My favorite Peter O'Toole performance is in "My Favorite Year," for which he received one of his eight best-actor Oscar nominations. In the 1982 movie, O'Toole, who died at 81 on Saturday, played a somewhat over-the-hill actor named Alan Swann. The character was loosely based on Errol Flynn, a swashbucking star with a wild lifestyle and an appetite for liquor who died at 50, about the same age as O'Toole when he played Swann.
Perhaps I imagined it, but I always thought there was something almost gleeful in O'Toole's performance in the Mel Brooks-produced comedy set on a live 1950s TV variety show. Did the actor know something we didn't? Was he showing us something of his real self? O'Toole was known to happily regale interviewers with colorful tales involving alcohol abuse.
It could have been walk-through, take-the-money role for the Irish actor, who 20 years before dazzled film audiences in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," but he threw himself into the Swann role. Earlier this year, Brooks told me that with all respect to "Lawrence of Arabia," he thinks it's "Toole's best cinematic performance."
I tend to agree, although I'm still mesmerized by O'Toole's otherworldly presence as the World War I British hero T. E. Lawrence. Whenever people talk about the movie, people always remark upon the actor's blond hair and penetrating deep-blue eyes, but it's the way O'Toole floats through the film that convinces you the character can't be of this Earth, undoubtedly Lean's intention when he selected him.
In the next decade, the actor roared on the big screen, racking up more Oscar nominations - "Becket," (1964), "The Lion in Winter" (1968), "Goodbye Mr. Chips" (1969), "The Ruling Class" (1972). Even in lesser films like "The Night of the Generals," which I caught recently on TV, he could be captivating. In that one, he plays a high-ranking Nazi officer, who leaves a string of murdered women behind him.
O'Toole didn't age well, though. By the time he made "My Favorite Year" those gorgeous looks he had in "Lawrence" were long gone. He made some bad choices in films, too, and occasionally overacted, relying on his theatrical training in roles he clearly did take a paycheck for. Still, you could never count him out. He was wonderful in Richard Rush's "The Stunt Man" (1980), another Oscar nomination. Then he would show up in the forgettable "Super Girl" (1984), only to deliver a lovely performance in the Oscar-winning best picture "The Last Emperor" in 1987.
Even in the big-budget, high-octane "Troy" (2004), which featured an oiled-up Brad Pitt, O'Toole was able to deliver emotion in his performance as Priam, the Trojan king. Then to prove that he was still in the game, O'Toole received his last Oscar nomination in 2007 for his performance as a somewhat naughty aging actor.
While O'Toole may have had to settle for an honorary Oscar in 2003 and has the dubious distinction of having the most best-actor nominations without winning, his career towers over most of those who have won. He was a star for more than a half-century. I would like to think there was a twinkle in his eye, when he made "My Favorite Year," as if to say, "Yes, I'm playing a guy on his way down, but I'm going to show you." Indeed, he did for more than 30 years more, and he, indeed, was one of my favorite actors.
The passing of Joan Fontaine on Sunday at 96 should not go unremarked. A major star of the 1940s, she was the only actor or actress to win an Oscar for an Alfred Hitchcock film. In "Suspicion," she played a newly married woman who suspects her husband (Cary Grant) is trying to kill her. It's a memorable performance. Fontaine's career never hit such heights again, but it was solid.
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