In the final few weeks of 2013, film fans lost some larger-than-life stars. The most celebrated, of course, was Peter O’Toole, who burst onto the screen in 1962 as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Then, having played to perfection a famously enigmatic warrior-philosopher, he moved on to other roles that bore a tragic and literary stamp, like the title character in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. He played kings aplenty, including England’s Henry II in both Becket (opposite Richard Burton) and The Lion in Winter (where he colorfully sparred with Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, as imperiously portrayed by Katharine Hepburn). And he also played cheeky commoners who considered themselves ripe for kingly privilege: a movie director in The Stunt Man; a matinee idol in My Favorite Year; a pompous restaurant critic in Ratatouille. In The Ruling Class he topped himself, as a member of the House of Lords who becomes convinced he is Jesus Christ.
O’Toole’s real-life propensity for living large made him perfect casting in such grandiose roles. But he could also play more humble fellows. A musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips would seem an unlikely vehicle for him, but he made the modest British schoolmaster both convincing and appealing. (His singing wasn’t so great, but the forgettable Leslie Bricusse song score hardly deserved better.) My own personal favorite O’Toole film is a dotty little romantic farce from 1966 called How to Steal a Million. It’s about a very nice young lady (Audrey Hepburn) who for complicated reasons needs to steal a priceless statue, the Cellini Venus, from a Paris museum. Enter O’Toole as a professional thief – or is he? With such veteran farceurs as Hugh Griffith, Eli Wallach, and Charles Boyer filling out the cast, it’s a light and charming entertainment.
It’s sad, of course, that O’Toole never won the Oscar he so richly deserved. But he outlasted all of his drinking buddies (Richard Burton and Oliver Reed among them) and gave us some wonderful hours at the movies.
Joan Fontaine was known for playing the second Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning Rebecca. She won her own Oscar for another Hitchcock film, Suspicion. The delicate blonde – a true English rose – specialized in roles that played up her air of genteel vulnerability. (She makes a dramatic contrast to the virile Burt Lancaster in a taut little 1948 thriller with an unlikely title: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.) But Fontaine was most famous for her life-long feud with her equally stellar sister, Olivia de Havilland. Fontaine always claimed she was the victim of her elder sib’s unrelenting cruelty. But I wonder. Did the English rose have a few thorns of her own?
Finally, I’ve got to mention Tom Laughlin, not exactly a great actor, but one who made his mark on Hollywood during the heyday of the Counterculture. His Billy Jack character, first introduced in 1967’s Born Losers, is an ex-Green Beret with exotic martial arts skills and a rather violent commitment to pacifism. By 1971’s Billy Jack, Laughlin and wife Delores Taylor had become their own cottage industry: he directed the two of them in a screenplay they wrote together, and the money came rolling in. The rather stiff but dramatic story has our hero saving wild horses from slaughter and protecting the kids in a desert “freedom school.” More Billy Jack movies followed, and soon my boss Roger Corman was instructing rising young director Jonathan Demme to concoct his own Billy Jack clone. And that’s how our Fighting Mad was born.
Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine, Tom Laughlin – may they all rest in peace.