I was in the 10th Standard when the school took us to see `Lawrence of Arabia’ at the Alaka theatre. As the credits unrolled, all the great names flitted by – Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, and finally – introducing Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia! That evening I anointed Peter O’Toole as the greatest actor EVER!
Today, over four decades later, I stand by my word. Nobody, just nobody has come anywhere near him. Not Brando, not De Niro, not Redford, not Hoffman, not even the back to back Oscar winning Hanks or the triple Oscar winning Day-Lewis!.
Two scenes in the movie left a deep imprint. In the first, Lawrence strikes a match, and then clamps it tight between thumb and forefinger till the flame dies out against his fingers. When Potter tries it, he screams in agony “It bloody well hurts!” “Of course it hurts!” Lawrence tells him. “So what’s the bloody trick?” Potter asks. “The trick, William Potter” Lawrence replies “is not minding that it hurts!”
I lost count of the number of times I burnt my fingers repeating that `trick’ and repeating that dialogue. To date, that remains the best, the only response to pain!
The second scene, and the one I tried to make my motto in life concerned the diehard fatalistic attitude of us Easterners. “It is written, and therefore it shall come to pass.” When crossing the desert on their way to Accaba, Lawrence and his team lose a straggler (played by IS Johar), and consider him to be a goner, as anyone lost in the desert surely is. Lawrence decides to go find him. Sharif tries to dissuade him “It is written that he shall die” he prophesies glumly.
The obdurate Lawrence trudges back, and by the end of the day, he drags a half dead Johar back to the camp. As he collapses himself, he tells Sharif “Nothing is written!” Sharif is overwhelmed. “Truly, Lawrence” he intones “for some men nothing is ever written except what they choose to write themselves!”
Peter O’Toole spent two years and three months making Lawrence. He became so obsessed with the man that he needed psychiatric help later to `come out’ of the character. That would become a staple with him – he lived each part and then needed help to become himself again.
By all accounts, O’Toole should have walked away with the Oscar for Lawrence – he was that good. But he came up against a competent Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in `To Kill A Mockingbird’. Peck was good, but nowhere near O’Toole - but then Peck was an American sweetheart, and he had already lost four times. So O’Toole lost out.
He played Henry II in two films, `Becket (1964)’ and `The Lion in Winter (1968)’. In the latter film, Katherine Hepburn, herself a superb actress, got so unnerved by O’Toole’s performance that she remarked “He’s so bloody life like, he gives me goose bumps!” O’Toole was nominated for both these films, but lost out in what are surely asinine choices.
If in `Becket’ he had any competition, it was from his own co-star in the film Richard Burton. (Imagine a movie in which two leading men are both nominated for Best Actor – the only time this has ever happened!). But both of them lost out to yet another Britisher – Rex Harrison in `My Fair Lady’. I kid you not!
`Becket’ continues to be shown as a training film in the Film Institute as a consummate study on acting. Just watch Burton and O’Toole pitted against each other – such sheer delight! Years later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was to use the same theme, of a hireling turning against his provider, in `Namak Haram’.
In 1969, O’Toole played the whimsical Arthur Chipping in `Goodbye Mr Chips’. Now this was a role which had already fetched an Oscar for Robert Donat in 1939, so it was expected to be a cakewalk for O’Toole. While shooting his farewell speech scene – a long scene done in a single take, by the time he finished the speech, the director forgot to say cut, everyone in the studio was spell bound or in tears, and then there was pin drop silence. Then the applause began and went on and on.
Yet, did he win the Oscar? That year, a cancer stricken and dying John Wayne had finally received a nomination for his role as Rooster Cogburn in `True Grit’. So how could the Academy deny `The Duke', the larger than life American idol?
Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor a record EIGHT times. He remains the most nominated actor never to have won an acting Oscar – Burton was nominated seven times, again without ever winning!
When Puja went abroad for the first time, she asked me what DVDs she should pick up. “Anything with Peter O’Toole” I told her. Today, thanks to her, I have a pretty good collection, and watch them again and again, each time marvelling at this genius.
And if you think he only excelled at serious roles, just pick up `How to Steal a Million’ in which he was paired with the delectable Audrey Hepburn. Or take the Pixar animation `Ratatouille’, and watch him as the voice of the acerbic food critic Anton Ego. Total, absolute pure delight!
Peter O’Toole was the last of the British Hellraisers of the 60’s – along with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. They have all gone now. I know this is as cliched a cliché as they come, but a part of me died with him this weekend. Thanks for the memories, Peter – they don’t make them like you anymore!