This past Saturday, legendary actor Peter O’Toole died in London at the age of 81. O’Toole’s later life roles displayed a man of refined character and peace, yet in the early stages of his career, he was almost as well known for his off screen antics and love of alcohol, as he was for his incredibly strong caliber of performances.
Throughout his career, Peter O’Toole was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, though he never won a single one. In 2003, the Academy granted him an honorary award, noting that his talents had provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters.
Though he had many incredible performances, I thought I would highlight, what I thought to be, his five best roles. In all honesty, I have not seen everything that he has starred in, but these are the films that have stuck with me. He will truly be missed.
O’Toole received his final Oscar nomination for his role as Maurice in 2006’s Venus, an actor himself spending his twilight years in London. Unknown to the younger generation, his career has become non-existent, so he spends his time enjoying the company of his peers and wife (who no longer lives with him). Living a somewhat solitary life, he agrees to allow his niece’s daughter Jessie to move in to care for him should anything happen. Jessie is a brash young woman who’s less reserved ways (hard drinking and vulgar) become a source of antagonism for Maurice, yet their relationship grows deeper and she rekindles a youthful spark in a man who had long given up on fun and excitement. It is a deeply moving film about aging, regret, and the sometimes necessity of chaos.
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Another film for which O’Toole received an Oscar nomination, The Lion in Winter was about King Henry II (O’Toole) refusing to choose a successor from his three sons. It is a film filled with intrigue as they, along with his wife (Katherine Hepburn, who won an Oscar for Best Actress) plot to force him to choose, through violence if necessary.
The film has commanding performances throughout including Anthony Hopkins in his first major role as Richard (later King Richard, the Lionheart). It plays out like a political drama and yet it is deeply rooted in historical fact. It is a plot as complicated as Game of Thrones without the sex and violence, but the wits involved are just as devious.
This will be a controversial choice, I realize, as it is always difficult to accept animation and voice acting as parity with roles on screen, yet I stand by my love of Peter O’Toole in this film. O’Toole plays Anton Ego, a sinister restaurant critic with a penchant for negative flourishes in his reviews. He loves to tear down those he feels beneath him and he acts as the chief antagonist within the film. It could be a very cut and paste villain role, but Brad Bird and the writers at Pixar add such a huge level of subtext to his character that it is, in my opinion, one of the greatest Pixar characters written to date. You see rather than play villain, he is a commentary on criticism as a field in general. We live in an age of increased snark, much of that thanks to the Internet which provides a soapbox for everyone with a keyboard. The film culminates with an excellent aside from O’Toole regarding the role of the critic in society and it is a masterpiece of writing. In September 2008, Roger Ebert wrote a wonderful editorial called “‘Critic’ is a Four-Letter Word” in which he called the speech some of the wisest words written in the defense of critics. So judge me for its placement, but I do believe that O’Toole’s work in Ratatouille is some of the finest in his career.
The Last Emperor (1987)
The Last Emperor is a massive film at nearly three hours long. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Emperor is about the dramatic fall of Qing Dynasty in China through its final emperor Aisin-Gioro Puyi (or more commonly known as Puyi). Brought to the Forbidden City as a child, Puyi is tutored by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston (played by O’Toole), a Scottish academic.
While only a supporting role, O’Toole’s performance in The Last Emperor is commanding to say the least. He chews on the scenery and absolutely owns the nobility of the role. He is the staunch defender of the child’s right to be a child in the face of significant responsibility, and as Puyi ages and the modern world begins to force its way into China, O’Toole’s Johnston plays mentor to a man who is new to the outside world.
The story of Puyi is absolutely fascinating and O’Toole’s role within it is as significant to the film’s enjoyment as the history in which it is rooted.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
As if there was any doubt that any other film could top this list. Lawrence of Arabia is an epic, the likes of which Hollywood simply no longer makes anymore. You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful film with more people on screen at any given time. Yet this film would be nothing without the absolutely formidable performance of Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, the scholar warrior for which the film is named. Lawrence is a man of extreme complexity and nuance, and O’Toole over-delivers in every regard. The film is nearly four hours long and is hard to watch for many, but for those who have an appreciation for a style of film making that time has seemingly forgotten, they will find one of the most rewarding film-watching experiences possible. This film stands tall in the pantheon of classical epics, and O’Toole’s performance in it will be remembered through the annals of history.