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R.I.P. - The Essentials: 5 Of Peter O'Toole's Best Performances

by Oliver Lyttelton
December 15, 2013 2:04 PM
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My Favorite Year
"My Favorite Year" (1982)
"I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star." So goes the cry of Alan Swann, O'Toole's character in this broad-ish studio comedy, and while that's not an accusation you could ever really level at O'Toole, he found a new lease on life in the early 1980s with a string of comedies. And while he's also terrific as a crazed, manipulative film director in 1980's "The Stunt Man," "My Favorite Year" provides his most definitive comic turn of that era. In Richard Benjamin's film, the actor plays a fading matinee idol (clearly modeled after Errol Flynn), the star of swashbuckling pictures who's been roped into being a guest on a Sid Caesar-type show in the early years of television.  A young comedy writer (Mark Linn-Baker) is tasked with babysitting the star who, in an echo of O'Toole's own well-documented love for the bottle, is a raging drunk, prone to womanizing and bar brawls. The script (inspired by producer Mel Brooks' own experiences with Flynn while working on the "Your Show of Shows") is a little conventional, giving each of the two leads a neat arc, in addition to a somewhat unnecessary sub-plot about a corrupt union boss. But it's sweet and genuine, and O'Toole is a marvel, delivering the kind of slurred, uproarious drunken turn that was making Dudley Moore a star at the same time, but really making it sing with the experience of a man who's spent much of his adult life getting his buzz on. But there's real pathos there too (O'Toole had suffered health problems in the 1970s, having his pancreas and part of his stomach removed, and nearly dying from a blood disorder), particularly in his fears of being found out as a phony—something that anyone who's found success in any endeavor can identify with.

"Venus" (2006)
Initially, when offered an honorary Oscar in 2003, Peter O'Toole wrote the Academy a letter turning it down, telling them he was "still in the game, and might win the bugger outright." He was eventually persuaded to accept it (watch his terrific speech below), but true to his intentions, found himself back in the Kodak Theater only three years later for Roger Michell's "Venus," and while he was thwarted for the eighth time (Forest Whitaker won for "The Last King Of Scotland"), he couldn't have found a better Academy swansong than with this role, that sums up so much of what made him special. Reuniting Michell with Hanif Kureshi, the writer of the similarly-themed "The Mother," the film sees O'Toole play Maurice, an actor reduced to playing a grandfather in a TV soap who strikes up a curious, complicated relationship with the great-niece (Jodie Whittaker) of his best friend (Leslie Phillips). There's a hamminess to the part that wouldn't work if he was playing anything other than an elderly luvvie, but it feels firmly authentic here (his scenes with Phillips, and with Vanessa Redgrave as his ex-wife are particularly touching), while Whittaker, in her screen debut, provides a spark of youthful energy that O'Toole responds to; his depiction of a life-long lover given one last brush with a lust that he ultimately knows will never be reciprocated, is rather heartbreaking. And yet O'Toole also plays it with a light touch, once more displaying his gift for physical comedy in a way that belies his age—the scene where he accidentally interrupts Whittaker's nude modelling class is low-brow, but pitch-perfectly played.

"Ratatouille" (2007)
We can see that this might be a controversial choice—how could we deny a place for "The Lion In Winter" or "Becket" in favor of a film in which O'Toole's indelible face never appeared? But it's a mark of O'Toole's performance that his brief supporting role in Pixar and Brad Bird's "Ratatouille" got calls for a ninth Oscar nomination from many critics, and it's as great a voiceover turn as has ever been given by an actor. When he first saunters into the restaurant, O'Toole's character, food writer Anton Ego, is a sinister, lanky villain, threatening Linguini with imminent critical evisceration, and O'Toole's lugubrious tones couldn't be a more perfect match. And yet, as it turns, the character is the emotional heart of the film, his mind changed by a Proustian flashback caused by rat Remy's cooking, and O'Toole gets a killer monologue by the end, both skewering and justifying the art of criticism; a bold thing for a kids' flick about talking rodents. And what's more, O'Toole delivers it like it was a Shakespearean soliloquy, bestowing decades of experience and gravitas, and making that payoff truly sing. If you're not sure about our pick on this one, just try and imagine how the film would have worked with anyone other than O'Toole voicing Ego.

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  • Richard Binder | December 17, 2013 7:41 PMReply

    Not only was he one of the greatest actors, but had the quality of jumping out of the the ruling class you felt as a member of the audience, that you were directly at his side; that you were almost one with him. I for one cannot put any performance I have seen, ahead of this. Him, holding back his insanity, to prove his sanity was indescribable. Long live Peter O'Toole

  • Cliff | December 16, 2013 10:51 AMReply

    Surprised Stunt Man didn't get an honorable mention

  • scrnwrtr17 | December 16, 2013 10:27 AMReply

    I agree that not including "The Stunt Man" is heartbreaking. O'Toole's portrayal of film director Eli Cross was sublime. "If God could do the tricks we can do, he'd be a happy man" is still one of the best lines ever written, and O'Toole's reading of it perfect.

  • Edwin Chen | July 12, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    Without "The Lion in Winter" and "Beckett"? That surprises me!

  • goldfarb | July 11, 2012 8:00 PMReply

    Hellraisers - a must read for anyone interested in drunken high-jinks

  • Rob | July 11, 2012 12:37 PMReply

    "Lawrence is hardly ever offscreen across the film's epic three-and-a-half-hour running time (and presumably even longer in the recent, longer edit)"

    Not sure where this is coming from and couldn't find any confirmation elsewhere--a restoration was recently done on Lawrence of Arabia that premiered at Cannes but it was of the Director's Cut that's been the main version since the late 80s--anyone know what Oliver was referring to?

  • rudy | July 11, 2012 12:13 PMReply

    Stunt Man
    and honestly is Tiberius in Caligula is fucking awesome

  • Travis | July 11, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    I'm disappointed at the lack of Becket, but I understand why. While all your listed films (each amazing, Lawrence and Favorite Year two favorites of mine) were driven by the full force of O'Toole, with possibly only the aid of amazing visuals or cinematography, Becket was driven by the dual nature of the relationship-O'Toole's nearly psychotic king was only as good as the stoic, emotionless Burton, and vice versa (which is why it was so phenomenal).

  • Fred | July 11, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    Nice tribute and great choices, but the denial of "The Stunt Man" is a bit of a heartbreaker.

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