As you’ll no doubt have heard, Peter O’Toole died on Saturday aged 81. As so many quite rightly mourn the passing of this great actor, we also can’t deny that it’s truly quite incredible that he lived to the ripe old age he did, considering his ill health caused by his heavy drinking lifestyle early in his career.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the O’Toole performance to see. To my shame, I saw the David Lean epic for the first time this year, but it really is one of those life-changing viewing experiences. Not only is it technically magnificent, and nigh-on flawless in terms of performance, but it’s also pretty groundbreaking as a biopic of a polarising individual in that it portrays the title character without the rose-tinted view so often applied to telling a life story. T.E. Lawrence was a remarkable, but controversial figure, and as such O’Toole smartly chose to portray him in shades of grey – brave and brilliant, but reckless and a little bit mad. Without Lawrence of Arabia, you would never have had Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning turn as a certain president in LINCOLN, where another historical icon was portrayed as not quite the white knight you might expect.
Michael Fassbender memorably paid tribute to O’Toole as Lawrence in PROMETHEUS – his android David is seen to consciously style himself after his idol, and every now and then in the film, when he adopts a particular expression or mannerism, you almost believe it’s a young O’Toole exploring the halls of a Gigeresque spaceship. O’Toole’s influence can be felt across acting generations, and as an icon, he is held in high regard by each new generation of performers on film.
Following a heyday of Shakespeare and iconic roles on celluloid, O’Toole’s career arguably tailed off in his later years. Where he was once a giant, he was reduced to bringing class to big-budget misfires (TROY) and strange cameos (STARDUST). He did occasionally still make his mark, notably with his moving animated turn in RATATOUILLE, before he respectably retired in 2012.
The film world has suffered some really tragic losses this year, but Peter O’Toole isn’t one of them. Obviously, his passing is sad, but it was his time at a grand old age, and he leaves a great body of work behind, and several generations – both inside and out of the film industry – inspired. He may have never won an Oscar despite being nominated 8 times, but did he really need one? We all know how talented, and how important he was. SSP