The last member of an acting generation -- and my favorite film actor, Daniel Day-Lewis possibly excepted -- died Sunday. Before I go further, here's a sample of the acting that knocked me out:
O'Toole was the last of the grand personalities from the 1950s who boozed and brawled and womanized while acting up a storm: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Peter Finch and others. O'Toole had the longest career of any of them: He was acting right up to his death, often in small roles in movies with religious themes, and "Katherine of Alexandria" will come out in 2014. (He once described himself as "a retired Christian," expressing admiration for Jesus' teachings.)
There are two kinds of movie stars: comets and chameleons. The first impress us with the force of their personalities, often playing similar characters, and the second choose to hide inside characters. I couldn't name a dozen performers who could fit into both categories across their careers, but O'Toole was one of them.
Consider what may be his greatest work, playing a mad nobleman in the savage satire "The Ruling Class." He begins by proclaiming himself the reincarnated Christ and preaching peace; when his disgusted upper-crust family cures him of this delusion, he manages to pass for sane and take his seat in the House of Lords -- this time, convinced he's the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper:
O'Toole set an all-time record for futility at the Academy Awards, though he received an honorary Oscar in 2003 for career achievement. He was nominated for best actor eight times and lost eight times. Without fail, his most brilliant work was ignored in the hubbub over an iconic performance: John Wayne in "True Grit," Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi." O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia, which Premiere magazine deemed the greatest film performance of all time, had the evil fortune of competing against Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The auburn-haired Irishman certainly made subpar movies from time to time. But he was never subpar IN a movie, and his work sometimes brought a touch of greatness to an otherwise pleasant outing. One of those was "Venus," the 2006 drama that earned him his last Oscar nomination; he played an elderly actor infatuated with a tough young woman. (Sure enough, he lost to Forest Whitaker's rampaging Idi Amin in "Last King of Scotland.")
The title character in "Venus" asks O'Toole's Maurice if he believes in anything. "Pleasure, I like," he replies. "I've tried to give pleasure. That's all I'd recommend to anyone." He never stopped.