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Stars We Won’t Forget

by Leonard Maltin
December 17, 2013 4:30 AM
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Judith Anderson, as the sinister Mrs. Danvers, menaces Joan Fontaine in "Rebecca" (1940)

If she had disappeared after making Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, we would still remember Joan Fontaine for her haunting, empathetic performance as the second Mrs. DeWinter, whose first name is never revealed. If his only credential was the title role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole would have a place in film history. As it happens, he gave many other memorable performances, with eight Oscar nominations to prove it. Audrey Totter isn’t indelibly associated with any one picture, but she enjoyed latter-day adulation as one of the femmes fatales in a handful of films noir. Eddie Muller even devoted a chapter of his book Dark City Dames to her. And although he came to Hollywood later than the others just mentioned, Tom Laughlin made a singular impression on audiences—and grateful theater owners—with the enormous success of Billy Jack, which he co-wrote, directed, and starred in.

Every time a veteran actor or actress dies, I find myself reviewing memories of particular films or memorable scenes in which they appeared. Each loss is like a psychic wound, because someone who was part of my moviegoing life is gone.

Petula Clark visits her costar, Peter O’Toole (with ever-present cigarette) on location for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969), which earned the actor the fourth of his eight Academy Award nominations.

I never met Joan Fontaine, but she was kind enough to sign my copy of her autobiography after a friend shared her address in Carmel, California with me. Although she was reclusive in later years, turning down requests for personal appearances and interviews, she corresponded with a number of fans. She genuinely appreciated their interest in her and, like many old-school stars, felt that answering their letters and requests for autographs was the right thing to do.

Regarding her most famous film she once recalled, for Doug McClelland, “I made about seven tests for Rebecca. Everybody tested for it. Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, Vivien Leigh, Susan Hayward, Anne Baxter, you name her. Supposedly, Hitchcock saw one of my tests and said, ‘This is the only one.’ I think the word  he used to describe what set me apart was ‘vulnerability.’ Also, I was not very well-known and [producer David O.] Selznick probably saw the chance for star-building. And may I say he also saw the chance to put me under contract for serf’s wages? David’s brother, Myron, was a top agent and got 10 per cent of clients, but David, who loaned me here and there and never used me again in one of his own productions, took 300 percent, and I was always expected to be grateful to him.”

Peter O’Toole surprised his Telluride hosts by hopping on a bicycle—and I got photographic proof, back in 2002.

A then-unknown Peter O’Toole was not David Lean’s first choice for the role of T.E. Lawrence; he originally cast O’Toole’s RADA classmate Albert Finney. Decades after giving the spellbinding performance that made him an overnight star, O’Toole was asked which of his many roles was closest to his real-life personality. “I think the one that bears the least resemblance to me is Lawrence of Arabia,” he replied, “the one for which I’m perhaps more famous. I like to think that it’s Henry II,” a real-life figure he played twice, in Becket and The Lion in Winter. Why? “I like the man. He interests me.  He never lost a battle, and yet he never fought a battle if he could arrange it diplomatically. The last thing he ever wanted was to fight but when he did fight, he fought. A man of great wit—funny, a lawgiver—and yet at the same time, frail, human. Now, am I describing me? I don’t know. I like to think it is, perhaps, just merely a fabulation but I like to think it.”

As for how he became an actor in the first place, he said, “In fact, it was just a series of blunders. I just blundered into this and blundered into something else. I found myself in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts through a blunder, and then I went to the Theatre of Royal Bristol where I stayed for three years in repertory. The first year I really felt completely bogus. I had no confidence…  I often read books about why people become actors as I read books about why Stalin became Stalin. What they don’t seem to say in those books is why the people who are Stalin or are actors are so good at it. It’s a talent, it’s a gift; there’s nothing one can do about it. All you can do is nurture the gift, polish the gift. I was gifted. That’s God, not me. I know that my mother’s reading of poetry stays with me to this day. I can hear my mother, I can recite everything that she said. All those things clearly were contributory forces, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I do realize it now.”

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Peter O’Toole at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival. He was charming, witty, and full of surprise. As a car deposited us at the location where a group photo was scheduled, he noticed festival director Bill Pence arriving on a bicycle. O’Toole insisted on trying it out and before any of us quite realized what was happening, the actor was pedaling along—at an altitude of 8,600 feet. Luckily, I had my camera on hand to capture the moment.

Audrey Totter is approached by a sinister Ray Milland in "Alias Nick Beal" (1949)

Audrey Totter never reached the pinnacle of stardom, but she was the kind of actress that filmgoers came to recognize and rely on to give a solid performance in any kind of role. She made her mark in such films as Lady in the Lake, The Unsuspected, Alias Nick Beal, and The Set-up. She could handle comedy or play a devoted wife, but as she later admitted, “the bad girls were so much fun to play.” She made them fun to watch, too.

No one lives forever, but because Audrey Totter, Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine, and Tom Laughlin made so many films, they will never be lost to us. Thank goodness for that.

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More: Journal, Peter O'Toole

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  • russell myers | December 21, 2013 9:57 AMReply

    I own L.M. Movies Guides 1990, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, @013 and Movie Classics. How can I get your reviews since 2012 without having to buy a new guide each year?

  • Jacob L | December 20, 2013 12:04 AMReply

    I teach middle school English, and every year I show my students Rebecca. They always like it more than they think they will. Initially, some of them complain about it being in black-and-white, but soon they're swept up in the story. So sad to hear about all of these actors gone forever, but it's a privilege to share them with others, isn't it?

  • James Knuttel | December 18, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    Make that "nice tribute".

  • James Knuttel | December 18, 2013 12:13 PMReply

    Leonard, I'm glad to see that you did this mice tribute to Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, Tom Laughlin, and Audrey Totter. Any reason why Eleanor Parker was left out?

  • Thornhill | December 17, 2013 11:02 PMReply

    To celebrate the life of Audrey Totter, I watched (again) "Lady in the Lake".
    For the first time, I noticed that in the opening cast-credits, there is a glorious joke/clue...
    Where is Chrystal Kingsby? is an important plot-point. From the credits:
    Chrystal Kingsby .............................ELLAY MORT
    Speak the actress' name aloud (preferably with a French accent).... somebody was having fun at MGM in 1947.

  • Norm | December 17, 2013 7:17 PMReply

    LM says it very well , capturing time on film is a wonder...that we get to enjoy many times over...

  • mike fontanelli | December 17, 2013 7:00 AMReply

    Every year during the holiday season, Turner Classic Movies begins airing a touching farewell montage called "TCM Remembers" to honor the entertainers who left us that year. Each year without fail, some heavy-hitters pass away in mid-to-late December and don't make the final cut. "Bittersweet" is the word that comes to mind. Perhaps for the only time in their professional lives, Peter O' Toole and Joan Fontaine's timing was off. Thanks for posting this.

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