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O’TOOLE, PETER: OBITUARY, 2/8/1932 – 14/12/2013

Peter O’Toole is primarily and fondly remembered for his Oscar nominated portrayal of the astonishing Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) – but while this was his career defining role, for me, another definition of his amazing talent is his Oscar nominated performance as Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney - 14th Earl of Gurney, in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972), a savagely funny satire on British aristocracy. Andrew L. Urban pays tribute to O’Toole.

Given that I have known Peter Medak since we were growing up in Budapest, I’ll quote from others about that quirky comic drama. But first, a quick synopsis as per Roger Ebert (screenplay adapted by Peter Barnes from his play): The movie tells the story of Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O'Toole). He inherits the title after the movie's cheerfully shocking prologue, in which his father (Harry Andrews) addresses the patriotic St. George Society, comes home, dresses himself in a tutu and accidentally hangs himself while performing a private sexual ritual. The 14th Earl arrives too late for the funeral, but moves into the title with a great confidence, which is no wonder, since the 14th Earl believes that he is Jesus Christ.

Says Ebert of O’Toole’s performance: “O'Toole makes his character suitably feckless. An American actor might have been tempted to play Jesus with mannerisms borrowed from TV preachers. O'Toole plays him as an offhand narcissist with only relatively good manners. The family is shocked. They realize there is only one course open to them: Marry off the Earl, have him produce an heir, and then quickly bundle the Earl off to the Master in Lunacy for lifetime tenure in a rubber room.”

Which is precisely why it’s such a wonderful performance, as some others also found (samples from Rotten Tomatoes): “a tour de force performance by O’Toole”; “Peter O’Toole is terrific in a well deserved Oscar nominated performance”; “Peter O’Toole is outstanding”

As for his Lawrence of Arabia, it is a riveting, visceral performance; should he have won the Oscar? Well, it is probably some consolation to O’Toole’s many fans that the 1963 Oscar went to Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird).

... as Lawrence of Arabia

O’Toole’s last high profile and multi-award nominated role was for Maurice, in Roger Michell’s Venus (2006), playing one of two ageing actors (with Leslie Phillips) whose lives are impacted by a brash teenager, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). 

Nominated for eight Oscars, O’Toole was finally given an honorary ‘career’ Oscar in 2003; he was also nominated for seven Golden Globes (of which two are for TV work), but he also won four, one of them as Most Promising Newcomer … for Lawrence of Arabia, a role for which he was also nominated for Best Actor.

O’Toole’s distinctive voice and clear English diction defied his Irish origins and Yorkshire upbringing; and it was the Brits who awarded him the Best Actor award for Lawrence – the only one. He was nominated for three more.

But the listing of his awards and nominations misses the most important point about his work: he was both a star and a character actor, meaning he developed a star’s screen authority and prestige but he never relied on it for performance.

Published December 16, 2013

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Peter O'Toole

... in The Ruling Class

... in Lawrence of Arabia

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