April 22, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Phantoms & Conclusion

Film: Phantoms (Joe Chappelle, 1998)
Role: Dr. Timothy Flyte

First things first: Phantoms is a terrible, terrible film. That it's more famous for its epic failure and the ensuing parody in the Ben Affleck starrer Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back ("Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms!") is testament to its dubious quality. Second things second: O'Toole was obviously hired to lend some monologuing gravitas to the ridiculous proceedings. That doesn't quite work out.

The movie is, after all, as far as I can tell, about some alien race that has remained dormant under the earth since like, the time of the Aztecs (they're what's behind the disappearance of entire cultures, natch), and have the ability to possess people and sometimes appear as an X-Files-ish black oil and sometimes like ghosts (hence the title). And of course, instead of deciding (the aliens are sentient, natch) to bubble up under The White House of the UN or something, they take over some Podunk town in Colorado, kill everybody except the sheriff (Affleck) and his two dopey deputies (Liev Schreiber and Nicky Katt--guess which one dies first). Joining them are Rose McGowen and Joanna Going as sisters who travel to the town for no real reason and think it's like, totally odd that there's no one around. Blah, blah, blah, these very pretty people wander around for a while, encountering dead bodies and mysteries and until they find...a clue! Someone's written the name "Dr. Timothy Flyte" on a mirror. In blood. Natch.

Enter O'Toole in the "What was he thinking?!" role of a lifetime. Dr. Flyte is a quack whose outlandish theories of alien abductions have consigned him to writing for a seedy tabloid. He's old and English and his introductory scene shows him drinking tea and looking disheveled but respectable to let you know he's old. And English.

I've already wasted too many words on this movie. Phantoms is just a mess of mishmashed alien movie cliches with boring lead performances. Furthermore, it's not scary. And that's the real sin. If you're going to make a sci-fi horror film, it should be scary.

And on that depressing note, we come to the close of 'For the Love of Peter O'Toole.' As I noted in the first entry, this is an incomplete filmographic study. Although it was fueled by Netflix, there are still several films available through that format that I didn't rent during my O'Toole-a-Thon months ago and haven't seen since. These include: Man FridaySupergirlKing Ralph,Fairy Tale: A True StoryThe ManorLassieTroy, and Ratatouille and Stardust (both of which I've seen before). None of these I'm particularly yearning to see. Ratatouille is a Pixar masterpiece and wouldn't mind renting again. Stardust I actually own and should probably re-watch for O'Toole's part; the movie is okay generally but the leads are boring and the comedy is pretty uneven.

There are even more projects that don't fit the criteria. For example, Masada is an excellent miniseries from 1981 starring O'Toole. However, because it's technically television and not film, I couldn't write about it for the marathon. I did watch it (all six and a half hours of it) and can recommend it with enthusiasm. If you have the time, I highly suggest you check it out. It's very historically intricate and detailed in its portrayal of ancient Rome and Jewish life but it's surprisingly modern in the way it conveys political strategies and tactics and compelling in its depictions of human struggle and drama.

Even more frustratingly, many O'Toole films I want to see aren't available on Netflix. These include: KidnappedThe Day They Robbed the Bank of EnglandGreat CatherineCountry Dance, and especially The Rainbow Thief (which was directed by Alejandro Jordorowsky and reunited O'Toole with Omar Sharif), Final Curtain, and Dean Spanley. Some of these are available on DVD in the U.S. but Rainbow Thief and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England aren not and Night of the Generals is very hard to find (I had to buy from a rare films dealer in Chicago!).

Furthermore, some of O'Toole's greatest performances were on the stage including Keith Waterhouse's Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell which is available only in the U.K., as far as I can tell. Not to mention the dozens of performances at the Old Vic and playing Hamlet for Laurence Olivier at the Royal Nation Theater.

But, alas. I'm just one woman, what can I do? Until that time where I discover buried pirate treasure in my backyard and become an instant billionaire, I have the means to see only so many films. I'm running out of room here to do justice to the O'Toole filmography in its entirety. There are still so many recurring themes and interesting connections to make between texts. But that's best saved for another time, another entry. 

So, that concludes 'For the Love of Peter O'Toole,' for now. Thanks for reading!

April 21, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: The Last Emperor

Film: The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)
Role: Reginald Johnston

The Last Emperor is not a Peter O'Toole film. He has a very small part as the Scottish tutor of the titular emperor when he is a boy. The film is an epic, spanning seven decades of Chinese history, from the turn of the century mysticism of a China still inured in ancient traditions to the country's mid-century Maoism. In the middle of it all is the last emperor Pu Yi (played as an adult by John Lone) who ascends the thrown as a boy of three, becomes a prisoner in his own Forbidden City and is later sent to a Siberian work camp by the new Communist regime.

Although this true story is truly remarkable, the film's scripting and Lone's acting leave much to be desired. There's nothing more disappointing than a biopic of extraordinary content that falls flat in translating that story to the screen. However, these elements that would normally sink a film are small matters in light of the extraordinarily intricate, detailed, and sumptuous world created by Bertolucci. Every frame of this film is like a painting. The beauty and artistry of the production design is truly something to behold. The costuming and set design are really remarkable in their fidelity to period detail. At points, the sheer beauty of the film overwhelms its story but at some point, the viewer just has to give in to it and enjoy.

April 20, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Zulu Dawn

Film: Zulu Dawn (Douglas Hickox, 1979)
Role: Lord Chelmsford

Based on the real-life disastrous Battle of Isandlwana between British troops and Zulu warriors, Zulu Dawn recounts what is still the worst ass-whopping of any army by native forces. The highly efficient, trained British, equipped with the most modern rifles, were decimated by a much smaller force of Zulus outfitted with spears and loincloths. O'Toole plays Lord Chelmsford, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, who rather arrogantly luxuriates at a lush African mansion, entertaining military guests before the battle begins. The scene demonstrates the strained relations between the British and the Africans, many of whom serve as servants and even as auxiliary fighting forces.

The real power of the film is in its realistic and gritty portrayal of tactical manouvers and director Hickox's ground-level detail. Most of the screentime is given to character actors playing the unnamed British and Zulu soldiers. Its their boredom, their pain, and their deaths we're privy to. According to historical record, they're disposed of as swiftly as they would have been in battle. Unlike a Hollywood film, their deaths are not glorious and the camera does not linger on them with a swelled musical score. They die and the battle continues. Zulu Dawn is filled with sobering moments of realism that allow the viewer to marvel at the wanton destruction of war and reflect on its ultimate futility.

The one Hollywood touch is the brilliant and now legendary score from Elmer Bernstein. It's used only sparsely in the film but when it is, you can feel your blood pressure rise. The theme was recently used in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds to great effect.

April 19, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Man of La Mancha

Film: Man of La Mancha (Arthur Hiller, 1972)
Role: Don Quixote de la Mancha/Miguel de Cervantes/Alonso Quixana

Like Goodbye Mr. ChipsMan of La Mancha is another musical effort from O'Toole. Curiously, although La Mancha was more revered on stage for the quality of its music and lyrics, its adaptation to film is much less charming than Goodbye Mr. Chips. The film is very flat, devoid of the zest and exuberance the material elicits on stage. Another huge difference here is that O'Toole's singing was dubbed, although admittedly, it was very well done. I couldn't tell the difference until the end of the film.

The story is framed in a flashback narrative, beginning when de Cervantes (O'Toole) is arrested for performing a stage version of Don Quixote and thrown in a dungeon. There, he tells his story to the inmates; the film cuts back and forth between him narrating and re-enacting some of the play with his acting troupe and the fantasy sequence where O'Toole plays Don Quixote and James Coco plays Sancho Panza. Another prisoner in the dungeon is Aldonza (Sophia Loren), whom Cervantes as Quixana/Quixote incorporates into his narrative as the girl of his dreams, Dulcinea. Loren's singing is quite good, probably the best in the cast and I think she gives the performance of the film. As outre and manic as O'Toole is, Loren is brimming with repressed fury, both as Aldonza who wants nothing more than to be left alone to rot, and as Dulcinea who refuses to concede Quixote is anything but insane.

As Cervantes...putting on a show in the dungeon...as Quixote at the end of his tale.

Besides Loren and occasionally O'Toole, there's nothing much to enjoy in the picture. One bright spot is the makeup effects on O'Toole. You can see here that the film does a good job transforming him in his many incarnations. Notice, too, how the Quixote makeup in the dungeon scenes is subtly less sophisticated than the fantasy Quixote makeup. Nice touch that grounds the action in reality and helps differentiate the timeline of the narrative. O'Toole is probably least recognizable in this film than any other I've profiled, in part because of the makeup but also because his performance differs widely from even the other mentally unstable characters he's played.

April 18, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Under Milk Wood

Film: Under Milk Wood (Andrew Sinclair, 1972)
Role: Captain Cat

Under Milk Wood is an adaptation of Dylan Thomas' famous radio play of the same name. It stars O'Toole, his friend Richard Burton and Burton's wife Elizabeth Taylor, all three of whom were friends of Thomas'. I don't think I would recommend this film to anyone who wasn't a great admirer of Thomas' work, which is a very acquired taste. Being of that hearty Celtic stock myself, I think it must be inborn in me to love the thick, rolling consonance of Thomas' poetry. Something about verdant hills, the smell of the sea and the taste of a pint of Guinness gets me all nostalgic in the blood.

Burton plays the First Man, the narrator and tour guide of the Welsh town Llareggub ("bugger all" spelled backwards--cheeky). Taylor plays Rosie Probert, the former lover of O'Toole now-blind sea captain, shown Cat's in soft, nostalgic flashbacks for the lost love of his life. The film is an interesting experiment in the challenges and rewards of adapting a radio play to the screen. What was meant to be imagined is now given life and in some regards, the fun of conjuring the town's colorful inhabitants is taken away from you. On the other hand, if you forget the radio play and focus on the acting, the sound design, and especially Burton's narration, it's hard not to get caught up in the film's poetic beauty. Characters like Polly Garters, the woman with many children from many men, is an even more heartbreaking character when given life by actressAnn Beach. The whole piece has a quiet air of sadness as we peak into these peoples' lives to witness their dreams and heartbreak for a fleeting moment. Like Captain Cat, at the end of the film, we will only have our memories to keep us company. We can only remember our time under Milk Wood with fond nostalgia.

April 17, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Murphy's War

Film: Murphy's War (Peter Yates, 1971)
Role: the titular Murphy, cantankerous Irishman/Nazis' worst nightmare

I think it would be instructive just to look at the poster for Murphy's War instead of writing the synopsis.

Now that is an unexpectedly cool poster. Just take a gander at that tagline. Pithy but badass and coupled with O'Toole looking roguish sucking on a cigarette, communicates practically all you need to know about the film. Okay, so it gives you a timeframe: 1945. It gives you sense of the character and his relation to the action (the submarine, the plane, explosions!). The action is all contained within and/or emanating from O'Toole and this idea is reinforced by the tagline and the title. Who's war? Murphy's. Plus that picture of O'Toole makes him look like a dude you don't want to mess with. He looks crafty. He'll fuck you up, no doubt.

So does the film deliver on its poster? Heck yes! I have massive affection for this film. It's kind of a hybrid of a war picture and a revenge picture and it also falls within one of my favorite obscure sub-genres: the dude building stuff picture. You know how satisfying it is when you watch a guy build a treehouse or clean a gun? How about the thrill of watching Tony Starkwelding the shit out of some Iron Man armor? Murphy's War is almost entirely dedicated that kind of process. Murphy is the sole survivor of a carrier blown out of the water by a German sub in South America. He washes up on this tropical island occupied by an English mission doctor (Sian Phillips) and a French handyman (Philippe Noiret). Immediately, he starts planning his revenge against the doctor's orders and enlisting Noiret's help. He repairs an entire biplane and builds bombs all while refusing to shave, smoking tons of cigarettes and cursing up a storm. In short, awesomeness.

The film is very smart in the way it cuts back and forth between O'Toole's machinations and the German sub, captained by an effectively low-key Horst Janson. The captain just wants to survive the war and get back to Germany. He and his men are exhausted and because they think there were no survivors of the carrier attack, they take their time getting back home. Big mistake. I won't ruin any of the plot points in Murphy's War but I will say that the climax is a brilliant bit of ironic revenge. Yates is a great underrated action director and this film definitely features some of the most thrilling sequences of wartime mechanics I've ever seen.

April 16, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Night of the Generals

Film: Night of the Generals (Anatole Litvak, 1967)
Role: General Tanz

Night of the Generals is one of those films with a better premise than execution. The premise is that there are a series of murders of prostitutes in Nazi-occupied countries (Poland, France, etc.) and a German officer Major Grau (Omar Sharif) is tasked with investigating them. He runs into trouble however when a witness claims he saw the murder was wearing a the uniform of a General. There are three suspects: General Tanz (O'Toole), General Kahlenberge (DonaldPleasence), and General von Siedlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray). It's not much of a mystery, however, because we learn early on that Tanz is the killer; Grau just doesn't know it yet. Tanz employs a low-ranking Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay) to act as his driver, much in the same way it is speculated Jack the Ripper employed a coachman to drive him from murder to murder and act as an alibi should he need one. In the film's most riveting scene, Tanz effectively frames Hartmann for the murder he's committed just seconds before. O'Toole is at his icy, crazy best in this scene and Courtney matches him beat for beat. If only the entire movie had the forcefulness and suspense shown here:

April 15, 2010

For the Love of Peter O'Toole: Drama Intro & The Bible

In the two previous entries in this series, I covered Peter O’Toole’s Oscar-nominated performances and his comedies. The next batch will feature everything else, loosely collected in the "drama" category. And without further ado…

Film: The Bible: In the Beginning... (John Huston, 1966)
Role: The Three Angels

The Bible is pretty much as its title claims: a filmic recreation of the Book of Genesis. And as you might expect from an adaptation of a sacred text, it's thorough. The first ten minutes of the film are word-for-word from the beginning of Genesis, the creation of the Earth and Sky depicted in dramatic documentary-style footage of volcanoes, clouds, mountains--all the majesty of nature. Then come the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the beasts of the earth; Adam and Eve, Noah, all that jazz.

O'Toole plays the three angels who come to Abraham to tell his wife Sarah she will give birth to a son, even though they're both, like, a hundred. In an awesome bit of casting, Abraham and Sarah are played by firebrands George C. Scott and Ava Gardner. Scott fell madly in love with Gardner during shooting which would have been fine, I guess, had he not already been mad to begin with. They had one of those tempestuous Old Hollywood love affairs filled with booze and sex and violence--all while playing the founding mother and father of Christianity (not even taking into consideration Abraham's significance to Judaism and Islam). Gotta love it.

In another scene, O'Toole's angels are also the ones to guide Lot into Sodom to search for godly men. That doesn't go so well. The scene is pretty cool, however, as Sodom is portrayed as a stinking hellhole, all shadows and sensuality, its denizens dressed up in gaudy makeup that's a cross between Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and Ziggy Stardust. O'Toole doesn't stand for this though and uses his super angelic baby blues to part the writhing hoard so he and Lot can escape.
Boom! Nobody's sleeping with these virgins now, bitches.

As much fun as I'm poking at this film now, it's actually pretty descent. It is rather slow but what Biblical epic isn't? Huston's assured hand and lavish photography reminds us that Old Testament stories are actually kind of cool and fraught with all too-human frailties. In essence, they're great drama.

April 14, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: High Spirits

Title: High Spirits (Neil Jordan, 1988)
Role: Peter Plunkett, Irish proprietor of a "haunted" castle

This film stars Steve Guttenberg. Wait, don't run away! It's actually not that bad. OK, it's pretty bad, but it's kind of amusing and madcap, so stick around. This is a very formulaic dinner party/haunted house movie. O'Toole cons a bunch of American tourists to spend the weekend in his supposed "haunted" castle because he's flat broke and if he doesn't come up with some dough, the Plunkett manse that'd been in his family for ages would be sold to some horrible land developers. Or something. Anyway, the ghosts are fake. Or are they? Surprise plot twist! There ARE real ghosts, who had just never bothered to get seen by anyone until these American tourists came around. One tourist in particular (Guttenberg) just happens to be the soulmate (soul, geddit?) of Daryl Hannah, who plays a spectral Irish lass of all things. Turns out, Mary (Hannah) is doomed to repeat the night she was murdered by her husband (a very young Liam Neeson) every day for the rest of her afterlife until she meets and falls in love with a mortal who breaks the spell. The rest of the cast is very funny as well, especially Peter Gallagher as a priest who's tempted by Jennifer Tilly and Beverly D'Angelo as Guttenberg's frustrated shrew of a wife. 

It's all very madcap as the castle becomes a funhouse full of walking suits of armor and hidden passageways. O'Toole is in fine form in the first half, orchestrating the great deception of a haunted house. Although everything is very dumb, it's not unentertaining. The last half an hour, especially, is very entertaining, as every subplot comes hurtling to a conclusion and every character is paired up for a happy ending. Good times.

April 13, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Club Paradise

Title: Club Paradise (Harold Ramis, 1986)
Role: Governor Anthony Cloyden Hayes, sunburnt patriarch of a Caribbean resort island

Ah, from the brilliant to the...Club Paradise. Now, when you look at who's involved in the making of this film, you might be surprised to find that it kind of sucks a lot. It was directed and co-written by Harold Ramis, who co-wrote and directed Caddysack and co-wrote Ghostbusters, which made my list of 'Perfect Films.' And this film stars a lot of SCTV alumns, including Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, and Andrea Martin. Those are some pretty solid comedy qualifications. On the bright side, Robin Williams in the starring role of a Chicago policeman who decides to retire to the Caribbean and open a resort hotel, is not, as usual, completely annoying and unwatchable. So, that's a plus.

As you might imagine, the plot is: Williams cons some American tourists into visiting his totally craptacular resort while trying to be a good guy and fight the evil forces of the snooty uppercrust resort around the corner and combat the rising violent island rebellion that threatens to bum everyone out. O'Toole plays the laidback governor of the island, who's totally more interested in bedding babes and getting baked (by the sun and otherwise) to deal with political upheaval or whatever. So, pretty bland. But it's not all bad. The soundtrack by raegge artist Jimmy Cliff, is pretty good. The highlight of the film is definitely the two Barry's--Eugene Levy and Rick Moranis--two nerds on vacation to score chicks and smoke pot. Sounds dumb, is funny. Which is a good way to describe the film overall. 

April 12, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Creator

Title: Creator (Ivan Passer, 1985)
Role: Dr. Harry Wolper, research scientist and amateur Frankenstein

You'll notice we've skipped the 1970s altogether and are now firmly in that horrific decade of my blessed birth--the '80s. Creator is my favorite O'Toole film of the decade, thankfully a lot weightier, and funnier, than How to Steal A Million. If 'For The Love of Peter O'Toole' gets you to rent only one O'Toole film, I would encourage you to seek out Creator. It's definitely not as well know as these others, but it's definitely in the top 10 in terms of quality. Creator is such a triumph and wonder because it manages to successfully blend tones, which is probably the hardest single thing a film can ever do. There are elements of '80s teen romp, science-fiction, comedy and heart-rending melodrama. Usually, that combination would spell absolute disaster, but thanks to Passer's script and direction, all the characters are so clearly formed, real people that every quirk of personality or twist of fate is dealt with as messily and beautifully as they would be in real life. 

The story is this: O'Toole plays Harry Wolper, a genius biologist/physician slumming it as a university researcher (the film was shot at my alma mater UC Irvine--bonus awesome points!). 

UC Irvine! I've probably sat on that bench. Oh, yeah, be jealous.

Wolper enlists a slacker research assistant, played by the slackerishly charming Vincent Spano, to help him try to clone his wife who died thirty years prior. Wolper also rustles up Meli, played by Mariel Hemingway to implant and incubate the dead wife's eggs. Oh, yeah, did I mention it's kind of weird? But it's also kind of sweet, as the naive romance between Spano's Boris and Barbara, played by Virgina Madsen, proves. I won't spoil the plot points for you. Some people fall in love, some people get sick and there are a whole lot of laughs and tears along the way. Yes, it sounds cliched, but I can honestly say Creator is one of the most refreshing films I've seen in a long while. It's always the best when you run across a film you totally expected nothing from and it ends up being one of the best films you've ever seen. Such is Creator

And the whole thing is available to watch on YouTube! Now you really have no excuse. 

April 11, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: How to Steal a Million

How to Steal a Million (William Wyler, 1966)
Role: Simon Dermott, suave cat burglar

So, a lot of people really like this movie because of Audrey Hepburn and her Givenchy wardrobe. There's no doubt she's elegant as all hell in the film, but I've never been a big Hepburn fan. I find her acting about as slight as her waistline and dull, dull, dull. But I know I'm in the minority here. However, Hepburn's rather surface charms are exactly the point in How to Steal a Million, which, if heist movies were cookies, would certainly be a vanilla wafer. O'Toole and Hepburn are probably the thinnest couple ever in a mainstream film, so stylish and attractive in their well-tailored suits, traipsing around Paris in O'Toole's delicious yellow Jaguar XKE

Seriously, just look at these GQMFs. 

Anyway, the plot. Audrey's father is a kooky old art forger who's rather brazenly donates his own forgery of the Cellini Venus to some museum, except that--oops!--the museum needs to authenticate the statue. So, Audrey hires O'Toole (who's conveniently just broken into her house) to steal the Venus back from the museum so they don't get busted. Blah-de-blah, through a series of quirky and amusing goingson, Hepburn and O'Toole spend a large part of the film stuffed into a supply cupboard where the close quarters and lack of oxygen make them fall in love with each other. Some other stuff happens and everyone lives happily, and stylishly, ever after. I told you it was slight. As someone who prefers their heist films tense and gritty (RififiHeat), viewing How to Steal a Million as such is bound to be a disappointment. I suppose 'light comic diversion' would be a more accurate category. Either way, if you watch the film, don't expect much. Just detach your brain and focus your eyeballs; it's like visual cotton candy. 

April 10, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Comedy Intro & What's New Pussycat

In my introductory post, I'd started to outline my recent Peter O'Toole-a-thon, a marathon of as much of that actor's work as I could acquire on Netflix (although I did break down and purchase a hard-to-find copy of Night of the Generals, but more on that in a later entry). I was sort of at a loss of how to organize the whole affair. Via Netflix, I generally tried to rent chronologically although occasionally I would skip back and forth a few decades. But for these entries, somehow, chronologically didn't cut it. 

The first batch of entries covered O'Toole's Oscar-nominated roles--all eight of them. In the earlier part of his career, you can see a certain similarity. They're classic Oscar catnip--historical figures, films based on plays or novels. In the '70s, there's a shift and The Ruling Class is the only nominated role that decade (later, health problems would curtail O'Toole's proficiency). The '80s were good to O'Toole, by then a legend in the industry, and he garnered two nominations in three years. Then there was a very long gap until the triumphant return in Venus, in what critics like to call a "career-defining performance" (e.g., this old bloke'll be dead soon, give him a bloody Oscar already). But the Academy didn't and O'Toole's still well and kicking.

Which brings me to round two: comedies. Arguably a more interesting category ripe for speculation of the "What was he thinking?" variety, although the answer as we'll well see is usually beautiful locations, copious alcohol, gorgeous women or a combination of all three.

What's New Pussycat (Clive Donner & Richard Talmadge, 1965)
Role: Michael James, whose job is a lecher's dream

In this early scene, O'Toole visits a mad Viennese psychoanalyst, played with his usual manic genius by 
Peter Sellers. There he outlines the basic plot, if the film can be said to have a plot, rather than a series of gags strung together however tenuously. O'Toole has a massive weakness for beautiful women, the kind of women that make a man crazy. They flock to him like bees to honey. The problem is, he's in love with his fiancee Carole (Romy Schneider) and doesn't want to cheat. Therefore, he consults Dr. Fritz (Sellers), who he doesn't know is even more neurotic than he is.

And if that scene appealed to you, you'll probably love the film. If it didn't then steer clear ofWhat's New Pussycat at all costs. For what it's worth, I love the movie for all its bawdy, absurdist humor. In addition to O'Toole and Sellers, Woody Allen makes his movie acting debut (he also wrote the script) as Victor who's in love with O'Toole's girlfriend Carole. The combination of Allen and Sellers pretty much makes this a comedy nerd's dream and shares many hallmarks of that later masterpiece--but let's face it, clusterfuck--Casino RoyaleWhat's New Pussycat, at least, is a bit more sensible in plot and competent in execution, although it does feature James Bond sex goddess Ursula Andress parachuting into Peter O'Toole's car with no explanation. But that's part of its charm. The climactic sequence features all the principal actors in a go-cart race for absolutely no reason at all. And did you notice Sellers is wearing a maroon velvet jumpsuit and a Guy Fawkes wig? Why? Shits and giggles, of course. 

April 9, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Venus

Venus (Roger Michell, 2006)
Role: Aging actor Maurice Russell

Full disclosure again: I love this film. I probably shouldn't but something about its simple elegance really gets to me. I really have no defense for my position because it's just as sentimental as My Favorite Year, if not more so. I also have a great weakness for another Roger Michell film, Notting Hill. That's right, Notting Hill. Deal with it. O'Toole's character Maurice is pretty much an alternate version of himself, although screenwriter Hanif Kareshi denies it was written with O'Toole in mind. And I can actually believe that, considering how many aging, English ex-boozing, ex-womanizing stage and screen actors there are (rifle through the cast lists of the Harry Potter films, you might be surprised). In fact, acting legends Leslie Philips and Richard Griffiths play Maurice's best friends, and Vanessa Redgrave plays his ex-wife.

Maurice has a hard time booking any acting gigs that aren't men dying of horrible diseases or even better still, corpses. His best friend (Philips) has to take in his niece, a low-class "sluttish young woman" as O'Toole was fond of saying in press interviews. Philips is horrified, O'Toole is intrigued. What follows is not what you would expect. Although the extremity of the May-December aspect of the story never truly goes away, the film is much more subtle and realistic that you would probably expect. I was really impressed with the honesty and integrity of the screenplay. It's never dumbed down for you and constantly challenges the viewers' assumptions about character and plot. I liked that a lot. Check out this scene where Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) and O'Toole talk about a tragedy in her past. Great acting by both.

April 8, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: My Favorite Year

My Favorite Year (Richard Benjamin, 1982)

Role: Washed-up, alcoholic swashbuckler Alan Swann

Full disclosure: I don't like this film. But, a whole heck of a lot of other people really do. It's something of a sentimental favorite for a lot of people. My Favorite Year is that kind of film: sentimental. Practically dripping for nostalgia, it's the story of a young television writer in the 1950s working for a Sid Caeser-esque comedian. The writer has to chaperone O'Toole's character, an Errol Flynn-like gentleman boozer as he rehearses for his guest spot on the variety show. There's a lame mob sub-plot and lots of Mel Brooks-type humor, like this. Still, although I couldn't stand nearly everything in the film, like many times before, O'Toole saves the picture. It's a light-comic farce so it's easy to forget the facility and grace it takes an actor to perform the physical comedy and repartee the part of Alan Swann requires. But there's also some surprisingly heavy lifting to be done; Swann is an unrepentant alcoholic with a daughter he's never even met. Kind of a jerk, really. O'Toole provides the charm needed to balance the character effectively.

April 7, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: The Stuntman

The Stunt Man (Richard Rush, 1980)

Role: Eli Cross, maniacal film director

To be honest, I haven't seen The Stunt Man yet. When I set out on my O'Toole-a-thon it was one of the films I was anticipating the most. Cult reputation, Oscar nomination and the clips onYouTube were phenomenal, classic O'Toole. The problem, like so many of O'Toole's work, was inaccessibility. The Stunt Man has a nightmare production history. Director Richard Rush had tried to get the film made since the early '70s. It was finally filmed in 1978, only to have its release delayed until 1980. Box office was a disaster even for the early '80s, one of Hollywood's least lucrative and artistically fulfilling periods. Even though the film garnered rave reviews, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, for whatever reason, the studio didn't release the film to a wide market; it had a long run in Los Angeles theaters but that was about it.

However, although the film itself is not available on Netflix (the special edition DVD was released in 2001 with only 100,000 copies), the making-of documentary The Sinister Saga of Making the Stunt Man, is. So, I rented it. Narrated by director Richard Rush, it's a video cam-style doc, strangely '80s with its cheesy special effects, shoddy green screen work and bizarre narration. But, if you can get past the weirdness of the delivery, the content is amazing. Even if you haven't since the film, the doc gives incredibly detailed insight into the minutia of the filmmaking process. Rush covers everything from how the property came to his attention, his decade-long fight with studios and producers to get the film made even after he had other commercial successes to his name, casting, script rewrites, production stories, and distribution nightmares. Any aspiring director should watch this documentary, if only to mentally prepare himself for the ridiculous hoops you have to jump through to get a movie made in Hollywood. The doc is long (nearly two hours) and grows tedious sometimes, but due to the sheer wealth of information here, aspiring filmmakers and hardcore fans of The Stunt Man should give it a look.

April 6, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: The Ruling Class

The Ruling Class (Peter Medak, 1972)

Role: Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, aka Jesus Christ, aka Jack the Ripper

The Ruling Class is a crazy, crazy movie. An adaptation of Peter Barnes' play of the same name, Medak's film is a lengthy, caustic, outrageous satire that defies categorization. It is at once a comedy, a tragedy, a socio-political satire and a musical. The Ruling Class is intensely British, concerned with the ludicrous pompacity and hypocrisy of peerage and nobility. It is also a shocking, intensely honest look at serious mental illness. O'Toole's performance as Gurney, a man with acute paranoid schizophrenia is alternately charming and hilarious and legitimately terrifying.

The film is divided into two sections. In the first, O'Toole's Gurney believes he is the second coming of Jesus Christ. This sort of eccentricity would be tolerated for someone in Gurney's position, except that his father and just passed away and Jack is set to inherit his father's seat in the House of Lords. After undergoing electroshock therapy, the film schisms. Gurney appears cured. He no longer believes he is Christ and apparently settles down with his wife and new baby. The only problem: his delusions have not disappear, only shifted. Gurney now believes he is Jack The Ripper.

What the medical community calls "cray-cray."

In this scene, Gurney-as-Christ presents himself to his family and friends for the first time:

As the premise suggests, there are no easy answers in this film. It's certainly not a comfortable experience--

the length, the intensity and the psychological complexity require a lot of the viewer. However, in my opinion,

it's all worth it because of O'Toole's performance. This clip is called the 'scariest real moment in film' and I

can't help but agree. Overacting is notoriously easy to do, especially with a role like Gurney. Mental illness,

theatricality and satire is a dangerous mix for the hammy actor. But watch this clip and if that terrible,

animalistic growl doesn't legitimately unsettle you, I don't know what will.

April 4, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Goodbye Mr. Chips (Herbert Ross, 1969)

Role: Gentle schoolmaster Arthur Chipping

From the novel by James Hilton, this version of Goodbye Mr. Chips is updated as a musical, but it's better not to think of it that way. The music and lyrics are not particularly thrilling and O'Toole's voice is nothing to write home about. The film is better viewed for what I think it truly is, a gentle, sentimental tale about a shy schoolmaster who falls in love with an outre music hall singer (Petula Clark). As cliche as that premise sounds, the movie works because of the chemistry between the leads. Chips is O'Toole's most nuanced, subdued performance on this list, possibly in his whole career. That he succeeds in that role as much as any bombastic king or madmen is an achievement and an intriguing thought. I wish O'Toole had taken the gentler turn more often.

The film itself was not a box office success and it's easy to see why. It sort of defies categorization. Like I said, it fails to impress as a musical, especially when compared to its compatriot and 1968 Best Picture winner Oliver! It's a period piece, spanning the 1920s-present day (late 1960s) in English history. In every period, Chips is out of place. His conservatism is mocked by the Lost Generation, he can't understand why the school is under siege during the air raids of WWII, and after his wife dies, he is as lost as ever, retreating to the memories of happier days. Chips is a man out of time, only content when he and Clark have married. She slower starts to open up Chips' world, becoming the beloved "mother" of all the students, past and present, at the all boys school.

This clip demonstrates the gentle sentimentality and fond nostalgia that infuses the entire film as O'Toole, after a lecture where he's failed to connect to his students, reminisces about his own bygone school days: