Unfortunately Peter O’Toole, born in Ireland in 1932, died a few days ago. Although nominated for eight academy awards, he never won one, except for an honorary award in 2003. Still, O’Toole will be remembered as one of the great actors of our time, an icon in his own right. He belongs to a quickly vanishing generation of actors who made great films without all the absurd trappings, bells and whistles of the modern, CGI generated cinema. In short, his movies are usually good, because the plot lines and characters are good.
His greatest achievement, the one for which he will always be most closely associated with, is Lawrence of Arabia. Even as kid, I loved this movie. I have seen it countless time, and each time I see it I am still amazed at how spectacular a movie it is. Again, when I think of all the CGI nonsense that is being produced today, big budget extravagances, and so called epic movies, none of them today can compare to this grand canvass of cinemagraphic beauty. Directed by David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago), Lawrence of Arabia is truly one of the great epic movies of all time, and O’Toole’s role as T.E. Lawrence will never be matched by anyone. Although made in 1962, fifty years later I think it is safe to say there will never be another movie about Lawrence. What is so great about this movie is that it is a true epic about a historical figure, and made without any of the special effects we take for granted today. The deserts is real; the camels are real; the vast vista’s and colors are real (I think in particular of the first scene of the desert, with its ominous orange sky, seemingly raging with burning heat, and yet so alluring for the Western man unaccustomed to such things, such as Lawrence). All these things together with the great actors portraying fascinating characters in a compelling, true story of historical significance renders this film unique in the annals of great cinema. It is the perfect expression of the type of romanticism that drove the British Empire in the early twentieth century. O’Toole captured that role perfectly. He even looks like T.E. Lawrence (although O’Toole is quite a bit taller than Lawrence was).
Another great role of O’Toole was as King Henry II in Becket. Again, it seems that only O’Toole could have captured the role as the flighty, scheming, impetuous, immature and yet dangerous king of England, driven to near madness by his lack of control over his old friend, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, played equally well by Richard Burton.
O’Toole will be missed. Actors of his caliber, with his type of background, having learned his craft in a world free from the infatuation of slick special effects, are few and far between today. Or rather the film industry relies to heavily upon the wizardry of CGI to the detriment of good plots and good acting, which stifles good, basic theater. It is one of the reasons (plus the outrageous prices) I rarely go to the movies any more.