Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole--a "dangerous man"--Leaves the Stage. Now for Eternity.

I wrote this post in 2007 when Peter O'Toole earned what would be his last Oscar nomination, for the role of Maurice in the film Venus, which he would not win. This looks at his deep affinity for that first role of Lawrence of Arabia and for T.E. Lawrence himself. Requiescat in Pace.



“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”

So wrote T.E.Lawrence in the introductory chapter of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Peter O’Toole could have written it about his own acting:

All men act, but not equally. . . .
Those who act by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the actors of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

 Like Gable as Rhett Butler, O’Toole as the strange, enigmatic Lawrence was a feat of casting that allowed sensibility—as best we can articulate it—to be embodied. Tall and stunning, he is clearly an idealization of the short, average-looking Lawrence. But he wasn’t actually portraying the man—he was giving life to the deeply lyrical nature of the Lawrence of Seven Pillars. And in the tradition of mythic characterization, O’Toole’s extreme beauty served that purpose well.

Roger Ebert once called O’Toole a strange actor, and he is. His elegance, charm, and aristocratic manner have a discomfiting side in a way that Burton, Finch, and Harris did not. Sensualists all, O’Toole exudes a unique combination of generic hedonism and British eccentricity of the intellectual kind.

It’s not surprising, then, that the actor eccentric became obsessed (his own word) with the military one (I was stuck there myself for a bit, once upon a time). E.M. Forester called Seven Pillars “a masterpiece,” and David Garnett said, “As a writer, one of T.E.’s most striking qualities is his relationship with language. He uses English, both in his original writing and in his translation of The Odyssey, as an inventor, or a self-trained mechanic uses familiar materials and tools for quite new purposes. He is completely free from affectation. . . . This gives his style an astonishing, unexpected richness, which is yet the furthest removed from the sought-after richness of a Pater.”

Beyond the achievement of SP lies a universe of interesting people: Robert Graves, Bernard Shaw, B. Liddell Hart, Churchill, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Garnett, Jonathan Cape—the list is long, and particularly literary. For anyone with such yearnings, O’Toole included, it’s intoxicating.

And that’s in addition to the psychological quagmire, which can tantalize.

Lawrence was the illegitimate son of the Anglo-Irish Sir Thomas Chapman of County Westmeath and his governess, Sarah Lawrence.  Chapman left his first wife and four daughters and moved to Wales with Sarah as Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence, where Thomas Edward was born. The Lawrences eventually settled in Oxford, with five sons.

Those who have seen Lawrence of Arabia know the basic outline of how Lawrence became involved with the Arab Revolt. What's not covered in the film is where/how he came to be on that motorcycle that caused his early death at 46.

 After Lawrence returned to England, he reenlisted in the RAF under the name John Hume Ross, about which he wrote a short, startling memoir called The Mint (not published until 1955), best known for its vivid passage of extreme motorcycling. Lawrence’s true identity was shortly found out and he was discharged. He was then formally permitted to enlist in the tank corps under the name T.E. Shaw, and then to transfer back to the RAF, where he served from 1925 to March 1935, two months before his death, (which was three years after Peter Seamus was born in Ireland). It is a tortured, remarkable story, from every angle. He was not ordinary. “All right, I’m extra-ordinary.”

And so the little-known English actor from Ireland took it all on. His performance is informed by this knowledge. It hits the right spirit and tone, and it’s knowing and comfortable with its subject in an intimate way. Both Lawrence and O’Toole are Celtic souls in an English world—both loved language deeply and were unique, natural masters of it. They had many communions.

Nonetheless, O’Toole lost out to the Gregory Peck's quiet Southern lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, and six times more. Now he is nominated for the role of Maurice in the film Venus, the custom-fit role that has been described as creepy and “still” masterful.

Maurice has elegance and wit and a love of literature and its offshoot, acting. He also insists on the pleasures of the flesh to the end—however it needs to happen. O’Toole is at ease in that “dirty old man” place, seeming to like a raw counterpoint to the frou-frou but sweet dancing in the church (a wink to The Stuntman?)

O’Toole chose a role that demands that we not just swoon over his ascots and sonnet speak—the bread and butter of his own life—but that we acknowledge and accept the side of the life force that does not quench “respectably” with age. I always had the feeling that flaunting his outrĂ© side throughout his career buffered him from feeling contempt for being so damnably adored.

The son of the bookie has been lobbying heavily recently, and the Irish bookmakers are upping his odds to win. A friend’s brother saw him at the nominee’s luncheon, and insists he was wearing heavy white powered make-up to look even more cadaverous so the Academy would say, oh, he’s going to die soon, give him the Oscar. “Yes sir, that’s my baby,” as Arthur Kennedy said in the film Lawrence of Arabia when TE's showmanship was flashing.

But the films. His body of work is the real thing. His stage work is masterful (except for that MacBeth). He is extra-ordinary. It may be that the Oscars can only measure degrees of excellence between the ordinary actors, not the dangerous ones. Too bad for Peter.




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