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.

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