Out Of The Desert

'Lawrence of Arabia' star Peter O'Toole will get his due after 7 nominations, 7 losses

Film: The Oscars

March 23, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Peter O'Toole is a magnificent, unique actor who blends the naked emotion of the boldest psycho-dramatists with the dash and magnetism of gallant matinee idols.

He's too big a bird to be pigeonholed, and not only because of his lean, tall, flowing presence. Critics, audiences and studio heads alike tend to typecast leading men as romantic figures, character actors or stage-trained class acts, but O'Toole defies categories, drawing on huge reservoirs of charisma, insight and eloquence in varying combinations every time out.

He's also the only figure at the Academy Awards whose many nominations have all come in recognition of great, inimitable characterizations rather than popularity or staying power. Think of it: Peers like Paul Newman and Al Pacino grabbed prizes for performances far from the top of their games -- Newman as the slick older pool hustler in The Color of Money, Pacino as the cartoonishly blustery blind military man in Scent of a Woman. Meryl Streep's nominations include one for her moribund turn in Ironweed and for her tone-deaf high jinks in Postcards from the Edge.

Unlike these fellow acting marvels, O'Toole has never won -- until tonight, when he's due to receive an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. But each of his seven nominations marks an electric creation in a big-screen classic, or a feat of acting that is inventive and full enough to seal the cracks in a deeply flawed extravaganza.

He doesn't deserve one honorary Oscar -- he deserves a fistful of them.

Let's take his seven milestones one by one.

Lawrence of Arabia

(1962)

O'Toole carries the weight of this entire 216-minute epic, and he doesn't do it solely by flexing his muscles. O'Toole interprets T.E. Lawrence, the British junior officer who helped unite the Arab tribes against the Turkish Empire during World War I, as a military leader, a poet and an impresario rolled into one -- star, playwright and director in a historical epic of his own making. Lawrence-as-actor is a coquettish but determined ingenue, using all the knowledge at his fingertips, from Themistocles to the Koran, to win his coveted role: savior of the Arab people. Lawrence-as-playwright is a wily rewriter, determined to prove to Prince Feisal and his followers that no fickle finger determines their fate: each man (and every nation) can script destiny. Lawrence-as-director is a master of legerdemain, giving his bands of hundreds the military impact of a cast of thousands. As with most talented directors, Lawrence descends into unchecked violence only when he loses faith in himself. Then, like any hack, he resorts to crude intimidation with hired thugs.

O'Toole presents a superb interpretation of a volatile genius -- sensitive, frolicsome and brutal. O'Toole's Lawrence must be the action hero who's least comfortable in his own body. He has liquid eyes and a tight, pinched walk (especially when he's in Western clothes), and in the throes of sadistic vengeance, he turns glaring and rigid. What gives O'Toole's performance its uncanny dynamism and fascination is the way he communicates creative faculties. There's almost always a scrim of consciousness between Lawrence and his actions: O'Toole conveys that with the sudden daring of the gestures that erupt after a moment's silence. He's never more at ease -- albeit in a theatrical way -- than when he's prancing across a Turkish train wreck for the benefit of his guerrilla forces and the camera of an American journalist. O'Toole suffuses Lawrence with a robust appetite for glory and a delicate edge of vulnerability. When the desert, politics and rape ultimately sap and harden him, O'Toole leads us through every step of a soul-shriveling process. This historical portrait is an inspiring work of art.

He lost the Oscar to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Best way to see it: Columbia / Tri-Star DVD.

Becket

(1964)

This faithful rendering of Jean Anouilh's play is the sort of movie usually described as an actor's duel. What O'Toole does as King Henry II and Richard Burton as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is more like a duet. Despite the 148-minute running time, the action is swift, the dialogue terse and witty. Henry elevates his virtuoso tactician and beloved crony Becket to archbishop, merely to have a friend in the church. Astonishingly, Becket begins to defend the church's integrity, courting -- and winning -- banishment, then martyrdom. Ahistorically, Anouilh portrays Becket as a member of the conquered Saxon race, forced to "improvise" his sense of honor from day to day in the service of the Norman King Henry -- until he finds "the honor of God." But this extreme dramatic license allows Anouilh to concoct a juicy debate between a Kierkegaardian hero, Becket, who comes to religion after a vast inner struggle, and a worldly hero, Henry, who sees Becket's disapproval of his wishes as a fatal betrayal.

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