Sands Of Time: Reflections On Lawrence & O’Toole

Life turned out much better than I thought. I knew after a little while that I could act.

–Peter O’Toole

As the 50th Anniversary of the release of Lawrence of Arabia looms in December 2012, so does the 80th birthday of its star, Mr. Peter O’Toole.

Or should we not call him “Mr.,” but rather “Could’ve Been Sir Peter O’Toole”? After all, the Irish actor, born in County Galway on August 2, 1932, was offered a knighthood in 1987, but declined the honor for political reasons.

Instead, O’Toole’s achievement for royalty has come on stage, TV and screen, with a myriad of awards and nominations. O’Toole has two Emmy awards under his belt, three Golden Globes and a host of other international trophies.

But he has no wins after eight Best Actor Academy Award nominations, although the AMPAS gave him an honorary Oscar in 2003.  On the London stage, there have been memorable stints in Hamlet, Othello and King Lear as well as Uncle Vanya and Henry Higgins in a 1984 revival of My Fair Lady that ultimately traveled to Broadway.

There has been junk to be sure, roles beneath his talent that were taken for the paycheck. Caligula, Supergirl, Rosebud and Club Paradise spring to mind immediately. Still, O’Toole has retained his dignity, moving from lesser projects on to prestige assignments with great regularity. Further, even if the films were less than anything to sing about—a Creator here, a Troy there—O’Toole enlightened the proceedings with his spirit and talent.

His Oscar-nominated efforts are among his very best: the enigmatic, blue-eyed, strikingly handsome T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962); as King Henry II, at odds with Richard Burton’s also Oscar-nominated Thomas Becket in Becket(1965); The  Lion in Winter (1968), in which O’Toole reprised his Henry II role, this time with the focus on the character’s relationship with  Eleanor of Aquitaine (played by Best Actress co-winner Katharine Hepburn); Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), a musical variation on Robert Donat’s well-regarded school teacher; The Ruling Class (1972), as a schizophrenic whose identities change in darkly humorous ways; the eccentric, egomaniacal film director Eli Cross in The Stunt Man (1980);  Alan Swann, the perpetually inebriated ex-movie star trying to make it on live TV in My Favorite Year (1982); and Venus (2006), as an aging actor attracted to his friend’s niece, an aspiring model.

As impressive as this list is, there are other performances that are indelible to be sure:  the charismatic lead in Richard Brooks’ exciting adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim; a womanizing fashion editor trying to come to terms with monogamy in What’s New, Pussycat?; the sophisticated burglar recruited by Audrey Hepburn to purloin a statue in How to Steal a Million; The Night of the Generals, in which he played a sadistic Nazi officer;  and the charismatic British tutor for China’s child leader Pu Yi in Bernardo Bertolucci’s acclaimed The Last Emperor.

O’Toole’s own favorite role is something of a surprise: the 1977 British made-for-TV movie Rogue Male, a remake of Fritz Lang’s 1941 effort Man Hunt. O’Toole assumed Walter Pidgeon’s role as a British aristocrat/big game hunter who finds himself pursued by the Nazis after his attempt to assassinate Hitler goes awry.

A welcome presence sharing stories with Charlie Rose or David Letterman, taking drags from an ever-present present cigarette holder, the now-gaunt performer has become a raconteur of the first-order, recalling his amazing career and his experiences in the acting world. In fact, he’s put to paper his memories with two acclaimed installments of his autobiography.  Loitering with Intent: The Child details his life up to age 20, centering on his childhood in a bleak slum, and a young adulthood spent working as a journalist,  joining the Navy, and auditioning for the esteemed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice, a wide-ranging account of the next three years in his life, includes his experiences at the Academy, his burgeoning friendship with Albert Finney, and the exciting experiences of being a student in 1950s London.

Then, the reputation for hellraising and drinking was in its formative years. And there is no shortage of accounts of O’Toole’s increasingly wilder exploits in later years. He was. after all, from the same generation and cut from similar cloth as  party savvy Brit thespians Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Peter Finch and Robert Shaw. “Booze is the most outrageous of drugs, which is why I chose it,” the actor once said. The heavy drinking also led to the dissolution of his 20-year marriage to Welsh actress Sian Phillips, the removal of a body part or two and some other serious health problems.

Lawrence of Arabia, which is slated to be issued on Blu-ray later this year, not only changed his career overnight, but also solidified his penchant for boozing and carousing. Up until Lawrence, O’Toole’s screen time was limited, but director David Lean was impressed when he saw him as a bank security officer in the 1960 heist film The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.

For the highly coveted role of Lawrence, Brando was approached (he took Mutiny on the Bounty instead), Anthony Perkins was considered, Montgomery Clift came with baggage because of his drinking problems and O’Toole pal Albert Finney opted out because of long shooting schedule. With urging from Katharine Hepburn and an OK from producer Sam Spiegel (who knew O’Toole from the actor being on-call for the troubled Clift during the shooting of Suddenly, Last Summer), Lean hired O’Toole for the difficult production that spanned 17 months in seven different countries throughout the world.

Coming as the project following director Lean’s Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai, great attention was placed on the expensive and expansive all-star saga of a British mapmaker who is enlisted for a fact-finding mission during World War I and ends up befriending Arab leaders and uniting their nations against the Turks while avoiding domination by the British.

Even though the film clocked at nearly four hours long (with nary a female—except for a camel—in sight), O’Toole’s Lawrence remained an enigma throughout.  He certainly wasn’t a conventional hero—either by looks or speech (“a lanky, almost clumsy man with a beautiful sculptured face and a speaking manner that hesitates between amusement and insolence” as Roger Ebert put it) or actions—the real Lawrence’s supposed homosexuality and predilection for sadomasochism are implied, and his violent streak emerges in certain situations.

The fact that Lawrence dies in a motorcycle accident minutes into the film confounded viewers’ expectations of a big-budget epic from an award-winning filmmaker even further.

Still, Lawrence of Arabia was an overwhelming success, at the box-office, with critics, and with audiences. Deemed a “thinking man’s epic,” it was later cited by such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese as having made huge impacts on their lives and works, and often ranks among the greatest films ever made in polls.

As expected, there were some dissenters at the time. Playwright Noel Coward is famously quoted as saying to O’Toole, “If you’d been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.”

Influential New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote : “…sadly, this bold Sam Spiegel picture lacks the personal magnetism, the haunting strain of mysticism and poetry that we’ve been thinking all these years would be dominant when a film about Lawrence the mystic and the poet was made. It reduces a legendary figure to conventional movie-hero size amidst magnificent and exotic scenery but a conventional lot of action-film cliches.”

His sentiments were echoed by Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, who wrote: “Long on panoramic vistas and short on interest in exploring any facet or feature of human behavior or human experience, it drones on emptily for an unconscionable length (over 3½ hours), during which time it throws at us impressive logistics, tons of extras and the whole ‘spectacle’ to-do just so a certain kind of reviewer, a certain kind of audience, can puff up on the notion that he, she or it, too, is very, very important. It’s a movie for people who hate either movies or people, including, perhaps especially, however unconsciously, themselves.”

Sarris also took exception to the lead actor’s performance.  “Peter O’Toole is ridiculous as Lawrence,” he opined, calling O’Toole’s work an “intentional parody of a performance” that was “hysterical, effeminate.”

“I can’t imagine who would consider O’Toole’s clipped speech and bundle of tics as any kind of serious acting,” Sarris explained. “Instead of suggesting a real Lawrence behind the public façade, O’Toole keeps to his character’s most superficial aspects and projects enough exhausting nervous energy to make Judy Garland’s concert appearances in the sixties seem calm, contained and relatively normal by comparison.”

Crowther and Sarris, of course, were in the minority. Lawrence of Arabia went on to win seven of the ten Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture. O’Toole lost out on his first Oscar nomination, as he would on the seven that were to follow. It did, however, send his screen career into “A” list orbit.

True to what would become typical form, the 30-year-old O’Toole took to Los Angeles, frequently turning up drunk for interviews and even demanding high fees of the media.

“You make a star, you make a monster,” observed producer Sam Spiegel.

O’Toole himself observed the impact Lawrence of Arabia had on him.

“I woke up one morning to find I was famous. Bought a white Rolls Royce and drove down Sunset Boulevard wearing dark specs and a white suit, waving like the queen mum. Nobody took any f—ing notice, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”