“God, he was beautiful.”
So says a minor character toward the end of 2006’s “Venus,” looking at an obituary photo of an elderly actor named Maurice. The actor is played by Peter O’Toole, and God, he was.
O’Toole died Saturday at 81, and it is possible to say that his career was legendary while never fully living up to its immense potential. He was possibly the most charismatic, handsome, and gifted of his acting peers, remarkable when you consider that his 1954 graduating class at London’s Royal Academy of
Dramatic Art included Richard Harris, Albert Finney, and Alan Bates.
For a while, O’Toole had it all, but after a decade-long run from 1958 to 1968 that included two stage Hamlets, two filmed Henry IIs, and a career-defining title role in David Lean’s 1962 “Lawrence of Arabia,” the momentum slipped away. It may have been all the carousing, which achieved iconic proportions until the actor gave up drinking (more or less) in 1975. Or it may have been a curious indecision about celebrity itself. Finney used it, got bored, and became a character actor. But O’Toole made hesitancy his métier. His T. E. Lawrence is the hero terrified of what heroism may bring — a larger-than-life adventurer when seen from a distance, a tremulous blue-eyed existentialist when encountered up close. The tension, majesty, and sorrow of the performance came from some mysterious place between the two.
He was nominated eight times for an Oscar and — here’s the shame of it — he never won. (In this he finally beat his rival and drinking companion Richard Burton, who lost only seven times.) The first four nominations were for Lawrence, a young Henry II in “Becket” (1964), a rip-roaring older version of the same king in “The Lion in Winter” (1968), and the gentle schoolmaster in “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1969). In terms of star power, it was quite a run. In terms of inspired moonbeam performances, O’Toole was just warming up.
His next nomination came for 1972’s “The Ruling Class” — one of the most exquisitely demented British films ever made — in which he plays an English aristocrat who believes he’s Jesus Christ. In 1980’s “The Stunt Man,” O’Toole’s all-knowing film director, Eli Cross, may in fact be the devil. “My Favorite Year” (1982) was a lovely comedy of nostalgia that allowed O’Toole and audience to connect the dots between the actor’s own legend and his derring-do forebears, John Barrymore and Errol Flynn.
And still he didn’t win. This apparently mattered to him more and more as time went on, if not as much as the better acting assignments or the money the worse assignments made possible. Even as his gaunt beauty turned ravaged with the years, O’Toole chose not to be choosy; I could fill the rest of this space with films like “Brotherly Love” (1970), “Supergirl” (1984), “High Spirits” (1988), and “King Ralph” (1991), all projects in which he briefly and happily classed up the joint before departing with a check.
In 2004’s turgid Homeric saga “Troy,” the star played King Priam, benched on the sidelines until he can’t take it anymore and gives Brad Pitt’s preening Achilles an acting smackdown. In the 2007 Pixar film “Ratatouille,” he’s the voice of food critic Anton Ego, dripping with poisonous hauteur before finding the lost little boy within. It’s arguably O’Toole’s last great performance.
Before that, however, very late in the day — after O’Toole had turned down an honorary Oscar in 2002 only to bend a little and accept it the following year — he was nominated for one last acting performance, in Roger Michell’s “Venus.” His character is a former god of the British stage, now taking tiny roles and commercial gigs in his dotage. He conceives a crush on a most undeserving young woman (Jodie Whittaker) and seems for all the world like a dirty old man trying to cop a feel.
But then Maurice opens his mouth to speak and that voice tumbles out — elegant, exhausted, forever regretful, forever amused — the voice of a man still young and amazed at the beauty of a world unfurling before him. And when O’Toole has the character look at himself in the mirror, slap himself in the face and spit “old man!” at his own image, you know he’s furious at the years for vanishing before he was done with us or with acting or with life. Maybe he felt he was still warming up.
O’Toole’s best actor competition in the 2006 Oscar race consisted of winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Blood Diamond”), Ryan Gosling (“Half Nelson”), and Will Smith (“The Pursuit of Happyness”). O’Toole dearly wanted to win and — I’ll say it — he should have. God, he was beautiful.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr