I know little of Peter O’Toole’s career, and I have seen only a fraction of his output: Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, My Favorite Year, and perhaps a few other films. His death, all the same, was a blow.
He is beautiful in Lawrence; the blue of his eyes and the pure white of his clothes mark him out visually so that he is a pictorial component of the film as powerful as the dunes and the camels and the shimmering heat waves. The performance itself is difficult to empathize with. Aided by the construction of the script, in which everyone views Lawrence with a certain bewilderment, O’Toole creates a character who seems to be trying on different affects as much out of curiosity as anything else: one moment compassionate, another cruel, another bellowing with amusement at his own absurdity. He seems alien and apart, even while we admire his relentless energy and his evident love of his adopted home. O’Toole in Lawrence goes on that list of performances – Bogart in Casablanca, Joel Grey in Cabaret, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs – where it’s very difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role.
Though Lawrence is a superior movie to 1964’s Becket, in which O’Toole portrays the impulsive King Henry II (a role he would reprise, in a very different context, in 1968’s The Lion in Winter), Becket contains perhaps my favorite of O’Toole’s scenes. The film centers on the troubled relationship between Henry and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), whose friendship is sundered when Henry unwisely appoints Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury, assuming that he will still be able to count on his loyalty. Becket, who begins the film as a sort of nihilist, is so amazed at the sense of purpose his new job instills in him that he devotes all his energies to the greater glory of the Church and finds himself on a path of unavoidable conflict with his old friend.
Becket is the protagonist in this film, and Henry the antagonist. Yet we do not love Becket: he is too cold, too remote, too abstracted in his attachments. It’s Henry who really moves us. He obviously loves Becket, with a desperate intensity that transcends the question of whether their relationship is platonic or homoerotic. There is a scene late in the film in which the two men, now firmly on opposite sides of a great church-versus-state conflict, meet astride horses on a beach and try to negotiate a way out of their impasse. The dialogue is mostly about matters of law, and about the different responsibilities of a bishop and a king. But O’Toole plays it as a breakup scene, or, more precisely, as a post-breakup scene. If you have ever come to a fresh ex’s apartment to pick up your last boxed items, and have felt the sting of recent arguments intermingled with shame and regret and a flickering hope that it may not be too late to save this relationship, you will understand exactly what Henry is going through in this scene. He is in so much pain, and there is nothing to be done, and your heart goes out to him.