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.
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.”
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 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.