A Tribute to Actor Peter O’Toole
Peter O’Toole, debonaire and daring actor of both film and the stage, died recently at the age of 81. He was one of the greatest and most prolific actors of the past 50 years, and he continued to appear on the screen up until only a few years ago.
It is difficult to find the words which can summarize a career so extensive and brilliant. Peter O’Toole is one of the very last in a great generation of actors; losing him is the close of an era. O’Toole was the consummate leading man: many of his greatest roles had him playing against clever, beautiful women in games of wit and love. Regardless of the role, O’Toole was always engaging and enchanting. He could elevate a mediocre picture into something extraordinary with nothing but his wit and charm. He has worked with his fair share of the greatest acting personas of all time – i.e., Katharine Hepburn, Richard Burton, Alec Guiness – because he himself was one of them. Both he and his peers have started to fade from the public consciousness, especially with the younger generations, and with them goes a troupe of actors so very different from what we have today.
It makes sense, then, that the best tribute I can pay to O’Toole is to tell you all a little bit about his career, and hopefully convince you to see one or two of his films. Here are ten(ish) of the best films starring the immense Peter O’Toole.
1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
A film with no compare, this was the performance which made Peter O’Toole a name to be remembered. Nearly 4 hours long, this David Lean epic chronicles the life of British officer T.E. Lawrence in Arabia during World War I. O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence is vulnerable, but egotistical. He is one of the greatest characters in all of film, because O’Toole makes him so human. Everyone should see this film, for both its technical mastery and its talented performances (Alec Guiness and Omar Sharif co-star).
2. Becket (1964)
Peter O’Toole is the only actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for playing the same character in two different films; Becket was his first appearance as King Henry II of England. Co-starring with Richard Burton, O’Toole’s portrayal of the king is nuanced and engaging, and has the dexterity to avoid turning him into a plain villain at the end of the film. The story focuses around the friendship between Thomas Becket and Henry II, and how Becket’s rise to the Archbishopric of Canterbury creates deeps tensions between the two. A must see for any fan of the genre, Becket goes nicely with the next film on this list…
3. The Lion in Winter (1968)
This is one of my favorite films. It tells the story of King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitane (Katharine Hepburn), whom he has locked up for repeated acts of treason. The film is immensely witty; the back-and-forth between Henry and Eleanor is a pleasure to watch. The chemistry between O’Toole and Hepburn is electric, and the tale of family dysfunction is deeply relevant to a modern audience. Fun and moving all at once. A must watch.
4. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
Coming in the late 1960’s, this musical put O’Toole in a different sort of role – that of a lonely Latin teacher disliked by his students and quietly unhappy with his life. The story covers decades, and eventually unites O’Toole’s character (Arthur Chipping, ‘Chips’) with actress Petula Clark in the role of Katherine Bridges. A romance blossoms which changes Chips and sets in motion a change in his career as well. The film itself received good but not great reviews; however, all agree that the chemistry between Clark and O’Toole is delicious and mesmerizing, making this a worthy film.
5. The Ruling Class (1972)
Certainly one of the weirdest entries on this list, The Ruling Class is another film carried by the quality of Peter O’Toole’s acting. O’Toole plays a madman who inherits a peerage and begins working to spread his madness to friends and family. His character believes himself to be Jesus Christ, the God of Love, Jack the Ripper, and other odd characters. O’Toole described the film as a “comedy with tragic relief,” and that may be the best way to describe the giddy fun and dark underpinnings of O’Toole’s performance and the film.
6. Man of La Mancha (1972)
O’Toole’s version of the classic musical, his portrayal of Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote in this meta-theatrical piece offers the usual fun and gravitas expected of O’Toole. The film sharply divided critics, many of who decried it as unworthy of the source material and given to empty-headed optimism. Roger Ebert famously complained about the poor quality of O’Toole’s singing, only to find out that O’Toole had been dubbed over by a professional singer (as was common practice). Nonetheless, the film is worth giving a go!
7. The Stunt Man (1980)
After an extremely close brush with death in the late 70’s, O’Toole came roaring back to cinema with his comic performance as Eli Cross, an eccentric and dictatorial film director who will go to absurd ends to get the shot he wants. Cross takes in a young veteran on the lamb, and hires him as a stunt man. This stunt man becomes increasingly afraid that Cross will kill him in one of his elaborate scenes, and soon the lines between reality and the film blur as it becomes clear that Cross is hilariously manipulating the emotions of his cast and crew. Like so many of his other films, this one defies genre, but is validated by unique camerawork and the ever loveable O’Toole.
8. My Favorite Year (1982)
My Favorite Year offers another meta-role for O’Toole, in which he plays a washed-up Errol Flynn sort actor who is perpetually drunk and lonely. His character is taken under the wing of a young admirer in order to get him ready for a live television comeback performance. What proceeds is loveable comedy, where O’Toole’s charm drags the audience into an otherwise predictable film that thrives on its charm and feel-good moments. Good plain fun, and another Academy-Award nominated performance for O’Toole.
9. Venus (2006)
Peter O’Toole’s last great film is an intimate, tender picture that captures a portrait of a dying actor and his attraction to the great-niece of his friend. Far from the tawdry affair such a plot could bring us, Venus instead treats us to a witty, engaged relationship that calls up all of O’Toole’s greatest romantic performances gently and kindly. O’Toole is never a lecher, and his relationship with Jessie only serves to highlight a man growing old with both dignity and humor. A beautiful, quiet film that is the perfect capstone to a momentous career.
Ok, I’m cheating a little bit here, but here are two films you might not even have known O’Toole was in. The former is excellent, the latter decent, but in both O’Toole is having his usual fun. In Troy, O’Toole’s Priam strikes all the right notes, and brings a measure of dignity to the film that makes Orlando Bloom look like a silly child. In Ratatouille, his voicework as an antagonist in the film is delicious, fun, and silly. In its way, this may capture Peter O’Toole better than anything else.
A great actor has passed. The best tribute we can make now is to familiarize ourselves with his momentous body of work (O’Toole was nominated for EIGHT Academy Awards for the films listed above) and enjoy the legacy Peter O’Toole has left us.
Becket is available from Netflix Instant Streaming; the other films are available from Netflix on disc.
- Actor Peter O’Toole dies aged 81 (bbc.co.uk)
- Peter O’Toole: Last of the hard-drinking hell-raisers (telegraph.co.uk)