humor that are inspiring. As his daughter Kate noted at his memorial, “Daddy made me laugh more than anyone else I have ever met in my life.”
Although I also shy away from naming anyone and anything as a “favorite,” O’Toole was mine as an actor, hands down. When I recently engaged in the exercise that I also tend to avoid of compiling a list of Top 10 movies, he starred in three that immediately came to mind. Even in lesser works – like the tacky “historical” TV series The Tudors, the total mess of Bob Guccione’s Caligula or the lightweight piffle of Club Paradise – he brought a magnetism to his time on screen that was undeniable.
December 2013 was a sad if not cruel month for me. Not only did the man who was acting’s brightest star to me pass away, but also the person who most exemplified for me the oft-overused to the point of debasement stature of hero, Nelson Mandela. One must say there will never be others like them. But let’s hope that the legacies they left will inspire others in to aspire to both their greatness and genuine fullness of humanity. And my life has been richer to have lived in an age in which they did as well.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2014
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