Was there ever an actor who aged more gracefully, more beautifully, than Peter O’Toole, who died Saturday at age 81?
I know the conventional wisdom is otherwise, insisting that, physically at least, O’Toole bore the ravages of a hard-lived life. I said as much myself writing about 2006’s “Venus,” noting that it was “wrenching” to see his character “sitting on his bed, rumpled and fragile and without the will to get up until he slaps himself hard and says, ‘Come on, old man.’ ”
That performance earned O’Toole his eighth Oscar nomination, the most for any nonwinning actor. It was also confirmation of the self-confidence and continuing skill of a performer who had initially turned down an honorary Oscar three years earlier, insisting he was “still in the game.”
Indeed, in “Venus,” his last great role, O’Toole used his lifetime of talent, craft and simply living to turn the part of an aging actor who forms a connection with a young woman into a master class of seemingly effortless screen acting.
This performance was in some ways the opposite of the young and vital work that made O’Toole an international star in 1962, eight years after he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, reportedly in the same class with Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Richard Harris.
No one needs to be told that that was the title role in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” a film whose scope and intelligence were so formidable I fear we will never see its like again.
Not only was O’Toole young and lithe enough at 30 to bring the physical elan of T.E. Lawrence to life, he had the gifts of conveying almost casually both the astuteness and the eccentricity of this highly unusual leader of men.
A key scene here is the one in which Lawrence puts out a burning match between two fingers without so much as blinking an eye. When a British officer tries, howls in pain and asks how the trick is done, Lawrence enigmatically replies that the answer is “not minding that it hurts.”
When I think about “Venus” and “Lawrence,” in my mind the bookends of O’Toole’s career, I don’t see the decline but the continuity. Yes, he aged, but he was always O’Toole, a superior being with the generosity to bring everyone along for the ride. If it could be argued that all his characters were aspects of himself, O’Toole’s personality was so multifaceted that each performance felt individual.
Aside from those films, my favorite O’Toole performances were both from the same period, the 1980s, and both had the actor playing larger-than-life characters with the movie business in their blood.
In 1980’s “The Stunt Man,” he plays crazy-like-a-fox director Eli Cross, whose motto is “If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man,” a filmmaker who has a weakness for acting like the deity himself.
In 1982’s “My Favorite Year,” O’Toole became Alan Swann, a wild and crazy movie actor modeled loosely on Errol Flynn who has to be kept sober for an appearance on a TV variety show inspired by Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”
O’Toole, who was an Oscar nominee for both roles, also appeared in his share of dreadful films – I’d almost forgotten he played Tiberius in the benighted “Caligula” – but he could always be counted on to surprise you just when you’d counted him out.