Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole, 1932 - 2013

No other film and few books have informed and shaped my interior life as much as did Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw as a boy of 13 fifty years ago in the company of my closest sibling, Peggy Zwisler. The fictional Lawrence as imagined by screenwriter Robert Bolt and director David Lean is an idealist and a believer in the ability of a single committed individual to change the world - a world controlled by the cynics and manipulative power brokers who ultimately marginalize and destroy the title character - but not before he is able, to a limited degree, to accomplish what he set out to do, at an enormous cost to his own integrity and even his own soul.

Never before and seldom since have I walked out of a theater or seen the closing credits of a film on television so thoroughly stunned by what I had just watched. I was literally and utterly speechless, and the images and themes of the movie have remained alive and vital within me for half a century now. Peter O'Toole's performance as the tortured and at times manic Lawrence was merely the first triumph of a long career of memorable realizations of a disparate set of characters - Henry II twice, Allan Swann, Lord Jim, Mr. Chips, Don Quixote, Eli Cross, and dozens more. O'Toole had a rare ability as an actor: no matter how grand or large or dramatic or humorous a script was, his acting transported the viewer into the inner life of the character, making even an epic like Lawrence finally the intimate portrait of a single person.

The scene in Lawrence that struck me most forcefully was the rescue of a character named Gasim, played by Indian actor I.S. Johar. Early in the film, O'Toole's Lawrence accomplishes an almost impossible trek across a vast stretch of desert, only to find that one of his group of fifty, Gasim, has been accidentally left behind somewhere in the sand. Lawrence starts back, though an oasis is in sight of the group, to rescue his companion - only to be told by his Arab troops that "It is written in the great book of heaven that Gasim's time has come." Lawrence disdains the belief that fate controls all and proceeds to rescue Gasim and bring him to safety. Near collapse from heat and thirst, Lawrence takes a drink of water and turns those impossibly blue eyes on his Arab friend who has told him to leave Gasim to his fate - and says in a measured voice with great affect - "Nothing is written."

I cannot express how profoundly moved I was as a 13 year old boy by that scene - how much it fired my imagination and became one of my most deeply-held beliefs. "Nothing is written," indeed.

I'm reminded of a comment made by O'Toole on "The Charlie Rose Show" a few years back, I believe around the time of his last Academy Award nomination. O'Toole had been a frequent and often prickly guest on Rose's program, so I winced a bit when Charlie waded right in with his first provocative question - which was to the effect, "You know, Peter, when they finally publish your obituary - you know what the lead is going to be - it'll be 'Lawrence of Arabia.' How does that strike you?" To his everlasting credit, O'Toole replied without so much as a blink and with consummate graciousness, "That will be just fine with me. I was lucky once in a lifetime to have had such a role."

Fortunately for those of us who love good acting, Peter O'Toole elevated many roles to a level near that in a long and distinguished career. RIP with heartfelt thanks.