IT’S hard not to stare at Peter O’Toole’s face, hunting for vestiges of one of the most beautiful male visages to grace the silver screen. Yet, the clear blue eyes that once peered out from under a white kaffiyeh have gone rheumy. The cheeks sag. The skin no longer gleams. There are flashes of who he used to be: A certain tilt of the face and the amazing bone structure suddenly emerges from the haze of age. There are moments when the smile animates -- and he is again naughty, charming, ruminative and elusive.
On a recent fall afternoon, the actor, now 74, was sitting on a settee in an old-fashioned English hotel, meticulously and repeatedly applying lip balm to his faded lips. He’s still tall and thin, with the erect carriage of the fatally elegant but fragile. One misplaced thump looks as if it could send him reeling, though he’s dressed for cavorting, dandyish in an olive jacket, tan pants, vest and tie.
He’s rhapsodizing about falling in love, as he does in his latest film, “Venus,” which lands in theaters Dec. 15. “Within seconds, it’s as though these two have known each other for 25, 30 years. It doesn’t matter if they’re pretty or ugly, suddenly you find yourself at ease and in the pleasure of that particular company. If it is a pretty girl so much the more enchanting.” He gives an old roue laugh. “But that is the way it is, I find. And this was written on a piece of paper” -- the script for “Venus” -- “and I thought, ‘Hello.’ ”
This is his first leading role in 20 years. Despite getting seven Academy Award nominations, the last for “My Favorite Year” in 1982, O’Toole is not a recognizable figure for younger moviegoers. One year older than Michael Caine, two years younger than Sean Connery, O’Toole seems to belong to another generation. He sparred with Richard Burton in “Becket.” He played opposite Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter.” As T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia, he rode a camel across the desert for David Lean.
When he was nominated for an honorary Oscar in 2003, he initially demurred, sending a letter to the academy saying that he still “might win the lovely bugger outright.”
At the time, the quip came off as a jolly, quixotic riposte -- especially since his prodigious early talent seemed all too often squandered. But it appears he wasn’t joking. O’Toole, who’s spent the last 20 years largely slumming through the movies playing parts like Priam in the paint-by-numbers tent pole “Troy” and a doctor in the little-seen horror flick “Phantoms,” returns finally with one of the most hilarious and wrenching performances of the year in “Venus.”
The film tells of an aging journeyman actor who spends his days cavorting with his best chum, another aging journeyman actor (Leslie Phillips) and playing stiffs in hospital dramas, until he unexpectedly falls for his friend’s niece, a tarty, angry, lost young woman, Jessie, played by newcomer Jodie Whittaker. “It’s about a man continuing a hopeless passion for a woman he’s too old to fulfill. He’s almost enjoying a memory of what he was once capable of,” explains screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”). “It’s a sad film because he has so much sexual desire, but it’s rather cheering because he’s still going.”
Directed by Roger Michell (“Persuasion”), the film catapults O’Toole from the ether of old-world Hollywood into the gritty domain of modern-day London, from the grand tradition of acting to the current vogue for naturalism at all costs.
These lives are not epic but small and real, and O’Toole strips down for the occasion. Shot without makeup, in natural light, he is unvarnished and almost unrecognizable as a jaunty wreck of a human being grasping for one last flicker of life.
Michell recalls sitting in the Garrick Club, a famed actor’s club in London, waiting to meet O’Toole for the first time. “There was a commotion,” and suddenly O’Toole was there, climbing up the marble staircase, arm in arm with compatriot Richard Briers. “They were hanging on to each other. I’m not sure who was holding on to whom. There was Peter, mischievous, funny, clever, and very, very alive. I knew before even shaking his hand he was the right man for the part because he has all those combinations of charm and grace, yet he’s a person who’s quite elderly now, and that brings a wonderful sense of truth and vulnerability to what he does. He’s still a swashbuckler, but a swashbuckler who’s marching through time.”
Indeed, O’Toole appears older than his years but carries himself with perennial panache. The filming took place on the streets of London in midwinter, and O’Toole suggested that the production purchase him a little heater, and a small tent in which he could sit when not acting, so he wouldn’t get too cold. “We all thought it was absurd when we heard about it, but it was this rather wonderful invention,” says Michell. “Quite a few people would congregate in his tent, having coffee or hot drinks. Then we got into a habit of photographing the tent wherever it was erected, and what resulted is a Christo-like record of the tent all over London.
“He hates the cold. He’s terrified of the cold. He found the cold the most intimidating enemy. I don’t think he found any of the rest of it particularly difficult,” adds Michell.
On this afternoon, O’Toole is almost congenitally charming, dropping names and anecdotes from a famed life like Hansel tripping along the forest path. Although this role in “Venus” is more naked than almost any before this, he insists he prepared as he always does: “Lock myself in a room and send everybody away and see you in a month or a week or however long it takes until I complete the study and memorize everything that I am going to do. And then I am open for suggestions.”
“Vanessa,” he says, referring to Vanessa Redgrave, who plays his ex-wife. It at first seems like a non sequitur, but it turns out to be a longer explanation. “I have worked with Vanessa’s father. I have worked with Vanessa’s children. I have worked with Vanessa’s sister, brother and niece. Vanessa and I have never worked together before. We have known each other since the ‘50s; Vanessa is rooted in the old tradition of study, private, uninhibited, unobserved private studies. So I said in theater parlance, ‘Do you know the jokes [the lines]?’ And she said, ‘Of course.’ She said, ‘Now I am free.’ It liberates you. Then you can take advice or direction, whatever.”
DURING the afternoon, O’Toole offers glimpses of his life, almost like pristine images in a slide show, from which the psychological threads must be deduced. Born in 1932, the son of an Irish bookie, he grew up during World War II, a real “Hope and Glory” childhood. “The war began for us children of the war when we were 7 and then six years later we were 13. And those six years were an eternity. There were no schools from 1942 on.” They spent their days playing -- “we were hiding in shelters that were bombed. I was only in three high explosive raids, only three. It is not the scariest thing in my life, but it was scary. And then there were the fire bombs, and we didn’t count those because they didn’t often go off and they didn’t make much scream or much bang, and yet the nearest I have been to blown up was by an incendiary bomb maybe about 30 yards from me.”
He initially tried his hand at journalism at the Yorkshire Evening News, which he didn’t like much, although “I loved the company. Men really did have tickets for the match in their hats, and they did get drunk after filing some decent copy.”
At 19, he joined the Navy, spending 14 months on a submarine depot ship with veteran sailors who had “been bombed, torpedoed and mined. I was just a young kid with them, these hairy, wonderful men.” He rethought his life, and afterward he fell in with an artsy crowd and ultimately into theater. “Accidentally, I got involved in a production, a professional production of Turgenev’s ‘Fathers and Sons,’ because the leading man fell over, broke his leg. His name was Luck.” He ultimately attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, in a class that included Albert Finney and Alan Bates.
His big cinematic break came when he was cast as Lawrence in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” That was the era when filmmakers actually shot hundreds of living people riding through the desert rather than just generating them with the computer. It took two years to make the film. They stationed themselves in Aqaba, Jordan, and then flew out the cameras and crew on a larger plane and then used an “eight-seat De Havilland Dove. We would land on mud flats and set up a tent and shoot. For as long as we could.”
On their off days, “Omar Sharif and I, we would vanish to Beirut.” He sighs. “In the better days.” In those days, Beirut was the glamorous playground of the Middle East. “Beautiful.” He says sadly. “Poor Beirut. Poor Lebanon. Poor Middle East.”
The pair spent their breaks visiting the “fleshpots as one now calls them.” He appears to be referring to brothels. He says that whenever people ask Sharif, a close friend, what he remembers most of the shoot, “he always says fleshpots. But for me it was wonderful. One never was used to that heat and the aridity. The nothingness. It isn’t pretty sand; it is just nothing, grit. Flat. And one just never, ever, ever ... you get accustomed to it in a couple of days and then it hits you” -- he smacks his hands. “You would need 16 pints of water per day to stay alive. We all lived on salt pills, which are the worst thing in the world for you. When you get the shakes, somehow you get a pot of water and you put a spoonful of salt in it and stir it. If you can taste the salt you don’t need it. If you can’t taste the salt you have got about 10 minutes before you dry out and then you start bloating and you are gone.”
Playing Lawrence left O’Toole with a lifelong interest in the man, and in archaeology, and he’s traipsed to archeological sites in Israel, Turkey, China, and Cambodia. The last was when he was filming 1964’s “Lord Jim,” a legendary clunker though a memorable shoot. “I came out of my concrete hut one morning and I looked on the road, there were two stiffs,” he says. “One was American. I was in Phnom Penh with a couple of stunt men and we were walking around the street to see what was going on, and the British Embassy was on fire. The American Embassy was on fire, and the customers were roaming around cutting their tongues with razorblades and using the blood to draw ‘Yankee go home.’ There we were filming and hiding. We got out by plane eventually.”
One suspects that stories like this stream steadily out of O’Toole, but he insists that “I don’t often think of former parts, but sometimes they pop up in conversation or into my mind and I can be amused.” He’d never be able to itemize his most meaningful roles because “they are though they are human.” He played Henry II twice, in “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter,” and was nominated both times for Academy Awards. Other Oscar-nominated performances include “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “The Stunt Man” and “My Favorite Year,” in which he spoofed himself and played a jaunty, alcoholic movie star. He’s still busy, with parts in two coming films.
For decades he was renowned for his carousing, often with famous buddies like Laurence Harvey, Peter Finch, and Richard Harris, now all dead. Along the way, he married and divorced the actress Sian Phillips, sired two daughters with her, and another son with girlfriend Karen Brown. In the mid-'70s, he nearly died from stomach cancer.
Asked if he ever regretted the drinking, O’Toole looks incredulous. “No. Not at all. It was a kind of added fuel. A booster. No, no, no the last thing it ever did was shape my bloody life.”
PLAYING THE PART
WHILE some might want to see parallels between his “Venus” character, Maurice, and himself, both aging actors watching their friends die off, O’Toole insists there are none. What he doesn’t deign to say is that he, unlike his character, is and was a movie star. The only Maurice characteristic he cops to is the penchant for the grand gesture that he can’t always deliver on. In the film, Maurice takes Jessie, whom he calls “Venus,” shopping for a little black dress but neglects to bring any money. “I have borrowed money from the hotel manager before to pay the bill,” he says with a laugh.
As the afternoon wears on, O’Toole seems to tire, and eventually he puts on his long overcoat and leaves, tipping the hotel staff generously on his way out the door. A smiling, middle-age woman picks him up in a white Subaru station wagon. It’s not his wife, because he’s “unattached” right now. It’s a little deflating to see Lawrence’s chariot now and to hear the doorman try to figure out who the tall, aged man was, and why he’s famous.
It’s better to remember O’Toole just before he left, pondering if he, like Maurice, is still capable of love. “I am sure of it,” he says, the voice at first emphatic. “I am human. All too bloody human.” He’s full of temporary, private recrimination.
“Yes. What to do about it is another question. I think it would be a very shallow life for me if I couldn’t.”
On the Web
For a gallery of images from Peter O’Toole’s career, go to latimes.com/otoole.