The 1962 Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated with Lawrence of Arabia. An august gathering was present to view the David Lean classic, including Vittorio De Sica, Carlo Ponti and Jean Luc Godard. All eyes were on debutant actor Peter O’Toole, a prominent student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts who, as Lawrence, gave the performance of a lifetime.
That reticent actor, nominated eight times for the Oscars, has completed 50 glorious years as an actor. O’Toole always maintained a distance from Hollywood celebrities, his only friends being Richard Burton and Omar Sharif. Contrary to the belief that he is arrogant and moody, O’Toole is balanced, well read and sensitive.
Lean understood that O’Toole’s asset as an actor was his eyes. He always encouraged O’Toole to experiment with his expressions. In the sequence where he, along with Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, lead the allied forces in a battle against the Turks, O’Toole simply conveyed a static look and then moved his eyeballs from right to left, delivering a smile of victory after winning the battle. The result on screen was fabulous.
In the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, O’Toole learnt to stress body language. It was put to use effectively when he stood on the army jeep commanding the Nazi forces in Night Of The Generals. His cold murderous look made him convincing as General Tanz, the character that he played in that movie.
By the mid-60s, O’Toole started growing in stature and was considered the most versatile and unpredictable after Marlon Brando. Intelligent as he was, he understood very well that it was next to impossible to match the majestic Richard Burton in dialogue delivery. So he concentrated more on expressions and maintained a low-key tone while speaking with occasional outbursts in Becket. Burton always joked with him, saying that his eyes were like those of hardcore Russian secret agents.
O’Toole was the obvious choice for historicals in the 60s. Katharine Hepburn was among the top actresses then, who simply overshadowed any actor with her personality. O’Toole thoroughly enjoyed working with her and confessed learning the nuances of reacting silently from her. In a scene just prior to the climax in The Lion in Winter, Hepburn twitched her left eyebrow and looked questioningly at him. He reacted with a blank face. The effect was so touching that Hepburn shook his hand once the scene was over.
After Lawrence Of Arabia, O’Toole considered Lord Jim his personal favourite. In this film, he received ample scope to exhibit his vulnerable side, which he could barely do otherwise. Along with Daliah Lavi, O’Toole acted in some of the most emotionally powerful scenes. It is said that in one shot, Lavi actually cried.
Though well known as a serious and intense actor, O’Toole performed brilliantly as a light-hearted comedian opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. In Goodbye, Mr Chips he proved how well his eyes and movements reacted to music.
In his later years, O’Toole could not exhibit his class and brilliance except in films like The Rainbow Thief and The Last Emperor. Because of his introverted nature, he vibed well only with select directors like Lean, Richard Brooks, Anatole Litvak and Bernardo Bertolucci. Till date, he regrets the fact that Lean never worked with him again. His only consolation has been an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement that he won in 2003. Fifty years after Lawrence Of Arabia was released, he is still remembered as the golden actor whose eyes sparkled and created magic in front of the movie camera.
Ranjan Das Gupta is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal