Friday, December 27, 2013

Imitating O'Toole

     There have been many tributes and remembrances circulating about Peter O'Toole since the actor passed away December 14, 2013. For me, a life-long fan, it comes as a bittersweet reminder of my own Father's passing one year prior (fourteen days apart). Bitter because losing a loved one is never an easy thing; sweet because it was my Father's own enthusiasm for O'Toole that helped turn me on to film in the first place. I still remember him urging us to watch Lawrence of Arabia together in our family living room. I can vividly recall the old double VHS tape box and how foreboding the thought of enduring a nearly four-hour desert snooze-fest was to my delicate 8-year-old psyche. Little did I know at the time, watching Lawrence on VHS (in pan and scan no less) was not the proper way to view such a masterwork anyway. I never did get further than the first thirty minutes. My Father was usually already asleep by that point, so it was easy to make a clean escape. I suppose it gives me a little comfort knowing now that had we ever attempted a full screening of David Lean's historical epic (the epic by which all epics are judged), he would have likely only been awake for maybe 2/3 of it. I held off watching the film on my own for many years. Partly because of those early memories of impending boredom. Naturally when I finally did return to it sometime in my early twenties, it became something akin to a quasi-religious experience. When I showed the newly released and fully restored Blu-ray to some friends last November (the closest one can get to experiencing the film as it was originally intended without having to forsake your pajama bottoms) in my own living room, it was truly a night to remember. Sadly, my Father passed away not soon after that, so I never got to share the same experience with him. I'm sure it would have been like coming full circle; him sitting in my living room and me imposing the viewing on him this time. The question remains would I have gotten up to leave the room or not once the obligatory snoring began? I'd like to think that (like T. E. Lawrence) I would have endured, but I know myself a little better than that.
My next most endearing memory of O'Toole comes courtesy of my Mother, a rabid fan of The Lion in Winter (1967). The tenth grade drama tryouts were looming and I had little idea what monologue to choose. I only knew that this was something I had to do. Perhaps I was inspired by the high school plays I'd seen when I was still in my middle school years. But what speech to select? The answer was solved on a four-hour bus ride back from New York City, where my Mother and I had just journeyed to see the stage musical Miss Saigon with Johnathan Pryce, whom I recognized from Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a film I had seen probably a dozen times on a videocassette tape we duped off early satellite TV. Still impressive to me, she recited from memory the entire Henry II speech from the end of Act I where Henry/O'Toole disowns his sons. Line by line she said it back to me as I did my best to commit it to memory. The method paid off. The next day at tryouts, I so impressed the instructor (possibly by my choice of material alone) that I easily secured the role of Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It ended up being a shoddy production; I tripped walking onstage opening night releasing a mushroom cloud of white dust (they used the dust from chalkboard erasers to whiten my hair) and shouted nearly every line as if I were performing for the matinee audience in a retirement home. However, a couple years later, I was able to use the same monologue (I later honed to perfection by shabbily imitating O'Toole) to win acclaim amongst my fellow student thespians, as well as a prestigious acting award. Well, prestigious to a high school senior anyway.
Over my ensuing, formative years, I came to see as many O'Toole films as I conceivably could. My favorites still include: My Favorite Year (1982); The Ruling Class (1972); What's New Pussycat? (1965); Becket (1964); Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969); The Stunt Man (1980); How to Steal a Million (1966); Zulu Dawn (1979); The Last Emperor (1987); High Spirits (1988); Man of La Mancha (1972); Club Paradise (1986); and Venus (2006). There were always a few along the way that I wish I hadn't seen him totally wasted in (Phantoms with Ben Affleck springs to mind; and Supergirl...eesh) but, as they say: a bad O'Toole movie is still worth the price of admission. Lesser-known highlights of his career would have to include his brief cameo in Casino Royale (1967), the lovely send-up of Fellini's in What's New Pussycat?, and of course the legendary occasion O'Toole arrived on David Letterman's stage riding a camel, replete with his obligatory cigarette holder and alcoholic beverage (for the camel); the best "stupid pet trick" of all-time (YouTube it, thank me later).

If it weren't for both my parents and their own unique appreciation for this man's work and genius, I'm certain I would not have grown into the impassioned appreciator for the arts that I am today. I once saw an interview with O'Toole, where he said that acting is simply an expression of the poetry of words; or something to that effect. I suppose that's true to a large extent. It's also the expression of the human condition. It's what separates great actors from mere movie stars. Anyone can be a movie star, all you need is a good chin (look at Ben Affleck). Being able to express what it means to truly be alive, in all its pain and glory, is the mark of a true artist. It's something Peter O'Toole was able to do with unflinching honesty and class. I'm not about to assume that it was effortless for someone like him, but I am reasonably sure that it was something he was born to do.

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