Remembering the great Peter O’Toole

Peter O’Toole passed away a week ago, the last of the group of actors flippantly referred to as ‘the hellraisers’.  He outlived them all.

I thought straight away of ten film and television performances which define this talented and eccentric actor, and wanted to use this post to talk about them, and to try and pin down what it was about O’Toole which made him one of the ‘greats’.

I’ve reviewed Lawrence of Arabia before, and it is perhaps his most definitive role, and the one which brought him to screen prominence.  If he had never made another film, the role of TE Lawrence would have made him iconic.

In How To Steal A Million, he partnered Audrey Hepburn in a fun romantic comedy from William Wyler about art thieves.  Here’s my review from 2003:

“This movie could have been more fun that it is, but I still liked it – Audrey Hepburn, swathed in the height of chic as usual, tries to save her art forger father (the incomparable Hugh Griffith) from exposure as a fake, by stealing a statue of Venus carved by her grandfather for an art exhibition.  To help her in this she enlists the help of a society burglar (the young and impossibly blue-eyed Peter O’Toole) and in the course of all this, they fall in love.

It’s predictable but enjoyable to watch (and it helps that the two stars are extremely easy on the eye), but with few surprises and some slow moments, it isn’t up to William Wyler’s better efforts.  Really just a one-dimensional story of the 1960s beautiful people, like so many other movies of its time.”

These days I find more in the film than I did a decade ago, and find O’Toole and Hepburn a sparkling pair who make the most of a slight script and situation.

The Ruling Class is quietly ridiculous, hilarious, and disturbing, and it is one of O’Toole’s least restained performances.  Here’s a snippet of delightfulness from it:

There have been several screen versions of George du Maurier’s 1895 novel ‘Trilby’, and all have been retitled after the male lead, Svengali.  O’Toole stepped into shoes previously filled by John Barrymore and Donald Wolfit in 1983, when his Svengali moulded the career of young pop star Jodie Foster.  Foster was a little miscast, but sings well.  O’Toole was excellent.  Apparently Jodie Foster told People Magazine in an interview “Peter O’Toole could charm any girl into singing her brains out.”  Here’s a snippet:

Then there is Venus, in which an elderly and frail O’Toole finds a connection with a much younger lady, Jodie Whittaker.  She may well be another Trilby (or another Eliza Doolittle – there’s a lovely filmed Pygmalion featuring O’Toole as Higgins with a tedious American Eliza from Margot Kidder).  It was heartbreaking to see this vital and attractive man looking so unwell in this difficult film, but it was a valuable and intriguing film, and his last great screen performance, which rightly won him an Oscar nomination (his eighth, with no wins, unless you count the honorary lifetime achievement one in 2003).

My review of this film from 2007:

“Before seeing this I avoided reading reviews and had seen one trailer, which gave a flavour of what the film would be like. But – I am a great fan of Peter O’Toole, and of course did not want to miss what has been mooted as the best role of his twilight years, and certainly his first leading role in a film since ‘My Favorite Year’.

Here O’Toole plays Maurice Russell, an ageing actor who has had past successes (we see his wife watching an old movie of his on TV) but is now playing corpses in hospital dramas or ageing roués in costume drama (O’Toole himself played the old Casanova on TV recently). Maurice is on his last legs, impotent and incontinent after a prostrate op, but finds some solace in the great-niece of his fellow thespian, Ian (played with aplomb by Leslie Phillips). Jodie Whittaker plays this girl, Jessie, Maurice’s ‘Venus’, with some skill – it cannot have been an easy role and I believe she is something of a newcomer.

The best moments however for me were not the relationship between Maurice and Jessie – that, because of the huge age gap, was funny at times, poignant at others, and plain distasteful at some points (I felt his attraction to her could have been treated with more sensitivity, although audience sympathy does go with him and not with her) – but rather his scenes with Ian, and with his estranged wife (Vanessa Redgrave, excellent as ever). Here there are scenes of friendship, of life affirmation, of tenderness, that cannot even be approached in the slightly seedy ‘theroretical’ interest Maurice has in Jessie.

Does O’Toole deserve his recent Oscar nomination for this role? Absolutely. He dominates the film with ease and, even frail, elderly, and ravaged, there are flashes of the vibrant blue-eyed heart-throb who wowed the screens in the likes of ‘Laurence of Arabia’. Interestingly, once Maurice has died (as we know he must), his friends peer over his Guardian obit, jealously noting the number of columns he’s got, and show an old photo to the café waitress – not the best vintage O’Toole photo they could have got, but enough to show that Maurice had a life before old age got him. And whether Maurice is frustrated with his age ‘Come on, old man!’ he chides himself, or regretful with the passing of time and his libido (either with his wife or with Jessie), dancing with Ian in the actor’s church, or having his last paddle in the freezing sea, O’Toole is never anything less than mesmerising, and that is the mark of a true actor.

I imagine this film will grow with repeated viewings. The script has a few profanities (it was amusing hearing Leslie Phillips utter the f word) but is largely literate as you would expect from Hanif Kureshi, who last wrote ‘The Mother’ for the screen (where Anne Reid and Daniel Craig had a rather more physical relationship – which would have been totally wrong in every respect for ‘Venus’). The music is perfectly suited to the film and works extremely well.

In all, a good effort. And in places extremely funny – but it is the two old men dancing which you will remember, and this was rightly the image carried by the film festivals which first presented this charming and unusual film.”

A couple of years before Venus, he’d had a small role as Priam, father of the doomed Hector, in Troy.  Although the film itself was overrated and featured ridiculous posing and pouting from Brad Pitt in the lead as Achilles, to my mind the best person in the cast was O’Toole, in a tour-de-force performance as the doomed king – probably a role he could do in his sleep, but nevertheless engaging.  In his brief appearances it was clear this man could act – a similar scene-stealing role was played in Gladiator by O’Toole’s drinking buddy and close contemporary, Richard Harris.

O’Toole moved into voicing animated characters as the snipy and fussy food critic ‘Anton Ego’ (what a fabulous name) in Ratatouille.  This fun tale of a cordon bleu chef who just happens to be a rat was a major hit in 2007, and I think that the voice artists (who also included Ian Holm and Brian Dennehy) helped a lot.

In 2005, O’Toole played the elderly Casanova, for television (the younger version of the character was a pre-Doctor Who David Tennant).  This was a mini-series with the production values of a film, and I feel it was a lot more successful than the movie version which came out the same year with Heath Ledger.

My review from the time this series first aired:

“This version of ‘Casanova’ is worlds apart from the one which ran on UK TV some twenty plus years ago. Now, in 2005, Russell T Davies (in demand at the moment as the key writer of the new Doctor Who) has developed a Casanova for our times, with modern phrases and references (there are National Lottery slogans; Casanova sings ‘the wheels on the carriage’ to his young son), while still devoting attention to the serious aspects of the story …

Peter O’Toole is the old Casanova (‘an old librarian in a damp castle’), reduced to little more than a servant with his memories. As usual, he is magnificent in a complex role. Funny and charming, but with a painful past. The old Casanova makes you laugh and tugs at your heartstrings too …

Inventively filmed (repetitions, odd angles, slow motion, extreme close-ups) and with a lively (if silly at times) script, this is an entertaining three hours.”

Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was a successful stage play by Keith Waterhouse, based on the life of the notorious Spectator journalist.  It’s a funny snapshot, more of less a one-man show, as the other characters really just waver on the sidelines.

My review from 1999:

“What we have here is an abridged version of the play which has previously starred Tom Conti, amongst others.  Bernard was a permanently sloshed, cynical reporter, who was renowned for his excesses with drink and women – for all his faults, this play presents the character with some affection.   Peter O’Toole couldn’t be more perfect for the role – largely carrying the piece on his own, with few other characters as occasional cyphers to re-enact past experiences, he gives Bernard a range of emotions and perspectives to draw the viewer in.

My favourite scene by far is the one about the cat-race, but of course the egg-in-the-cup routine has had a fair share of attention, too.  Highly recommended – I guarantee you’ll have a good time watching this little gem.”

In Fairytale: a True Story, the faked fairy photographs by the Leeds children Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, O’Toole played the writer and spiritualist Arthur Conan-Doyle (he also provided the voice for Sherlock Holmes in half a dozen animated films), a man who believed the photographs to be genuine.  In his belief for the mystical mysteries of life he is challenged by Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), but the film comes down very much on the side of the fairies.  O’Toole’s charming and understated performance reminded me of his ‘Mr Chips’ in the 1960s musical, in which he was gentle and genuine as the shy schoolmaster of James Hilton’s novel.

I feel that in the death of Peter O’Toole, we have lost of our best actors.  His was a talent that shone even in poor material (like Caligula), and when he was given a meaty role to play, like the lead in My Favorite Year or Uncle Silas in The Dark Angel, he outshone everyone.  He could be, and sometimes was, guilty of an inclination towards ham, and this was usually because he was not reined in enough by directors, but these lapses were rare, and even when chewing the scenery he was never less than interesting.

So RIP to one of the greats, and one of my favourites – and I couldn’t resist sharing this again (I believe it is from Comic Relief in the 1980s):

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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