Monday, December 30, 2013

Fade Out

I said in a recent post that November was not a good month for cartoonists. Well, the same can be said about December and film actors.

Peter O'Toole 1932-2013
"...the most remarkable class [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts] ever had, though we weren't reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty."
Among the British actor's classmates at the academy were Albert Finney and Alan Bates.
O'Toole was trained as a classical actor--meaning lots and lots of Shakespeare--and spent the first decade of his career on the stage. When asked once what the generations of actors that came after him lacked, he replied, "theatre, theatre, theatre". True though that may be, all those theaters were in England. Not much good that does a Clevelander on a limited budget like me. Fortunately, O'Toole segued into movies, movies, movies, many of which I've seen on TV, TV, TV. Ya git culture any way ya can.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) made O'Toole (as well as Omar Sharif) an international star, but I have to admit, I've never really cottoned to that flick. David Lean was a great filmmaker, but I prefer his work from the 1940s, like Brief Encounter or Great Expectations, two fine movies that clock in  at 86 and 113 minutes, respectively. Lawrence is almost four hours! It's not that I can't enjoy a long movie. I like Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and The Godfather, but those films had a lot of things going on to hold my attention. That may seem the case with Lawrence if you watch the above trailer, but all those exciting action scenes are interspersed with prolonged, swooping shots of sand. Sand, sand, and more sand. Too much goddamn sand, even if it does swirl to some great background music. After a while, I started hoping Frankie and Annette would show up and lead me to water. Still, this is just a minority opinion. Most people who have seen this film think it's great. And, as I said before, it did, quite deservedly, make Peter O'Toole a star, and if it hadn't done that, we might not have all the great performances that followed.


So, tell me, when was the last time Henry II came up in conversation? As British monarchs go, he's not nearly as famous as that other Henry. You know, the portly one with all the wives. Well, Peter O'Toole must have seen something of interest in that earlier Henry. He played him twice. First alongside Richard Burton as rebellious cleric Thomas Becket in Becket (1964), and then alongside Katherine Hepburn as rebellious wife Eleanore of Aquitaine in A Lion in Winter (1968.) O'Toole actually plays the character a little differently in both movies. You can even say Henry shows some moral growth from film to film. In the first one, he puts his best friend to death, whereas in the second he merely locks his dearly beloved up in prison.

Time for some comedy. In 1965, O'Toole played a sex addict before the term was coined in What's New, Pussycat? (1965), screenplay by Woody Allen, who also co-starred. The beautiful Romy Schneider portrayed one of his many love interests, much to the chagrin of Allen, who squeezes his banana in frustration (er...that didn't come out right.)


Time for some black comedy. In The Ruling Class (1972), O'Toole is hilarious as Jack Gurney, an English lord who fancies himself Jesus Christ ("When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.") He's eventually disabused of this notion and goes back to calling himself Jack. Except it's the same Jack that wandered the dark alleys of London in 1888. Turning the other cheek is the last thing on his mind.

O'Toole played a maniacal film director in The Stunt Man (1980)


Fair is fair. After making fun of film directors in The Stunt Man, O'Toole then made fun of film actors, especially those that drink too much, in the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year.

 O'Toole (looking a bit like Stan Laurel) as an English tutor out to give a young prince a Western education in The Last Emperor (1987). China went communist anyway.

Let's bring this to a close with the 1991 comedy King Ralph. Peter O'Toole is private secretary to John Goodman's uncouth, American-born British monarch. Not really all that great a movie, but O'Toole and Goodman acting alongside each other? Book me a seat to the coronation.

Joan Fontaine 1917-2013

When Peter O'Toole and Joan Fontaine died within a day of each other, there was a lot of comments on the Internet about the loss of two stalwarts from the Golden Age of Movies or whatever.  However,  they actually belonged to two different generations of actors. Fontaine was a good 15 years older than O'Toole (but a good ten years younger than Katherine Hepburn, who, as I said before, once played queen to O'Toole's king, so I guess there is some overlap here.)

Though she wasn't yet a star, Fontaine did appear in two 1939 movies that are now considered classics. The top picture is from the catty comedy-drama The Women, based on the Claire Booth Luce play of the same name. That's Joan on the farthest right. Third from left is Rosalind Russell, and to the immediate right of her are Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, all of whom got better billing, and considerably more screen time than Fontaine. She fared better in Gunga Din where she was the only female present. Really, though, that was kind of a thankless role, too. Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen spend that entire movie trying to break up her engagement to Douglas Fairbanks Jr (the dude in the helmet above), taking time out only to fend off an army of murderous Thugee tribesmen.

Fontaine finally got her chance playing the main, though not the title, character in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) Curiously, the above trailer calls it the most glamorous movie ever made. Glamorous? That's how you describe an Astaire/Rogers musical, not something by Alfred Hitchcock! It's actually a very moody, very tense examination of self-doubt, family secrets, and class differences. Fontaine is a working girl who falls in love with an uptight aristocrat played by Laurence Olivier at his anal best. He's also a widower, and his new wife finds that she has big shoes, as well as an ancestral dress, to fill. The servants, especially a dour, spooky housekeeper well played by Judith Anderson, prefer the original, deceased lady of the house, the Rebecca of the title, whom we never get to see. We can only imagine her, and Fontaine (not only isn't she the title character, but her  first name is never even revealed!) imagines and fears the worst, that the first wife was the best. It doesn't help that the spooky housekeeper drops hints that she might want to commit suicide. Let Fred and Ginger dance around that! Fontaine won an Oscar for her sensitive portrayal of the second Lady DeWinter. After she gets caught in a rainstorm prior to meeting the household staff, whom she desperately wants to make a good first impression, you'll just want to put your arms around her, and then maybe blow dry her off.

Suspicion (1941), directed again by Hitchcock. This time Fontaine's the one with money, but she's also a plain Jane who thinks no man could love her until debonair Cary Grant enters her life. She opens her heart to him, and also takes off her glasses, thus revealing herself to be a ravishing beauty (even a director of such originality as Hitchcock couldn't avoid that cliche.) After she marries him, he's revealed to be a penniless, lying gambler, whom she suspects of wanting to murder her. Whether Grant wants to or not, you'll just have to wait until the end of the movie to find out. Until that happens, you'll want to take her in your arms, and then maybe tear up her life insurance policy.

 The Constant Nymph (1943) Another story of thwarted love, though the danger this time comes not from a mysterious stranger, but Fontaine's own heart. Literally. The 26-year old actress is quite convincing as a none-too-healthy teenager who falls in love with her piano teacher, played with effortless, it totally clueless, charm by Charles Boyer. He never realizes until it's too late that his pupil wants more than Beethoven from him. Another sensitive performance by Fontaine. You'll want to take her in your arms, and then maybe give her a nitroglycerin tablet.


Sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. In case you're wondering, it's Joan that changed her last name. The reason I'm showing so many pictures of the two is that I want to demonstrate that they were quite willing to smile prettily together for the camera when asked. The prettiness came easy enough, but apparently not the togetherness. They reportedly have not spoken to each other for the last 25 years, and obviously will never speak again, not in this world anyway. What cause the rift? Some say (actually, Joan) that Olivia was jealous that she didn't win an Oscar first. They also may have taken turns stealing boyfriends from each other. And when their mother died, Joan didn't know about it. An innocent mistake on Olivia's part, I'm sure. She probably just didn't have her sister's phone number.
I like both sisters, and wish it had ended on something resembling, however faintly, a positive note. I googled "Olivia de Havilland goes to Joan Fontaine's funeral". Nothing came up. I'm not sure there even wasor will be, a funeral. However, I did get this: Havilland said in a statement that she's shocked and saddened by her sister's death.
It's hard to think of shock and sadness as a positive note, but what the hell, I'll take it.


  1. Ok I wrote a wonderful in depth comment but somehow it didn't get posted !
    Really enjoyed most of the movies you mentioned
    Love Peter O'Toole.
    Lawrence of Arabia just so so. Blah blah blah sand sand sand blah blah.
    Adored " Bekett" and "The Lion In Winter" best movies ever.
    On one trip to England I saw the monument/alter ? Henry put up for his great friend Beckett (after he had him killed). English history is so very interesting everyone dies. I love looking around every church I can find. Every little castle/church on my map I drove to. Long trips.
    The movie I love best was My Favorite Year though. Just wonderful.
    There is a line in the movie that goes somewhat like this... I am not an actor I am a Movie Star. Must see if netflix has it.
    Adore Joan Fontaine . What a talented and beautiful Actress.
    Just saw Suspicion on TV the other day. Fabulous, the suspense and the lighting alone perfect. Hitchcock knew what he was doing. Rebecca is wonderful also.

    Great post as usual.

    Happy New Year !
    cheers, parsnip

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. parsnip, those old-time royals seemed more interested in killing each other than the serving their countrymen. But then they probably figured the countrymen were there to serve them.

    Incidentally, Henry II's son John ended up signing the Magna Carta, a forerunner of sorts to our own U.S. Constitution. Royals could still kill each other, but had to think twice before killing those under them.