These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye:
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follow upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, so much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye.
~ ‘These are the Clouds’
from The Green Helmet and Other Poems, W.B. Yeats (1910)
Another December day, another lion to mourn.
Peter O’Toole was an actor my Mother was absolutely determined I familiarised myself with some 30 or so years ago.
There was no choice or debate. I watched Lawrence of Arabia and read Seven Pillars of Wisdom later, as part of my education on World War I. Lawrence, Mother intoned, glossed over the man’s failings; & yet, O’Toole was ‘the most beautiful man alive’. The film striking in its maleness (no women have speaking roles), the violence – from the corralling of disparate Arab tribes & a massacre in which Lawrence seemed to relish, juxtaposed with the implication that Lawrence was homosexual, and endured a brutal rape at the hands of the Turks. The arbitrary lies of the Sykes-Picot Treaty drawing much of the modern map of the Middle East, and its enduring influence. All at the hands of men who neither understood nor respected those who had fought a war against oppression, not for an English King. Wars that rage today, still beyond understanding, astonishing in their brutality. The supporting cast one of cinema’s greatest – Guinness, Quinn, Sharif, Hawkins, Quayle, Ferrer – the making of the soaring scale of David Lean’s vision, yet all depended on O’Toole’s terrible, tortured, triumphal Lawrence. He didn’t falter, not once. Lawrence defined epic.
My Mother, not one to let up, insisted I watch The Lion in Winter, one of her favourite movies. For some reason, probably because she never shut up about it, I refused until I was in my thirties. In a way, I’m glad I held out. I’d read more Shakespeare; I knew the politics of marriage. From the opening frames, this is a clash of two giants. My god. O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. Eleanor of Aquitaine locked in battle over the succession of the crown of the husband who has exiled her from her lands & sons. Henry II’s contempt for the three. Richard (Antony Hopkins in his first film appearance) … yes, the Lionheart. Lover of the duplicitous Phillip, who plots with the foolish Geoffrey & John to raise hell against Henry. Eleanor, the wiser politician, prefers the Lionheart; Henry wants John to take the throne. Both did, the Cœur de Lion dying after battle & without a legal heir. John continued the Plantagenet line, divided by war but rulers for more than 300 years. The Lion in Winter is pivotal to O’Toole & Hepburn’s careers. His sparring and spurning of Hepburn earned her another Best Actress Oscar. O’Toole had no such reward, but named Hepburn as the actor he most enjoyed working with. This film helped O’Toole survive the boyish beauty of Lawrence to the louche caricature he became after serious illness & alcoholism. The Lion in Winter is on ABC 2 on 21 December at the absurd time of 11.35am. I urge you to watch it. Like my Mother, I won’t shut up about it until I hear from you.
Venus is O’Toole as an old man, the last vestiges of Lawrence stretched across his face. It’s an impossible ‘love’ story between a not quite dirty old man & the young woman he desires & names Venus. It’s sadly sweet, especially as he recites Sonnet No. 18, a wistful goodbye in a way. Forty something years after the Academy passed him over for Best Actor in Lawrence, he earned a final nod, but no award, unsurprising given Forest Whitaker’s masterclass in The Last King of Scotland and the ‘sympathy fuck’ honorary award he’d been given a few years before. I guess his peers thought he’d give the game away; they were wrong. O’Toole kept working. The roles might have been smaller, but he remained formidable. The twinkle-eyed old Casanova to David Tennant as his younger self. Old King Priam in Troy, stricken by the loss of his heir, Hector & staunch in his determination to claim the mutilated body of his son from the Greeks. The plotting Pope in The Tudors determined to punish Henry VIII for his heresy.
Go gentle, mischief-maker. Go join Burton & Harris in the special place reserved for the outrageously talented & perpetually pissed. Go gentle, great lion. Go joust the herculean Hepburn in the special place reserved for the impossibly gifted & single-minded stayers. Go gentle, old man. Go reconcile in the special place reserved for heedless husbands & rakish rogues.
Go gentle, O’Toole. Go to the special place reserved for you. Go flaxen-haired, faint echoed ‘El Awrens’, bewitching blue-eyed boy.