The No Prisoners Actor

When I was nine years old my father took me to see My Favorite Year. I did not know of Peter O’Toole, or that his role as a washed up alcoholic movie star was based on Errol Flynn. Still, I was struck by how O’Toole played Alan Swann with such relish and flair. He was larger than life before I even knew what that term meant. O’Toole never seemed like he was holding anything back. He was always going full throttle.

As a young man I finally saw Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole’s first starring role and still his signature performance. O’Toole imbued Lawrence with such confidence and determination, even at the start. A film professor of mine once highlighted a key scene. A soldier in the unit goes lost in the desert. Lawrence wants to go after the missing soldier, but Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) tells him not to, that “It is written” that the man will perish. Lawrence goes anyway, finds the man, and returns him to the unit. He then looks at Ali and triumphantly proclaims “Nothing is written!” My professor called this scene an expression of Lawrence’s western world beliefs. It also encapsulates Lawrence’s belief in his own power. Others start to share that belief so much that it becomes a legend, and it’s that legend, as much as any of Lawrence’s actions, that drive his men. Only an actor with O’Toole’s panache and grandeur could make that legend believable, even to Lawrence himself. Lawrence gets so caught up in his own cult of personality that before a key battle he yells out “No prisoners!!!” That may be a departure from British military protocol, but for O’Toole it’s perfect.

We often say that certain actors, such as Gary Cooper or Morgan Freeman, have “quiet authority.” In most of his greatest roles O’Toole had very loud authority. In the years following Lawrence, O’Toole played King Henry II twice, in Becket and The Lion in Winter. In Becket, Henry II is a young king filling his reign with debauchery. The Henry II in The Lion in Winter is an aging king with grown sons, although O’Toole in real life was only in his mid-thirties at the time. He is equally convincing in both films because he conveys a sense of being used to power and reveling in it. It’s no surprise that when Bernardo Bertolucci had to cast someone as a tutor for The Last Emperor he chose O’Toole. Who better to teach someone how to be a ruler? Many years later, he lent an air of legitimacy to Troy, an otherwise mediocre blockbuster, as the Trojan King.

Even when he wasn’t playing a king, O’Toole still carried a royal air. In The Stunt Man he portrayed film director Eli Cross as a lord of the movie set. You can see the joy in O’Toole’s eyes as Cross gives orders and throws his cast and crew off balance. O’Toole completely steals the movie from the ostensible lead, Steve Railsback. Eight years earlier, as the Earl of Gurney in The Ruling Class, O’Toole’s performance made the film work. Gurney thinks he’s Christ. We never believe he’s Jesus, but because of O’Toole, we always believe that he believes he’s Jesus.

Later in his career, O’Toole made many questionable film choices. It was sad to see him on TV promoting drivel like Phantoms. Still, even in those years he would still find ways to shine. He earned his eighth and final Oscar nomination in 2007 for Venus, playing an actor who had seen better days. He seemed to be drawing on some of his own experiences for that one. Also in 2007 he was the voice of restaurant critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, giving just the right sardonic pomposity to lines such as “I don’t ‘like’ food. I love food. If I don’t like it, I don’t swallow.” Who wouldn’t be terrified serving dinner to this man?

Of course O’Toole never won a competitive Oscar, although the Academy gave him a ”Sorry We Snubbed You So Much” honorary award in 2003. Who knows why he went 0 for 8? Maybe he made acting look too easy. Maybe he was having too much fun. But whatever the reason, it’s to the Academy’s detriment, not O’Toole’s. His legacy is untarnished. In My Favorite Year Alan Swann famously declared, “Damn you! I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!” Later, his companion tells him, “I can't use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them!” O’Toole was never life size and was always big enough to fill the screen with more to spare. Unlike Alan Swann, Peter O’Toole was both a fine actor and a sublime movie star.

Adam Spector
January 1, 2014

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