Peter O’Toole has died and I’d like to draw a little attention to three of his movies: The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year.
Take a little of the madness of his title character in Lawrence of Arabia, put a magnifying glass on it the size of the sun and you’ll be eyeball to eyeball with O’Toole’s Jack Gurney character in 1972’s The Ruling Class, a Python-esque extravaganza labeled variously as a cult classic, a devastating social satire and the blackest of black comedies. Gurney is a schizophrenic nobleman who inherits a peerage, believes he’s God, sleeps upright on a cross, dispenses wit aplenty, gets electroshock treatments, turns into a misogynistic killer, forms allegiances with dupes and stays a step ahead of relatives, psychiatrists and, basically, society itself, even though he’s a deranged psychopath. The film skewers the British upper class, family, politics, religion, speciesism and education.
I’m tempted to write that there is no film like The Ruling Class but it does share some of the same targets, sensibilities and visceral shocks as A Clockwork Orange which was released a year earlier, although I find O’Toole’s character more disturbing than Malcolm McDowell’s Alex. (The Ruling Class was written by Peter Barnes, based on his 1968 stage play.) O’Toole was nominated for the Oscar but Brando won for The Godfather, sending American cinema down three decades of safe and comfy Italian gangster fascination/glorification as opposed to films on the gangster state of the American government which was/is rampaging openly, violently and successfully in real life. The Godfather is a very tidy conformist movie compared to The Ruling Class. Bizarre and never-forgotten once seen, O’Toole’s performance had (wrote critic Jay Cocks) “such intensity that it may trouble sleep as surely as it will haunt memory. All actors can play insanity; few play it well. O’Toole begins where other actors stop, with the unfocused gaze, the abrupt bursts of frenzied high spirits and precipitous depressions. Funny, disturbing, finally devastating, O’Toole finds his way into the workings of madness, revealing the anger and consuming anguish at the source.”
There’s also a bit of madness in O’Toole’s performance as the megalomaniacal film director Eli Cross in 1980’s The Stunt Man. O’Toole’s character, said to be based on director David Lean, is a funny, bombastic, arrogant, grandiose, charismatic, manipulative, occasionally cruel, possibly negligent homicider who we have a blast with for two hours and eleven minutes. There is no movie like The Stunt Man with its cavalcade of surprises, laughs, suspense, behind-the-scenes looks at moviemaking, romance, betrayals, escapes, chases, philosophizing and social commentary. Pauline Kael said O’Toole gave a “peerless comic performance” and called the film a “virtuoso piece of kinetic moviemaking.” Director Richard Rush suffered two heart attacks during the 10 year making and release of the film. Hollywood executives tried valiantly at every turn to make it boring and conventional — but Rush prevailed. Every major distributor turned it down and, as O’Toole himself said, “The film wasn’t released, it escaped.”
The Stunt Man‘s plot: Steve Railsback is a criminal on the run who literally stumbles into the filming of a movie where a stunt man has drowned, a fact that the director (O’Toole) tries to hide from the local police so he can keep the location and complete the film. Railsback’s character gets a makeover, assumes the dead stunt man’s identity, the cast and crew cover for the director and the fun begins as O’Toole and Railsback use each other, verbally spar and compete for the attention of the lead actress. The father figure/director (O’Toole) finds he has a rebellious stunt man/son figure/criminal (Railsback) on his hands. O’Toole cranks up the danger of the stunts and Railsback believes the director will kill him before the filming ends. O’Toole, Railsback and director Rush had their greatest career achievements in The Stunt Man, sez me. Real life stunt man Chuck Bail is also impeccable as Railsback’s mentor. But O’Toole couldn’t catch a break in the 1980 Oscars either — Robert De Niro won for Raging Bull. That year also saw Oscar nominee Robert Duvall in a way under known gem, The Great Santini. Those were the days.
The madness was gone but drunkenness was front and center for O’Toole’s character of Alan Swann in 1982’s My Favorite Year, a sweet and wistful romantic/mad cap comedy. The real life hard-drinking and gambling O’Toole was perfectly cast as a washed-up former swashbuckling matinee idol who guests on a 1950s television variety show, much terrified to learn that there are no do overs on live television. (“I’m not an actor, I’m a film star!” he protests.) O’Toole’s Swann is idolized by a young comedy writer who promises the show’s host that he can keep Swann sober for a week and get him to perform successfully on the big night. There’s gangsters, a love story, advice from O’Toole for the young writer on how to get the girl, a subplot concerning O’Toole’s broken relationship with his daughter and a fantastic rousing climax. O’Toole’s character is based on Errol Flynn and others are versions of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Sid Caesar. Rotten Tomatoes rates it 100% “fresh.”
These three movies are rewarding in different ways: The Ruling Class braces you in your seat the same way as reading descriptions of violence in a William Burrough’s novel. The Stunt Man is mind-blowing fun and My Favorite Year will tug your heart in all the right directions. We’ve now had three more decades of capitalist alienation and money-grubbing conformity under our belts since these movies were made and, needless to say, no movie made today is as challenging and jarring as The Ruling Class, as wild, free and uncategorizable as The Stunt Man or as innocent and genuinely tender as My Favorite Year. It doesn’t matter how many special effects or technological advances there are — the spirits that make today’s films are not free, their chief stake is in comfort with capitalism, not making meaningful art — for that, go to documentaries. Capitalism, you can’t fucking die fast enough. And your “creative artists” and their “product” (Zero Dark Thirty, The Fifth Estate, Argo, etc.) are as poisoned and as corrupt as your politicians.
And to Peter O’Toole: Thanks for the madness, the manias and the depressions, thanks for the wit and going over the top, thanks for doing The Ruling Class for free because you believed in it so much, thanks for telling The Stunt Man director Richard Rush: “I am an articulate, intelligent man. I read the screenplay and if you don’t give me the part I will kill you.” Thanks for adding to the richness of life and being so personally epic, including being able to call up and recite from memory all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. (Right after The Stunt Man, I probably admire you for that more than anything.) Thanks for giving your films, stage work and even TV talk show appearances your all. Thanks for the non-balance, for living out one of poet William Blake’s proverbs from hell: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”