One of the all time greats, Peter O’Toole, has passed. This is a chapter from my book, co-written with Les Asmussen, AND THE OSCAR DIDN’T GO TO…
The Eight Wonders of the World of Peter O’Toole.
The First Wonder of the World of Peter O’Toole is that:
The 1962 Best Actor Oscar didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for Lawrence of Arabia because it went to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lawrence of Arabia was a wonder in 1962. And there were so many wonders in 1962: this was the year of the first flavored crisps (salt & vinegar), the release of the first Beatles album, the first use of silicone breast implants and the birth of Demi Moore. But Lawrence of Arabia was much bigger than any of these. Lawrence of Arabia is a smack- down classic: a three-and-a-half hour epic about some British weirdo most people had never heard of… the cast lead by and introducing Peter O’Toole in a magnificent performance in the title role (of someone people had never heard of)… and the film took the world by storm. The new star, Peter O’Toole, handsome as an English summer, was a sensation! The fact that O’Toole had made three previous films meant zilch: Kidnapped, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and The Savage Innocents were not star- makers. Come nomination time and Lawrence is nominated for everything from Best Picture to Best Kept & Swept sand… Ten nominations in all.
O’Toole – a legitimate, English sensation – was the critically favored choice to win the Oscar. There was a little bit of competition from Burt Lancaster as the Birdman of Alcatraz, but Lancaster already had an Oscar at home and, besides, he only acted for two- and-a-half hours; O’Toole had three-and-a-half. Jack Lemmon stood a fair chance for Days of Wine and Roses (playing drunk: always a good shot) but he also had a previous (Supporting) Oscar and at less than two hours… well, in a year of epic performances, this was not. Marcello Mastroianni… Him again? How did he get there? Did the Academy mean to give him the Oscar the previous year for La Dolce Vita and forgot? But for Divorce-Italian Style… we don’t think so, they didn’t think so and it wasn’t going to happen, alcun modo! (no way!)
So, Peter, come up one and collect a Big Gold Man Statue… But wait, oh no, sneaking in from the Deep South, it’s Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Yes, it’s Atticus Finch, The Most Noble Character in The History of Motion Pictures, come to kill all O’Toole Oscar dreaming. To Kill a Mockingbird became (after they had seen the movie) the favorite book of absolutely everybody who had never read a book before. Robert Mulligan made a beautiful version of it and Peck is perfection. It was his fifth nomination and he was one of Hollywood’s best loved actors and, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent man whose inherent niceness and goodness made Atticus Finch, The Most Noble Character in The History of Motion Pictures, a role that fit him like a Noble Glove. So the Oscar went to… that. Not an intriguing, English adventurer who felt a little frisson upon receiving a man-to-man whipping. Sorry, Peter O’Toole, it just wasn’t your year.
The Second Wonder of the World of Peter O’Toole is that:
The 1964 Best Actor Oscar didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for Becket because it went to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady.
Not a hope in Hell or Canterbury, young O’Toole.
There were lots of Wonders in 1964: The Boston Strangler was captured (who’s got the movie rights?), the World’s Fair was held in New York (Elvis, we’ve got a great script… ‘It Happened at the…’) and Russell Crowe was born. But wonders going the way of Peter O’Toole… well, no!
First of all, Peter, your friend, co-star and drinking buddy, Richard Burton, got nominated for the same film in the same category. Bad news! It divided the vote. Didn’t you see the film for which you were nominated? The separation of Church and State… there’s a clue there somewhere.
Even putting that aside, the other nominees were in soon-to-be iconic roles: Anthony Quinn’s Zorba, Peter Sellers’ Dr Strangelove and (the winner) Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. (And let’s be honest: Peter Glenville was great with actors but a mind-numbingly dull cinema director, and that is another problem with Becket: beautifully acted, but just the teensiest bit dull…) Makes you wonder but, sorry Peter, it just wasn’t your year.
The Third Wonder of the World of Peter O’Toole is that:
The 1968 Best Actor Oscar didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for The Lion in Winter because it went to Cliff Robertson in Charly.
There were so many Wonders in 1968: London Bridge was sold to Arizona ($1million), the first Big Mac went on sale (49 cents) and Celine Dion was born. But one of the wonders of 1968 was not Cliff Robertson. So, prepare your speech, Peter, this is your year!
O’Toole gave one of his great performances, reprising his Henry II from Becket, but in a deeper, richer portrayal, as this was Henry many years later. He and Katherine Hepburn got along famously and The Lion in Winter was a critical and popular success… with seven Academy Award nominations.
There was no competition this year: Alan Bates in the long and turgid The Fixer (rented that one recently?), Alan Arkin in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Cliff Robertson for Charly and Ron Moody for Oliver!
And the Oscar for Best Actor went to… Cliff Robertson for Charly.
No-one has ever worked this one out. One of the biggest surprises of the year (and Oscar history) was Cliff Robertson’s Oscar win (and the film’s sole nomination) for his titular role in Charly, as a mentally-challenged, thirty year-old bakery worker who is
(temporarily) transformed into a genius by radical, experimental brain surgery and then regresses back into his previous state. It’s a capable performance, but Oscar-worthy? The whisperings and stories began almost before Robertson made his acceptance speech. Robertson had played the role on television in 1961, and bought the film rights. There were rumors that he had somehow bought the vote as well. He was married to actress / heiress Dina Merrill, one of the richest women in America. Less than two weeks after the ceremony Time magazine mentioned the Academy’s generalized concerns over excessive and vulgar solicitation of votes and said many members agreed that Robertson’s award was based more on promotion than on performance. (See other parts of this book, Harvey Weinstein.)
But Hollywood got its revenge on Robertson. In 1977, Robertson discovered that his name had been forged on a $10,000 check, although it was not money that was due to him. He also learned that the forgery had been carried out by Columbia studio head David Begelman, and on reporting it, he inadvertently triggered one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of the 1970s. But it was Robertson who was blacklisted for blowing the whistle. By 1980, Begelman was President of MGM, but Robertson didn’t get work in Hollywood again until 1983’s Brainstorm.
So maybe Cliff Robertson bought it – and, who knows? – maybe he didn’t, but, sorry Peter… it just wasn’t your year.
The Fourth Wonder of the World of Peter O’Toole is that:
The 1969 Best Actor Oscar didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for Goodbye, Mr. Chips because it went to John Wayne for True Grit.
There were lots of Wonders in the world in 1969: the Moon landing, Woodstock (let’s turn it into a movie!), the start of Sesame Street and (think about this bit of trivia) Costa- Gavras’ film Z received two major nominations: it was the first film nominated as Best Foreign Language Film that also received a Best Picture nomination. Does this have anything to do with the fact that this was the birth-year of the two future Z-initialed Oscar winners, Zeta-Jones and Zellweger?
Our palms are unreadable on this. Anyway, what a year… but not for P. O’Toole.
There wasn’t a hope this particular year… Oh, it’s an honour just to be nominated. Yeah, sure. 1969 was Hollywood’s coming-of-age key-of-the-door year with Midnight Cowboy, the first (and last) X-rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. Dustin Hoffman should have won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in that film (as noted earlier). Jon Voight (same film) was a possible contender, Richard Burton certainly wasn’t for Anne of the Thousand Days, a film that was set in 1530-something and almost looked as if it could have been made in 1530-something. The winner turned out to be a testament to Hollywood’s past, the love of Hollywood Royalty, John Wayne in True Grit, and no-one wanted to argue with the Duke. The one actor who had no chance this year was Peter O’Toole as the singing-but-not-dancing Mr. Chips. Whatever filmgoers wanted in 1969 (and most of them wanted Easy Rider), hardly anyone wanted Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Time changes everything of course: Mr. Chips is a curious delight, a charming and old- fashioned film with a wonderful performance from O’Toole. But, in 1969, it was dreadfully out of fashion: sorry Peter, it just wasn’t your year.
The Fifth Wonder of the World of Peter O’Toole is that:
The 1972 Best Actor Oscar didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for The Ruling Class because it went to Marlon Brando for The Godfather.
There were lots of Wonders in 1972: Cannibalism in the Andes (Who’s got the movie rights?), HBO was launched and Gwyneth Paltrow was born.
Another wonder was Marlon Brando. When he got his finger out, there was no-one better… and The Godfather, well, there is no argument. Paul Winfield (Sounder) wasn’t really competition, nor were the entire cast of Sleuth (being two: Sir Laurence and Mickey Caine) doing the usual splitting the vote, so O’Toole was probably Number Two on the bookie’s sheets (which was nowhere, given Brando’s magnificent turn: the Oscar shoo-in of all Oscar shoo-ins). This year is a real shame as his Jack, the insane 14th Earl of Gurney who believes he’s either Jesus Christ or Jack the Ripper, in director Peter Medak’s cult film of Peter Barnes’ play The Ruling Class, is to be treasured (and should be sought out).
It’s at least achieved cult… cult in this case meaning far too intelligent for your multiplex audience. The Ruling Class is a wonderful, intelligent film with a glorious performance from O’Toole, but it never really found an audience. Hopefully one day it will be re- discovered.
But Brando had the role of a lifetime this year, so, sorry Peter, it just wasn’t your year.
The Sixth Wonder of the World of Peter O’Toole was that:
The 1980 Best Actor didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for The Stunt Man because it went to Robert de Niro for Raging Bull.
Ah, the Wonders of 1980 were many and varied: Ronald Reagan was elected President, the first Post-it Notes went on sale, and both J. R. Ewing and J. Lennon were shot, the wrong one fatally. And Macauley Culkin was born.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a wonder year for Peter O’Toole. In fact, you could say twilight was starting to fall on his career. This year, he was nominated for an intriguing film called The Stunt Man. He had been extremely ill: a cancer scare and The Booze (see elsewhere, Richard Burton). He had been forced to give up drinking and this is what he signed to do… sober!
There were quite a few people and critics in 1980 who liked The Stunt Man (a film now very difficult to find) a lot. O’Toole plays a manipulative power-mad film director named Eli Cross (!) who is constantly seen descending from the sky in a helicopter and forcing his star (played by the totally uncharismatic and whatever-happened-to Steve Railsback) to perform more and more dangerous stunts. Although O’Toole was nominated as Best Actor, Railsback was the star of the film, before increasing his legacy by going to Australia a short time later and starring in the best Ozploitation film turkey ever, Turkey Shoot.
The director of The Stunt Man was Richard (Hells Angels on Wheels) Rush who, rather incredibly, received a Best Director nomination. Not so incredibly, it was 14 years before he was allowed behind a camera again with the erotic thriller (it was neither), Color of Night, which tried to destroy Bruce Willis’ career and did totally destroy the blossoming career of Jane March.
Meanwhile, back at the Oscars: The totally deserving winner was Robert de Niro for Raging Bull. And when we say totally, we mean totally. De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull is one of the greatest in the history of cinema, and no-one, but no-one, argues that point.
(The real – unfortunate – loser this year was John Hurt for The Elephant Man. If De Niro hand’t been in the ring that year, Hurt should have taken home a gleaming Big Gold Man).
The rest? Well, hardly anyone ventured into an art-house cinema to see Robert Duvall in The Great Santini (as good as he was in that tough film), and bringing up the rear were O’Toole and Jack Lemmon for Tribute (does anyone even remember that film tip-toeing into cinemas?)
De Niro in Raging Bull: sorry Peter, it just wasn’t your year.
The Seventh Wonder of the World of Peter O’Toole was that:
The Best Actor Oscar for 1982 didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for My Favorite Year because it went to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi.
What a world of Wonders in 1982: Britain was at war with Argentina, Channel 4 launched in Britain, and the first CD player went on sale in Japan.
And Peter O’Toole was absolutely glorious as an alcoholic former Hollywood swashbuckling actor named Alan Swann (read Errol Flynn… or almost Peter O’Toole) in Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year.
One slight problem about O’Toole in this film is that he is not the main character: that would be Mark Linn-Baker, as Benjy. Now, if O’Toole had been nominated as Best Supporting Actor, chances are he may have beaten Lou Gossett Jnr’s horrendous bully in An Officer and a Gentleman, a rare (but not unprecedented) example of an actor winning an Oscar by playing a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
But as a Best Actor nominee, the competition was fierce: the winner was Ben Kingsley for his intelligent, sensitive and realistic portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi’s life in Richard Attenborough’s conventional bio-pic Gandhi. And there were two other very strong contenders: Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey/’Dorothy’ Michaels in Tootsie (which has probably gone down in history as the most beloved and remembered performance from that exceptional year) and Paul Newman (with his sixth unsuccessful career nomination – we’d do a special chapter on him save for his final receivership of the Big Gold Man for The Color of Money) as the alcoholic, ambulance-chasing, Bostonian trial lawyer in The Verdict.
The also-rans: Jack Lemmon yet again (this time for Missing) and O’Toole…. Gandhi! A tough martyr to beat. Sorry Peter, it just wasn’t your year.
In 2002, at last an Oscar was put into the hands of Mr. Peter O’Toole.
Sadly, it was the We’d-better-give-you-one-before-you’re-dead Oscar. He nearly turned it down because he hoped to earn one outright. Known officially as the Honorary Oscar, it came with the following wording: For Peter O’Toole… whose remarkable talents have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters.
And now, the Eighth Wonder of the World…
Hollywood has always told us that the Eighth Wonder of the World was King Kong, but in the World of Peter O’Toole it was Last King because… The Best Actor Oscar for 2006 didn’t go to Peter O’Toole for Venus because it went to Forest Whittaker for The Last King Of Scotland’.
The biggest Wonder of 2006 involved two planets: in the real world, Big-P Planet Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf small-p planet and, in the reel world, Venus brought an eighth nomination for Peter O’Toole, now 74 years old, for the role of Maurice, a dying, impotent yet lecherous and lustful has-been actor who has a platonic March-December romance with his best friend’s teenaged grand-niece (Jodie Whittaker, no relation to Forest, we think).
O’Toole lost to Forest Whittaker’s King which was no surprise as Whittaker won every single award that year that wasn’t won by Helen Mirren’s Queen. O’Toole’s loss put him in the record books as the actor with the most nominations without winning. O’Toole had tied with Richard Burton with seven losing nominations before his Venus nomination. Now, he was the leader… a strange sort of triumph. Venus was little seen, and no-one can argue with Forest Whittaker’s win: his Idi Amin is an astonishing piece of work.
Sorry, Peter, even on what will surely be your final attempt, this just wasn’t your year… at least you were honored with an Honorary one – and it takes a lot of nominations to score one of those.