Tag Archives: film history

Peter O’Toole: A Fan’s Notes

It was a funny thing. A few weeks ago–completely out of the blue and for no reason at all–I began to Google pictures of Peter O’Toole as a young man. And Lord, what a handsome man he was, before age, alcohol, and illness had their way with him. Later that day a friend of mine called me. “Well, we lost Peter O’Toole,” she said. That spooked me, I confess…was that Rod Serling lurking in the corner? But then I thought, “Of course. If anybody would have loved to give an old fan a wink and a tip of the hat before going on his merry way, it would be Peter O’Toole.”

O’Toole, though he worked in a modern age, was not a modern actor. He was a full-out, old-fashioned bravura performer, swooping and snorting and using that wonderfully eccentric voice of his to reach the furthest balcony in the house. No particular method or theory of acting troubled him–you wanted a king? Very well–he clapped a crown on his head, threw a robe around his shoulders, and bam! Got your king here. He had, for lack of a better word, style. No matter what horrid dreck he ended up starring in, that style and swagger never failed him, even when he was so ill and frail a strong wind could have broken him into matchsticks. If he had been born a couple of decades sooner, he would have given Errol Flynn a run for his money. He was born to play dragon slayers, pirate kings, and elegant highwaymen, all leavened with an outrageous sense of humor and absurdity.

He was a master of physical comedy as well, those stick-insect arms and legs of his waving in outrage or excitement. Check him out in My Favorite Year, descending from a rooftop tied to a fire hose, nattily attired in a white Palm Beach suit and maintaining a perfect dignity, for a master class in the art.

Photo credit: Andre Borges / Getty Images

O’Toole in My Favorite Year. Photo credit: Andre Borges / Getty Images

Oddly enough, the one role where he remained relatively restrained and subdued was the one for which he became most famous: T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. The film certainly was boisterous enough–all those swirling sandstorms, charging camels, and fiery explosions–but he was not. T. E. Lawrence is made up of interiors–he barely raises his voice in most scenes. His Lawrence is all whispers, fiercely driven and unknowable, with the bland good manners of the Oxford don that Lawrence was. He drives generals and princes to distraction. “It’s my manner, sir,” he says pleasantly at one point. “It looks to be insubordinate, but it isn’t really.”

It was a stunning performance for such a young man, but I always preferred his King Henry in Becket: sharp, witty, feline sly, and with a wry sense of the performance and ruthless politics needed to remain in power. It’s why, in the end, he walks out of the tomb, red robes billowing around him, and Becket does not.

I guess what defines Peter O’Toole for me is the absolute joy he took in performing. You can see it in his eyes as he exchanges lethal insults with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in WinterTo have juicy dialogue to speak, to clash with co-stars worthy of his steel: that’s what he lived for. Most actors today have irony and even snarkiness to spare, but only a handful of the very best possess that joy in the work. Contemporary actors are a glum, anxious lot, most of them.

At the end of The Lion in Winter O’Toole’s Henry II is standing alone on a muddy riverbank. He’s just had a hell of a time–attempted assassination, betrayal after betrayal by those he loves best, and the loss of his sons. You would expect him to be melancholy at the very least, as he waves goodbye to his beloved and hated wife as she departs on the royal barge for another year in exile. He suddenly bellows to her, “You know, I hope we live forever!” As she nods, laughing at him, he bellows again, “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” And he tips his magnificent shaggy head back and roars with laughter, stretching his arms out as if to embrace the absurdity and glory of his life and the world at large.

Well, speaking from the viewpoint of that bony, spotty fourteen-year-old who fell in love with him while eating stale Raisinettes in the first row of the grubby Park Cinema in Roselle Park, New Jersey, I can say with absolute certainty, “Pete, you got that covered.”



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1,001 Movies I Forgot To Watch

It recently occurred to me that when you walk around with your nose in a book all the time, you miss out on other literary and art forms.  So I’ve decided that 2012 will be a year in which I watch movies–which, from a bibliophile’s point of view, really does mean the end of the world as we know it.

But I feel fine.  Super-fine, actually, thanks to the guidance of a lovely book called 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.  Published in three editions thus far, with the most recent appearing just last year, this tiny, yet hefty, little volume could’ve been subtitled “Cinema History for Dummies.”  It contains an alphabetical checklist of the films themselves, followed by a chapter for each decade of moviemaking and a short summary of each film. Using my own quirky logic–don’t ask–I’ve watched at least one film every day in 2012 thus far, doubling and tripling up when I can.

Much to my relief, an initial review of the checklist revealed I’d actually seen 162 of the 1,o001 selections pre-project. If I’ve already watched classics like Amarcord, Jules and Jim,  and Casablanca, I can’t be a complete cultural moron, right? Fans of contemporary cinema will be happy with the editors’ more recent suggestions, such as Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, and Pulp Fiction. And, much to my surprise, some recent releases made the list, including The King’s Speech (seen it), Black Swan (looking forward to it) and Avatar (aw, man, do I have to?).

It’s early days, of course, but my favorite movie so far is Sidney Lumet’s classic, 12 Angry Men, which was adapted from a teleplay by Reginald Rose. A teenage boy from the wrong side of the tracks has supposedly murdered his father.  Eleven jurors are sure he’s guilty, but one man has doubts and questions about the case. The ensuing argument, in which a young Henry Fonda slowly brings the entire group around to his way of thinking, is filmed with tight, close shots, including a killer scene in which Lumet poignantly physicalizes the emotional isolation of the last man voting guilty. Watching the film made me want to round up all my friends for a long conversation about justice and the forces that can sometimes obscure it, as well as how/whether those issues are still relevant today.

Here’s a list of the films I’ve watched so far:

  1. Farewell, My Concubine
  2. Faces
  3. 12 Angry Men
  4. Sabotage
  5. Safe
  6. Kandahar
  7. A Trip to the Moon
  8. The Great Train Robbery
  9. The Birth of A Nation
  10. M
  11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  12. Broken Blossoms
  13. 8 1/2
  14. Zero Kelvin*
  15. Project A, Part II**
  16. On the Waterfront
  17. The African Queen
  18. Aileen Wuormos: The Selling of a Serial Killer**
  19. Alice
  20. Odd Man Out
  21. Reservoir Dogs
  22. Dirty Harry
  23. Four Lions

Every single film has taught me something, either about filmmaking or cultural history.   Sitting through The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms , for example, was downright painful, but getting concrete visual proof of our country’s checkered past was worth it. Each film, too, seems to have one moment that stands out as noteworthy or interesting.  Jan Svankmeijer’s Alice bored me to tears, plot-wise, but made me want to learn more about animation.  Dirty Harry left me cold, themtically, but Harry Callahan’s throwaway line, “That’ll be the day,” was a nice call-back to The Searchers, another film from the list that I watched with my dad many times as a kid.   And more recent picks like the wickedly satirical Four Lions, which is about an extremely inept group of terrorists, have convinced me that maybe I should actually pony up for the cost of a movie ticket now and again.

In fact, the only real drawback to the project is that I miss reading!  I have not entirely given up on books; when I’m not watching a film these days, I’m slowly making my way through A Storm of Swords, book three of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ve also started Roberto  Bolaño’s The Third Reich, a literary novel about a board gaming enthusiast on vacation.  It’s one of those novels where not much happens, but there are sinister undertones to the action that make you feel as if something creepy could manifest at any moment.

But, at least in 2012, my heart belongs to the movies.  I’ll keep you posted on my progress as the year goes by; I’m not sure if I can actually squeeze 816 more movies into the next 347 days, but it’s definitely going to be fun trying!  Are you a movie enthusiast?  Which films would you select for the list, and which of your favorites are already on it?

Leigh Anne

who now understands the phrase “sleep is for the weak.”

*Available on Netflix streaming, coming soon to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

**Available on Netflix streaming.


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