Creator gave Peter O’Toole yet another chance to shine

“Words can be wonderful things.”

The death of Peter O’Toole this month is still something I haven’t been able to fully process. Peter O’Toole was so ALIVE in his performances… The idea of such a vibrant presence being gone from the earth just makes no sense.

Yet, he is gone, and as I look back at his body of work for this series I am happily discovering new moments of his brilliance: Little shining flashes of charm and wit that remind me of just how good he was.

My latest revisitation was an old favorite: Creator. Peter O’Toole plays Harry, an eccentric scientist who has embarked on a quixotic quest: to bring back his late wife Lucy. He’s “negotiating with God” by cultivating her cells to clone her.

A friend of mine on Twitter, commenting on O’Toole a few days back, told me he was the king of “crazy acting” and I can’t disagree… completely. Though he did play crazy quite a bit, he also acted with a lot of heart. And Creator gives him the chance to play a romantic lead, and he’s very good at it. Of course he is. He’s charming. He’s Peter O’Toole.

The supporting cast are admirable and produce good work. David Ogden Stiers (better known as Winchester from MASH) plays Harry’s rival professor and he’s perfectly cast (heck, he barely needed to change clothes). Vincent Spano plays Harry’s lab assistant Boris, who is a good match for O’Toole… though he tends to overact in many of his scenes. Virginia Masden plays the girl Boris is pining after, and she is absolutely beautiful in the role (especially during the shower scene). And Mariel Hemingway plays Meli, the “egg donor” who Harry becomes more than a little fond of.

The film, based on a novel by Jeremy Leven, is quirky and somewhat uneven… it jumps from Harry’s story to Boris, without finding much focus. But while it has some flaws, it is as aggressively charming as O’Toole is, and this charm wins the day.

 

Boris: “Harry, how did you know you were in love? I mean with you and Lucy. How’d you know it wasn’t just infatuation?”
Harry: “Scientifically, of COURSE. By using The Love Formula.”
Boris: “The what?”
Harry: “Love Formula. Add up the number of times that you think about the lady each day. Subtract from the total the number of times you think about yourself each day. If the remainder is more lady, and less yourself, then it’s love.”

This is the last Peter O’Toole movie I’ll be watching in this series, and I think that’s appropriate. Creator is a film fixated with death, and O’Toole’s character eventually decides to stop living such a life… to let go of Lucy. To move on. He’ll still have the memories, but by the end of the film he knows it’s time to mourn no more.

So I’ll do so as well. Thank you, Peter O’Toole, for all the joy you have brought me and so many others. Bravo.

Goodbye, Peter. Goodbye.

My Favorite Year is one of My Favorite Movies

Imagine you are a young Mel Brooks, writer on one of the hottest shows on television: Your Show of Shows. Then imagine your job this week is to babysit guest star Errol Flynn, to make sure his womanizing and heavy drinking doesn’t keep him from ruining the show.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, because they made a movie about it. That movie, My Favorite Year, was a nostalgic look at the early days of live TV, where the actors and writers worked themselves ragged to make America laugh (Your Show of Shows had a grueling 39 episode season – an hour-and-a-half, for seven months straight). Making Your Show of Shows gave star Sid Ceasar a nervous breakdown, but also produced some of the brightest comedy writers of all time: Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and the aforementioned Mel Brooks.

Obviously, the characters and the story is highly fictionalized, and some of the plot (the host being threatened by a local mob boss) is clearly implausible. But knowing that a lot of what was on screen is actually what happened and how things worked makes it a mini-time machine.

Peter O’Toole plays aging swashbuckler Alan Swann, who is washed up and lives mostly in a bottle. This is the second Peter O’Toole film I’ve revisited for this series, and it won’t be the last… O’Toole has had an incredible career, and more than a few of his performances are in seldom-scene and underappreciated films such as this one.

Mark Linn-Baker, best known from TV’s Perfect Strangers, plays Buddy, the Mel Brooks stand-in who has to chaperone Swann the week of his appearance. He exasperated performance against the aloof O’Toole really elevates the material; they have terrific chemistry together. The supporting cast is rock solid, From Joseph Bologna playing Sid Caesar stand-in King Kaiser to Bill Macy, Jessica Harper and Lainie Kazan playing key roles.

This is a fun movie with a lot of heart, and definitely stands up to repeated viewings. Try it in a double feature with The Rocketeer… and you get bonus geek points if you know why I recommend watching both films together.

The Ruling Class is a dark, overlooked classic

As I sat down to rewatch The Ruling Class, the 1972 British black comedy, I remembered the first time I watched it. It was at the suggestion of a good friend, who said to my 19-year-old self, “If you consider yourself an Anglophile, you HAVE to see The Ruling Class.”

I took his advice and rented a VHS copy. I was blown away. A black comedy so dark it borders on the ultraviolet, The Ruling Class was also the first performance I ever saw from Peter O’Toole. And what a performance! He was nominated to an Oscar for it, and after seeing his turn as Jack, the Fourteenth Earl of Gurney, I became an obsessive fan…. I searched out everything he did, starting with Lawrence of Arabia (which was, amazingly, his first film role) and then seeing Creator, My Favorite Year… And more. More on his performance later.

After completing my rewatch, I’m struck with just how good The Ruling Class still is, how much it stands up. Based on a stage play, the film skewers English nobility and culture with such relish it is almost unfair to England. It is also a damning incitement of modern society in general, due to the not-so-subtle subtext that defines what we consider “sane” vs. what is “insane.” I’m going to get into some spoilers here, and if you haven’t seen the movie I recommend you do so before reading any further. The movie works best if you don’t have any real background on the movie and just let it “happen” to you. It’s too good a film for you to let me spoil it for you.

OK, if you are still reading you either have seen it, or don’t mind the premise and plot being spoiled. Fair enough.

Peter O’Toole inherits his father’s estate as well as his seat in the House of Lords when his father dies in an autoshartphyxiation accident. The problem is, O’Toole’s character Jack Gurney thinks he’s Jesus Christ. Well, this doesn’t sit we’ll with the Gurney family, who conspire to marry him and, once an heir is born, institutionalize him. Things don’t quite turn out as they plan, and Jack is “cured”… At least, everyone thinks he is.

Except he still thinks he’s God. Not the New Testament God… The Old Testament God. The Lord who smiteth. As the God of Love, he was shunned and ridiculed…. But now, he is accepted into the House of Lords. There is more too it, obviously, than I just described, because here are some moments that shouldn’t be spoiled.

Oh, and did I mention it was a musical? Because it is… And a pretty good one, at that.

When The Ruling Class came out forty years ago, it was praised by many critics and almost completely ignored by the moviegoing public. It’s reputation has only grown over the years, but it is still a movie that should get more attention. It is a surreal film, with crackling dialogue and an electrifying performance by O’Toole, basically playing two different characters in one film. It’s one of many films that, if made today, would be boycotted by a huge chunk of the country, even though the portrayal of Christ is not blasphemous in the least. That makes me sad.

So, in summary, The Ruling Class is a dark masterpiece, an amazing film that needs to be seen as many people as possible. It’s a wonderful film.