Tom Laughlin, Joan Fontaine, and Peter O’Toole have all died recently. Of all of them (and Joan Fontaine’s Oscar-winning performance in Suspicion is a must-see), O’Toole is the one that hits my attention the hardest.
Excluding those who watch perhaps way too many movies, Peter O’Toole will be remembered primarily for Lawrence of Arabia, one of the eight times his work earned him as Best Actor Oscar nomination. Others may include his voice work in Ratatouille (the stunned, slightly heartbroken eloquence with which his character delivers his restaurant review at the end makes for one of the most moving scenes in the entire Pixar canon).
That’s just in terms of his acting work. If you want to go into O’Toole’s legendary drinking (which included the company of men like Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Richard Burton, a young Michael Caine, and others), there’s a temptation to write a completely separate obituary. You don’t have to, but for those who are the most familiar with O’Toole’s career and public life, it seems as though you can only focus on one or the other. However, given the magnitude of O’Toole’s fondness for waking up in Mexico, with no idea as to how he got there, you can’t focus on just the drinking or just the acting. O’Toole might have had just as stellar a career without the booze, but considering he apparently spent the entire duration of Beckett drunk out of his mind (try to imaging going shot-for-shot with Richard Burton, and see how quickly that idea makes your liver try to fail), it’s honestly hard to say. O’Toole’s talent was evident to people from the early moments of his stage career. He wasn’t even thirty by the time he was cast in the spectacle Lawrence of Arabia. Drinking from dawn to dusk didn’t magically endow him with the ability to be charming, romantic, morose, pitiful, infuriating, desperate, detached, and frightening in a single movie. We know this much to be true.
What you have to do with someone whose personal life exploits became as legendary as his work is to realize that the drinking was simply part of a larger personality trait. The rate with which he seemed to approach both life and acting was ravenous to say the least. Even if he had spent his life as a teetotaler, O’Toole still would have been a madman on-screen and off. The drinking was simply one of the things that his mild touch of insanity happened to fixate on. It’s interesting to take that thought, and apply it to his long, strange assortment of film choices.
You can start with the eight roles that garnered him those Academy Award nominations (he finally won an honorary Oscar in 2003, which he initially didn’t want to accept). All eight performances are very different from one another in how the characters are portrayed, the type of film, and things like that. Yet all of them are very unmistakably Peter O’Toole. He was known for his accent, for those deep, constantly alert eyes, and for certain mannerisms, but it is impossible to say that his work in The Stunt Man was that of an actor who had already done the exact same thing in The Lion in Winter. The boozy has-been in My Favorite Year was not the actor in Venus who hid his rapidly-approaching death and laundry list of regrets with mischievous charm. O’Toole was identifiable in all of these movies, but he was never the exact same person. You can find examples of this in even the worst of his movies (okay, probably not Supergirl or Caligula). O’Toole could disappear into the roles he assumed for things like The Tudors and The Ruling Class. At the same time, he often played these characters by finding some way to connect to them. It’s a safe bet that his mind and thought process made for some chaotic places. It was clearly a productive chaos, since it enabled him to play so many characters so well for so long. For people like that, it’s a type of chaos that sometimes comes with self-destructive qualities. If all the stories are true, it’s a miracle he lived as long as he did.
Self-destructive doesn’t seem accurate though. Something along the lines of a person who couldn’t sit still for even a second in any aspect of his life seems closer to the truth. It kept him working constantly through a career that spanned over fifty years of death-defying highs and lows. It also seemingly kept him moving from one night of blinding debauchery to another.
It’s a singular personality trait that would explain both his misadventures and his amazing career.
My favorite Peter O’Toole movie is The Stunt Man. He plays a self-absorbed, marvelously amiable, and very dangerous film director. One of the joys of watching him in it is wondering if what he’s doing matches what he’s actually thinking. Even when he doesn’t seem to give any outward indication that he gives a damn about anything beyond the pleasures of each moment.
I have a feeling that truth and fiction were strange on equal terms in that one.