April 1, 2010

For The Love of Peter O'Toole: Intro & Lawrence of Arabia

Thanks to Netflix, my movie watching habits are more organized than ever. I have entire runs of TV series' in there, as well as spats of silent horror films, and some of those 'recommended for you in the Dark, Foreign category' (am I so predictable?). But, those films always seem to get knocked down the queue by my favorite type of viewing experience: the actor's filmography.

This is when a new obsession comes around and I watch all of his or her (oh, who am I kidding--his) films in a row. I've had several of these film binges, each quite enjoyable and enlightening, but none more so than my self-dubbed Peter O'Toole-a-Thon a few months ago. I can't quite recall what prompted choosing O'Toole. I had seen Lawrence of Arabia, of course, and adored it, but I wanted to really dig deep into an actor's filmography. I knew that nearly any film next to Lawrence was bound to be a let-down, but I persisted. Netflix has a feature where an entire actor's filmography is listed and you can add them all into your queue nearly instantly. The desire was much too strong. And that's how I came to brink of O'Toole insanity this past winter.

Every day was a new adventure. One evening I'm indulging in the adventures of Henry II with a Becket/Lion In Winter double-header (no mean feat considering their combined running time is nearly five hours), the next I'm witnessing a musical O'Toole in the rather regrettable Man of La Mancha and the rather delightful Goodbye Mr. Chips.

One of my favorite benefits of the actor's filmography marathon vs. any other type of film binge is the sense of career and time you get. A director may make a new film every six years, so you cannot really trace his development in any single decade; an early film might be dynamite and a later film might be, well, rubbish. Watching films across genres is satisfying but occasionally frustrating, as a marathon in classic Westerns, revisionist Westerns and modern Westerns reveals. O'Toole did his best work in the 1960s, which just happens to be my favorite decade in film. Since he is a British actor, his filmography reveals dabbling in European and American sensibilities that mingle very pleasingly. There are also many tensions in O'Toole's filmography that make for interesting viewing. Theater vs. film, matinee idol vs. character actor roles, intense drama vs. ribald comedy are all dichotomies I confronted during my O'Toole-a-Thon.

I've divided the rest of the entry up among the O'Toole films I viewed. Unfortunately, many of his films aren't available on DVD and even more unfortunately, much of his best stage work was never filmed. However, you can listen to a segment of Peter in The Taming of the Shrew here. O'Toole has also done some great work on television which I won't be covering here.

The first group will be Peter's Academy-Award nominated roles (eight in all), a movie a day. Enjoy!

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

Role: T.E. Lawrence

I've already talked a bit about Lawrence in the context of my Perfect Films. But consider O'Toole pre-Lawrence. Before starting filming in 1961, Peter O'Toole had two films under his belt, the Disney adaptation of Kidnapped and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, the part which caught Lean's eye got him the role of Lawrence. Many more famous actors had been considered for Lawrence, including Marlon Brando, Albert Finney (O'Toole's compatriot at the RADA), Anthony Perkins, and Monty Clift. French actor Alain Delon (later Jean-Pierre Melville's gangster muse), actually won the part but was replaced by O'Toole after negative screen tests. LoA's production history is notorious; Lean and company filmed for over a year, in Jordan and later, Spain and Morocco.

The story, if you don't already know, is about T.E. Lawrence, an officer in the British Army during WWI. Instead of fighting in Europe, he helps lead the Arabs in a revolution against the Turks. The films opens with Lawrence's death in a motorcycle accident and the rest of the story is shown in flashback. Instead of undercutting the suspense during Lawrence's dangerous adventures, the knowledge of his rather pedestrian death serves only to heighten his legend. We witness the intense trials Lawrence survives, including the incredible sequences of crossing the Devil's Anvil and the taking of the Turkish fort at Aqaba, a decisive English/Bedouin victory.

Although the film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director David Lean, O'Toole did not. It's understandable in the context of his youth and inexperience in movie acting. Even still, looking back on the undisputed classic Lawrence of Arabia is today, and the legendary iconic status of O'Toole's performance as Lawrence, it's amazing to think he didn't win. In fact, O'Toole's Lawrence is #10 on the AFI's 100 Heroes list; #1 is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the performance that beat O'Toole at the 1963 Academy Awards.

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