Sunday, August 24, 2014

The languid lion

Peter O'Toole: 1932 - 2013

I wrote this piece the day I heard of his death. I wrote not out of deference to someone's dictate. I wrote to experiment. To see whether I could in word and paragraph sum up what I had watched and relished. Looking back, I feel I have a lot more to watch. And to relish. For the time being, this will do. In Memoriam.

Thespians and theatre lovers alike across the world are mourning today. They are mourning the death of one of the English theatre’s most treasured sons. Peter O’Toole, larger than life giant of the stage and the cinema, is no more.

Few actors of his time displayed such temerity, such bravado, in all their performances. Few actors will be as missed and wept over. This giant, who left behind a legacy of a 50-year career, was all of 81 on his demise. His death, which occurred on Saturday, was reported “peaceful" and "painless.” The giant has been laid to rest, and we feel the pain of his loss with a striking numbness and dullness of vitality worthy of a Keatsian ode.

There are only a select handful of actors whose very personality and manner matched those of the roles they played. O’Toole was at the pinnacle of that set. His style towards the midpoint of his career was dismissed as overblown, pretentious and unnatural. In reality it was merely a dismissal in itself of naturalistic acting, and an adherence to what he doubtless would have felt as more than just genuine: larger than life, in other words.

By the time the critics had got around to castigating him, the world had changed – big-screen epics and theatrical acting had become outdated. Yet O’Toole was master in both, and no other performer, to his last, entranced his audience with an enigmatic style representative of them as did he.

Born Peter Seamus O’Toole in 1932, the man destined to play the roles of the morally ambiguous was upon his arrival presented with two birth certificates – one listed in Ireland, the other in England. His childhood was spent amidst poverty, though not of the stultifying sort (“I’m not from the working class,” he once declared, “I’m from the criminal class”). His bookmaking father was, eerily reminiscent of Dickens’ childhood, troubled with creditors, and once allegedly had his knuckles broken by them.

His education, which was spent largely at a Catholic school, was of a harrowing sort. He was terrified of the nuns who ran it, and this could in part have accounted for the atheism that remained with him for the rest of his life. An irredeemable love for Christ, however, remained (“No one can take Jesus away from me,” he said in an interview with The New York Times), and it could be this, in part at least, which arguably electrified his performances.

His main love had always been the theatre, so much so that he was fired from the staff of a newspaper office with the parting words “try something else, be an actor, and do anything.” His inability to master the Irish language barred him from the Abbey Theatre; instead, he landed in the class of ’52-’54, alongside Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Brian Bedford, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “The most remarkable class the Academy ever had,” he later remembered.

Performances in The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice brought him renown at the Old Vic, and he got his first film role, albeit a supporting one, in 1960’s The Day they Robbed the Bank of England. Just two years later, though, he would be offered a more expansive and ambitious role, one that had been passed over both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney. O’Toole’s acceptance of it would charter his career, and his life, henceforward.

The film was Lawrence of Arabia, and the role that of T. E. Lawrence. It was ostensibly an epic, but unlike any of its kind made before. Where it differed from the “standard” of its kind was in its characterization – and O’Toole, in his portrayal of perhaps the most enigmatic British soldier of all time, took on the main role with an ambiguous sense of proportion unheard of at the time.

His Lawrence was not the clear-cut epic hero found in Ben-Hur, in The Robe, or even in King of Kings. From the languorous curve adorning his smile to the soft, lanky drawl, this was a hero of a different breed. Laced with a hint of sadomasochism and homoeroticism that is never fully explained in the plot, Lawrence the soldier was elevated to the status of a myth and God-like figure. Only O’Toole could have achieved this feat.

From then on, there could be no turning back. He played a multitude of roles, got Oscar nominations for eight of them, and electrified us with even the worst of them. He was a dictatorial, autocratic Henry II in Becket, and a patriarchal one in The Lion in Winter (he got Oscar nominations for both – the second time this ever happened in that show's history). Alongside women he sparkled and laced the films he was in with irrepressible charm and wit – with Katharine Hepburn in Lion, with Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million Dollars, and with Petula Clark in the remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (for which he got his fourth nomination in a decade).

But he had his share of lesser roles too – he was most unconvincing as the tragic hero in Lord Jim, a less than angelic angel in The Bible… in the Beginning, and quite condemnably hilarious as Tiberius in the disastrous Penthouse production of Caligula. Ups and downs in the cinema were matched with ups and downs in the theatre. His return to Shakespearean roles with the 1980 Old Vic production of Macbeth was castigated for his “monotonous tenor bark.” Television redeemed him – with an Emmy nomination in the ABC miniseries Masada – and he gave an impressive performance as Tanner in the West End production of Man and Superman in 1980.

His personal life, at this stage at its worst nadir, was ebbing away from its past as well. A divorce settlement was reached with his first wife, Si├ón Phillips, in 1979, on account of his temper. Insulin-induced diabetes was accompanied by removal of his intestines – legacies of a chronic alcoholism. And in various television interviews – including two given to Johnny Carson – he exhibited the typical “O’Toole eccentricity” which had so typified his roles. One of Carson’s interviews was done during a drunken stint. Rightly he called him the “most difficult guest” he ever had.

What was difficult with him, however, was neither arrogance nor plain exhibitionism, but a style that had by this time taken firm hold over his very mannerisms to near comic, and effective, heights. It was almost as though O’Toole the Actor had become indistinguishable from O’Toole the Man. Each had become reflective of the other – reflective of the roles he had played, and would be playing.

Four more nominations would follow – The Ruling Class in 1972, The Stunt Man in 1980, My Favourite Year in 1982, and Venus in 2006. Three years before his last nomination he was offered the Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar. His reluctance to accept it was most understandable – back then he shared, with Richard Burton, the record for the most number of unsuccessful nominations, and as an actor who was yet to retire, he would have doubtless felt justified in waiting for the final catch. But accept it he did, and with what wit, too! – “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride - my foot. I have my very own Oscar now to be with me till death us do part!” From then on, it was a gradual road to retirement.

There are many words that can be used to characterize Peter O’Toole, and none of them could be “pretentious.” His method, which wasn’t as much a method as it was a personal signature, left many in the dark. It could rightly be called the theatrical version of literature’s infamous “purple prose”: attempts at the colourful, the poetic, with no compromise on breadth of style.

My idea of O’Toole is that of a languid, but by no means inactive, lion, who crept into performance after performance and distilled from them all a larger than life vibrancy unmatched by any other actor. He was the perfect Lawrence, the perfect Henry II, and the perfect Arthur Chipping.

And, like how Arthur Kennedy in Lawrence summed up its hero’s life, we could say this of Peter O’Toole – that “he was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior.” And yes, it can also be that he was the “most shameless exhibitionist,” though maybe not since Barnum and Bailey. But that exhibitionism was not representative of a need to overplay, to over-dramatize. Rather, it was merely a hallmark of the “O’Toole style,” devoid of any pretentious attempts at naturalism or method acting, which in the hands of lesser artists would crumble away into dust. It’s a cinch we shall never get to see the likes of him again.

Peter O’Toole is well and truly dead. The Lion has finally departed, to rest in the Eternal Winter. That winter, no words or film will ever describe. Just as well. His was a life no epitaph can sum up. Or even hope to, for that matter.