On the curious nobility of Peter O'Toole's unlucky Oscar history

Posted by · 2:27 pm · December 15th, 2013

“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride – my foot!” said Peter O”Toole, somewhat mischievously, as he accepted his Honorary Oscar from Meryl Streep at the 2002 Academy Awards. “I have my very own Oscar now to be with me until death us do part.”

 It was a speech of twinkly good grace from the Irish actor, then 70 years old – seasoned enough, in other words, to know that an Oscar is nice and all, but not so important that it can”t be left behind at the pearly gates. But it was also delivered with a kind of good-humored resignation. O”Toole may have been several years off retirement – and there was one more near-brush with victory still in his future — but he seemed to know he”d never win a competitive Oscar. More to the point, he seemed to know there was nothing more to be gained from winning one, if indeed there ever had been. O”Toole”s charm, on screen and off, so often lay in being the guy just outside the inner circle.

His “always the bridesmaid” quip wasn”t an idle one – it was a wry nod to Oscar statisticians and gatekeepers. At that point, O”Toole had gone zero-for-seven in the Best Actor category, sharing the record among actors for most nominations without winning with his near-contemporary Richard Burton.

He”d claim the record for himself four years later, after an eighth unsuccessful Best Actor bid for the dying-of-the-light drama “Venus,” but it felt oddly appropriate that Burton and O”Toole should have jointly held that distinction for 20-plus years – and not only because O”Toole”s second nod and Burton”s third came for the same film, 1964″s thespian showdown “Becket.” Both men were unapologetic industry outsiders: one Welsh, one Irish, both charismatic, imposing, hard-living talents, too self-evidently gifted for the Academy to ignore, yet too spiky for them to unreservedly embrace.

Oddly, O”Toole could so easily have been let off the hook his very first time at bat. Few Best Actor runners-up can count themselves as unlucky as O”Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” just as few actors have ever been handed quite such a meaty opportunity for their first starring role. His performance as the prodigious British Army officer T.E. Lawrence in David Lean”s landmark epic was one hell of a near-debut, marrying theater-schooled technical might with incalculable movie-star quality – it may have been a biopic, but the performance also locked down the brilliant misfit screen persona that would see O”Toole through his entire career.

In any other year, O”Toole would probably have won Best Actor, adding another Oscar to the Best Picture winner”s dominant tally of seven. But in any other year, he wouldn”t have been up against Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” – a well-liked, well-established five-time nominee awaiting his first win, and securing it with a performance of differently-scaled detail and dignity as liberal lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It”s hard to take issue with the Academy”s decision on aesthetic grounds, or on theoretical ones: O”Toole was only 30 (had he won, he”d have been the youngest Best Actor victor to date), and voters could be forgiven for thinking his day would come.

It didn”t, of course, though not for lack of opportunity. Two years later came “Becket,” in which O”Toole and Burton – as, respectively, the callow King Henry II and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket – both delivered the kind of high-toned, elegantly articulated performances for which Academy voters routinely hold UK and Irish actors in such high regard. Either man alone might have been a threat to fellow Brit Rex Harrison”s droll musical turn in “My Fair Lady”; together, each consumed too many of the other”s vote. No matter. There”d be other chances, right?

There would indeed – and other chances playing Henry II, to boot. Four years later, O”Toole was back in the nominees” circle for “The Lion in Winter,” a more weathered (O”Toole was 35, playing 50) but even more magnetic incarnation of the blustery royal, with a formidable Katharine Hepburn as his Eleanor of Aquitaine – it”s a testament to both performances that the film doesn”t feel nearly as much a clash of thespian generations and movements as it actually is.

Hepburn won Best Actress, and O”Toole looked primed for a matching award, particularly given the opposition. Ron Moody, Alan Arkin and Alan Bates were fine but resistible competitors, and while Hollywood workshorse Cliff Robertson stepped up his game as a mentally handicapped victim of science in the “Flowers for Algernon” adaptation “Charly,” surely the Academy wouldn”t feel he need an Os-nope, they did, as Robertson unusually struck gold at his first and only nomination, for a film ignored in every other category.

It”d be O”Toole”s last serious shot at winning an Oscar for nearly forty years, though he continued to rack up the nominations. His standing with the Academy could hardly be questioned: only an actor with an enviable amount of industry respect could be nominated for a film as misbegotten as 1969″s musical remake of “Goodbye, Mr Chips,” in which O”Toole sang and danced and did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances – which is not, given these particular circumstances, the highest praise.

And as O”Toole steered away from the expectations of stardom in the 1970s, cultivating the image of an eccentric rogue, the Academy stayed with him; his next three nominations were the most deliciously improbable of his career. 1972″s loopy, frenzied and now rather dated black comedy “The Ruling Class” was a divisive flop that”d take a while longer to hatch as a cult item, but O”Toole still scored a nod for his furious turn as a paranoid schizophrenic aristocrat with delusions of holiness. (He lost, inevitably, to Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.”) No less excitingly strange was “The Stunt Man,” Richard Rush”s ingenious, criminally underseen comic thriller in which he”s an absolute riot as deranged, self-important auteur Eli Cross; again, his inspired strangeness came up against an unbeatable milestone of a dramatic performance in Robert De Niro”s Jake LaMotta.

The nomination that drew him level with Burton (then one year away from his own demise) was another scrappy comic sparker. As a dissolute former matinee idol preparing for a television comeback in 1982″s “My Favorite Year,” he”s again blithely, cheekily funny – but it”s another performance that reveals his astute knack for defining the evolution of his own stardom through his roles, and vice versa. Rightly or wrongly, he was never going to beat Ben Kingsley for “Gandhi” – nor could Dustin Hoffman, for a more full-bodied comic turn in “Tootsie” – but he plainly wasn”t gold-chasing.

For a long time, it looked as though O”Toole”s Oscar history would end – respectably if prematurely – there, as he moved further into the unchallenging comforts of middle age and paycheck roles in the likes of “Supergirl” and “King Ralph.” It remains something of a puzzle that he never received US awards traction for the one major-league prestige film of this career phase. He”s by no means testing himself as Reginald Johnston, real-life tutor to Qing Dynasty ruler Puyi in Bernardo Bertolucci”s “The Last Emperor,” but it”s the kind of sympathetic role and distinguished reading that would normally bring an automatic supporting nomination for a well-regarded veteran in a Best Picture frontrunner. Only BAFTA bit, however, as the lavish epic collected nine Oscars while bypassing the acting categories entirely. Might he have won had he been nominated, like so many great actors who have triumphed for lesser work? And would Oscar history be better for it? Yes and no, probably in that order.

Instead, O”Toole”s Oscar swansong came in 2006, when he scored a Best Actor bid for his graceful, still-playful turn as a dying actor unrepentantly in love with a twentysomething woman in the Roger Michell-Hanif Kureishi film “Venus.” It”s a modest, awkward little film, with little reason to exist other than as a showcase for O”Toole”s fragile mastery. For a while, however, it seemed it might be enough to net him that elusive competitive Oscar at his eighth attempt – winning an Honorary Oscar, after all, doesn”t entirely erase an IOU for the Academy, as Paul Newman learned to his benefit in the 1980s. But the train was derailed early on by Forest Whitaker, as his colorful, commanding inhabitation of Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” began taking precursor after precursor, taking a lead that proved unassailable in the Oscar race.

The Academy”s priorities have always flip-flopped between dynamism and sentiment; the latter won out in O”Toole”s first Best Actor race, the former in his last, and in neither case did it seem an egregiously unfair outcome. Peter O”Toole absolutely deserved a Best Actor Oscar, no doubt – timing partly ensured that he didn”t, but so did his pleasing lack of palpable hunger for the thing. His zero-for-eight track record is unlucky, but also rather distinguished: nominations count for much, after all, and O”Toole”s collection of them is testament to his actor range and persistence and wit. Rewarded correctly, a competitive Oscar should reward only a performance, not a career; at least the one golden man he did accept stood for them all.

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