British actors have always taught us how to speak.
We in India have never quite been able to cast off our post-Colonial hangover, and it is that — coupled with a rigid love for perfectly enunciated Queen’s English, clipped as if cut like a cigar — that has always led us to look to British leading men for guidance. Traditionally, they were the actors with immaculate accents who represented class and the upper crust and almost always spoke like Psmith, while on the other side of the pond, the Americans grunted and swallowed consonants but could pack a meaner, more believable punch.
That perceptive pigeonholing went completely out the window the minute you saw your first Peter O’Toole movie.
O’Toole was indeed a beautiful man, sculpted on a day the maker felt particularly ambitious (and unfairly generous), a man with eyes blue enough to make a desert feel bracing, spread across a face that redefined how gorgeous the word ‘gaunt’ could be. And he spoke in the most elegant fashion, his silken tongue gliding across syllables as if it polished the language itself while he said his lines. It is dashed hard for a young man to look at old O’Toole films, with the inevitable mix of awe and envy and a grin, and not try to pick up on some of his mannerisms, all of which seemed perfect. He just felt right.
And yet, despite this finely-creased appearance, he was the manliest of them all, a true man’s man. Warrior, king, pioneer, thespian, womaniser, drunkard, scoundrel — he made it all look grander than ever, and he did so with fluent effortlessness. It was as if Steve McQueen learnt to talk right, or Clint Eastwood discovered a Windsor knot, or Michael Caine had met Henry Higgins. No man on screen was ever quite as magnificent as Peter O’Toole.
Off-screen would take a helluva fight as well. O’Toole was as legendary a raconteur as he was a drinker, and approached his life with the spirit of a slightly sloshed bullfighter, fleet-of-foot and highly skilled but essentually all whiskey and laughs and a great deal of olé. He was untameable, outspoken, garrulous and justifiably vainglorious, and we didn’t quite appreciate him as we ought have. He knew this and he laughed it off.
And naturally he did so more quotably than anyone else. I remember him starring in Brad Pitt’s atrocious Troy, and laughing it off as an unwatchable film that reminded him of a bread advert. Or when in 2003, up for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar after 7 nominations (and 7 losses), he was reluctant, and wrote a famous to the Academy saying he was “still in the game” and wanted more time to “win the lovely bugger outright.” He took the prize, and though he got an eighth nomination a few years later, that outright win never came — even though every single one of those performances was terrific.
Ah, he was the drunken uncle sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, an armchair nobody else dared ever inhabit, telling us tall stories. But unbelievable as they all seemed, chances are they — like Peter himself — were for real. In an invitation to his New Year party, O’Toole once wrote “Fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping, polite conversation and the breaking of bones — such jollities constitute acceptable behaviour, but no acting allowed.” It could well have been his life’s motto — and while he broke the rule a fair few times, we’ll pretend to look the other way.
Long, long ago, in a stand-up comedy routine, Woody Allen lamented how he was attempting to pick up a girl in Europe when O’Toole “asked her out first, aces me out, you know?” and got a big laugh. Not, as it first seems, because of the loony contrast between that marvellous man and the dorky writer, but because of that between him and every single one of us. Peter O’Toole — who dares compare?
Revel In Peace, sir.
First published Rediff, December 16, 2013
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