Not having ever met him, I have chosen to regard Peter O’Toole as possibly real. I am told he existed. I have also seen him on the movie screen and on television. But that still does not lend his existence the quality of provenance that one feels fully satisfied with.
The kind of self-mocking, rakish, resplendent recklessness with which he led his life only adds to my feeling that he was a manifestation of someone from elsewhere. In the image above I have reworked a photograph of his to give him the kind of diffused glow that visually sums up O’Toole for me. The line below it is his own chosen epitaph taken from a note a cleaner who sent back a dirty leather jacket of his.
Perhaps more than any other star-actor O’Toole embodied precisely the kind of charisma that a true movie star must have. When filmmakers signed him, the charisma came free. Among the films I have seen of his—and I have seen many—I cannot think of any where he had scrubbed off his natural and even excessive flamboyance and charisma. He mostly employed both to a powerful effect.
The world naturally celebrates his turn as T E Lawrence in David Lean’s masterpiece for the ages ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ If it seems forever that no one else could have played that part, that is because no one else could have played that part. In fact, no one else could have been Peter O’Toole either.
Apart from many great lines and many great performances in the film, there is a particular scene early on in it which in many ways encapsulates O’Toole as an actor. I have steadfastly stayed away from the popular but deeply annoying habit of people confusing lines that actors speak with the actors themselves. But there are times when fictional movie lines come precariously close to summing up the actor’s real life persona. This film had many but let me just cite one.
“If you are insubordinate of me Lawrence I shall put you under arrest,” says General Murray to Lawrence.
“It’s my manner, Sir,” Lawrence says.
“Your what?” says the general.
“My manner, Sir. It looks insubordinate but it isn’t really.”
O’Toole looked insubordinate all his career and it was indeed his manner. It was as if the camera never really switched off for O’Toole. If there was indeed a Shakespearean character to whom the world was forever a stage, it was O’Toole.
I cannot think of any other movie star who had the bona fides of the quality that O’Toole had. Richard Burton comes close but there is something that gives O’Toole the edge. From what one has seen of his performances as well as television interviews O’Toole also gave one the sense that he was an unmindful child who had to be repeatedly pulled back from an abyss of leaping flames. Once again, it may not have been that way but it was his manner.
I am completely partial towards O’Toole even in his famous hamminess. He was so self-assured of his natural dramatic gifts that he frequently and deliberately hammed up his performance, if only to provoke and irritate his audience. That quirk elevated his performance in ‘My Favorite Year’ (1982) as a version of Errol Flynn’s television appearance in the 1950s. Quite easily, this must rank as one of O’Toole’s five greatest screen performances. The other four being, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Becket’, ‘The Lion in Winter’ and ‘Venus’. There are many others but these stand out for me.
He eminently deserved an Oscar for his performance in ‘Venus’ as an ageing, diminishing actor lusting after a young, taut woman with the kind of gentleness and mockery that only he could summon. I am not sure though if the Oscars deserved O’Toole.
There is a lot one can write about O’Toole but what would be the point of that? It is not as if I had any part in making him what he became. Let me correct that. He did not become; I think he was born preternaturally charismatic. The world merely adjusted to him.
I end my little tribute here in the hope that if nothing else, it has the virtue of brevity.