2013 has been a bad year for the entertainment industry. Everybody dies, but this year saw a lot of big names passing away. Starting with Patti Page on New Years Day, the list includes Eydie Gormet, Julie Harris, Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Annette Funicello, and many more whom I can’t bring to mind.
Two more just made the list: Joan Fontaine, one of the stars of the 40s and 50s, and Peter O’Toole.
Although an Academy-Award winning actress, Fontaine was known more for her feuds with her older and much more successful sister, Olivia deHavilland. Still, in her own right, Fontaine proved herself a committed and skilled actress, racking up a 31-year career in films, and another 29 on television. I’ve not seen that much of her work, other than Ivanhoe and Suspicion.
Peter O’Toole is different. He hit stardom during my youth, and I recall him in many films of my younger years. He always turned in an interesting performance, and, when he was allowed to turn loose, there was no force like him on the screen. (He even co-starred with Audrey Hepburn in the caper comedy How to Steal a Million).
His big break, of course, was his star-making role in Lawrence of Arabia, but for a grand appreciation, you can see two other of his great films in about the time it’ll take you to watch Lawrence. O’Toole has the distinction of being the only actor ever to be nominated twice for playing the same character in two separate films: Henry II. In the first, Becket, O’Toole is against Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket. Here, Henry is wilder, impulsive, fiery, a counterpoint to Burton’s lower-burning intensity as Becket. He’s a dangerously loose cannon who brings just a touch of sexual jealousy to Henry. In The Lion in Winter, we see an older Henry, wiser, sadder, but still with spouts of energy bursting forth. O’Toole is masterful at playing these two parts of a man’s life, and he plays the ages well. He also gets to deliver one of my favorite lines of all times, in Lion in Winter: “I’ve fought and plotted my whole life; it’s the only way to be king, alive and fifty at the same time.”
His manic energy, and the risks he took were remarkable, so I have long forgiven him for starring in the catastrophic mess Man of La Mancha. He lived and worked hard and fast; by any account (including his) he should have burned out and died years ago at a much age, much like Richard Burton (58) or Erroll Flynn (50). But, maybe because he had the right Irish genes, he made it to 81.
He leaves a legacy of great roles, delivered with an intensity and fervor never matched onscreen.
RIP, Peter. And Joan, one of the queens of her time.