Saturday, January 4, 2014

What *else* were they in? Deceased Artistes Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole

The two biggest names to die toward the end of this year were without question Joan Fontaine and Peter O’Toole. I wanted to spotlight them and yet I have a basic problem: I’m not a very big fan of their most famous films. Rebecca is clearly Fontaine’s best-remembered film (a classic melodrama with suspsenseful bits, but to me it’s far more of a Selznick movie than a Hitchcock film), and when Peter O’Toole’s name is mentioned, he has been, and will forever be, inevitably linked with Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (a classic to be sure, but not my cup of tea).

So what to do when one has little interest in the “greatest hits” of the two most famous DAs of the end of 2013? Just shift the spotlight over a little and cover the other films in which they made very positive impressions.

First things first about Ms. Fontaine – the story that consumed every one of her obits was the fact that she and her older sister Olivia de Havilland (of whom I am a very big fan) never got over their feud. The most detailed account of the difficulties can be found in this Hollywood Reporter blog entry.

There were numerous reasons for the feud (verbal slights, awkward moments in public, “mom loved you best”), but it made great press because both ladies were Oscar winners who were two of the sole remaining goddesses of Hollywood's Golden Age (both can be quickly i.d.'ed in Thirties movies, whereas the remaining female stars – Maureen O'Hara, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell – seem more closely linked to the Forties and after).

Here is a segment from a CBC interview in which Fontaine talks about her sister:

There are numerous wonderful clips featuring Fontaine found online – including this nice moment with monster-movie icon Dwight Frye – but it's certain that the most suspenseful movie that she appeared in was the film she won the Best Actress Oscar for, Hitchcock's 1941 Suspicion.

Unlike Rebecca, the film is truly a Hitchcock picture from beginning to end, but the studio-mandated ending – in which Cary Grant could *not* be the wife-killer he's suspected to be – takes the air out of the picture in all subsequent viewings.

The film still has its bravura moments, but the fact that the picture hinges on whether Cary is or isn't a killer – and despite all evidence to the contrary (he definitely SEEMS like the killer...) he isn't – makes the film a less-rewatchable Hitch opus. Still there are perfect Expressionist moments like this one:

For those of us who do not cotton to Rebecca, the best film starring Fontaine is Max Ophuls' beautiful Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948). It is a timeless romance that just happens to be set at the turn of the last century. Here is a wonderful sequence featuring Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in a “train ride” amusement:

She also starred as a bitchy character in Nicholas Ray's torrid Born to Be Bad (1950). Sort of a noir, but more of a “meller,” it's fun to see her playing a villainess:

In Ida Lupino's The Bigamist (1953), Fontaine was one of Edmond O'Brien's two wives (the gals went crazy for Edmond O'Brien, just crazy!). The film is another well-made “melo” that is notable for the fact that one of its scripters, Collier Young, was married to Fontaine at the time of the production and had earlier been married to Lupino. Women apparently went crazy for Collier, as well.

Serenade (1956) is yet another Fontaine melodrama that might've been a noir, had they more closely adapted the wonderfully lurid and intense James M. Cain novel that the movie is based on. All mention of the lead character's bisexuality is gone, and instead... well, he's Mario Lanza....

Fontaine was mostly an addend character – “the supportive wife” – in a number of the noirs she was in. Witness Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), Fritz Lang's last American film, in which she supports her husband (Dana Andrews) as he pretends to be a murderer (long story...).

Fontaine's career ended with a number of roles in the television, from the Sixties through the early Nineties (she even did a guest-star turn on The Love Boat!). Here she in a delightful chunk of The Mike Douglas Show in 1967.

This end segment of the program finds her (as co-host) participating in a cooking segment and hanging around watching as both Stevie Wonder and Rudy Vallee sing (separately). All the guests close out the show sitting on stools singing like Vallee (through megaphones) and then dancing under the guidance of dance instructor “Killer Joe” Piro. This really is Sixties daytime TV:

And Mr. O'Toole, who had an even stranger and more tortuous career than Ms. Fontaine, appeared in several items that I enjoy far more than Lean's Lawrence.
For a wonderful look at what O'Toole was like right after he achieved movie stardom, check out this wonderful profile by Gay Talese, written for Esquire in 1963. O'Toole came off as a posh Englishman in his demeanor, but he was in fact the proud son of an Irish bookie (whose feelings about his home country were, “Ireland... you can love it... can't live in it...”).

He was the same age as those who took part in the “kitchen sink” era of British filmmaking (his classmates at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art included Finney and Bates, and he was, of course, a drinking buddy of both Messrs. Burton and Harris), but he never made that kind of film – he was just too damned good-looking and regal to play a working-class lad who can't decide on a future. (His own description of his background was not working-class, but “criminal class,” due to his dad's exploits and the people he lived among.)

Thus, you have a much in-demand Sixties UK actor who never appeared in the British films that were so much a part of that decade. Instead O'Toole incarnated historical characters and the occasional swinging bachelor. He was a critically lauded performer who also was drubbed at various points, from the Sixties on, for not having lived up to his potential (a common complaint about the “kitchen sink” generation – who all at least had several great movies under their belts, not just one).

He was also known most commonly for being a “hellraiser.” There are hellraisers among us in every strata of society, but there is a special fascination for the successful and rich actors (most often from the UK) who ran amok in the Sixties and Seventies. The book Hellraisers by Robert Sellers is a fun multiple-bio of four of the best drinkers of that era (Burton, O'Toole, Harris, Reed). In it you will find a good amount of “bathroom reading” – fun anecdotes about bad behavior among the talented and rich.
A “hellraisers” TV docu, which can be seen here, gets the formula wrong, since it adds in rock stars (Moon, Osbourne, Liam Gallagher). Rock stars are generally *supposed* to be hellraisers, so there is little surprise there – the thing that distinguished the generation of Burton and O'Toole was that they were immaculately talented, classically trained actors who wound up being charming, troublemaking drunks in public.

O'Toole, it should be noted, was the least violent of that pack. His main problem appeared to be driving – he was prone to drinking while driving, which is never a good bet. Here he discusses show-biz “exhaustion” with another gent who had a drinking problem (that is fascinatingly only being doted on now, even though all the anecdotes about him were known while he was alive and being worshipped).

Hopefully Peter tanked up before this shameless bit o' Irishness, with the old stone face, Mr. Ed Sullivan, “Irish Eyes are Smiling”:

This is a little bit more like it – unrepentant rugger fan Harris joined by O’Toole. I'm sure both men consumed no spirits at any time before this singing session began. Celebrate they should – they outlived all the other hellraisers of their day! (Except for the wonderful Mr. Finney, but he never publicly chats about his private life.)

In his late years O'Toole was willing to be very silly on the telly. Here he guests on a show called TFI Friday, reciting Spice Girls lyrics:

In a much more sober fashion, here he is on a BBC panel show discussing Hamlet with le grand Orson:

But now to O'Toole's career. I will not delve into that Lean flick, but will instead leapfrog to the wonderful Becket (1964). It was the first of two appearances as King Henry II – the other was, of course, Lion in Winter (1968) costarring “the only woman who can act with [British actors] without being washed off the screen” (per SCTV's “Man Who Would Be King of the Popes”), Katharine Hepburn.

Here is a glorious O'Toole moment from Becket (the whole movie can be found here. He doesn't like his children!!!

O'Toole was so scarily handsome (many would say pretty, including the quippy Noel Coward, who dubbed him “Florence of Arabia”) that it was natural for him to play a wish-projection of Woody Allen. He starred as a sex-crazed playboy in the first film made from a Woody screenplay, Clive Donner's What's New, Pussycat? (1965).

Here is a little montage of scenes from the pic – O'Toole's was surrounded by gorgeous actresses, while Peter Sellers and Woody served as crazy comic relief. Some of the dialogue is very fondly remembered, but O'Toole's seductions are very well served by the great super-pop score by Burt Bacharach:

If I had to pick one film that featured the “perfect” O'Toole performance, it would be probably be the dark comedy The Ruling Class (1972), directed by Peter Medak. His transformation from a nobleman who believes he is Jesus to a nobleman who is the new Jack the Ripper is sheer bliss, since it let him indulge in his “bravura acting” (his term for the over-the-top places he went to as a performer) and conveyed an always-timely message about politics and public opinion:

O'Toole had many health scares (not all of them connected to his consumption of spirits), starting in the Seventies. He looks incredibly well, and gives a killer performance, in Richard Rush's terrific reflection on filmmaking The Stunt Man (1980). One of many sequences in which his director character assumes the mantle of deity:

Obviously aware of his public image as a hellraiser, O'Toole appeared in countless films as a drinker – I noticed in the Eighties and Nineties that his characters in various films were seen drinking (as in Supergirl and High Spirits), perhaps to explain his somewhat perennially tipsy demeanor.

The most famous of his many “drunk” parts was the lead in My Favorite Year (1982), where he plays a funhouse-mirror version of Errol Flynn. Much like his character in The Stunt Man, this character is used to making pronouncements about himself:

O'Toole was quite proud of his theatrical pedigree, often returning to the stage and attempting challenging parts to see if he still had it. He very much did, as the TV recording of the play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell shows (the video was recorded in 1999; O'Toole starred in the play in different productions staged in 1989, '91, and '99).

O'Toole stars as real-life journalist Jeffrey Bernard. The play finds Bernard locked overnight in his favorite bar, offering an opportunity for him to run through his career and his beliefs (while getting suitably tanked). O'Toole delivers a bravura performance in the show by ratcheting up his larger-than-life personality and then tamping it down at various points.

The play was written by Keith Waterhouse, a UK TV writer who also wrote Billy Liar (the screenplay and original novel) and the scripts for A Kind of Loving and Whistle Down the Wind. Thanks to friend Merry for the recommendation of his item.

Hard to pick a favorite line from the play, but this will suffice: “Why do you drink so much? To keep myself from jogging.”

It's always important to close out with a song, so I will conclude here with the raucous version of “Dem Bones” from The Ruling Class. One can't help but think that the film's scripter Peter Barnes dug up this old chestnut because of the last episode of The Prisoner; the song of course was also done to a fine turn in Potter's The Singing Detective.

O'Toole embraced his eccentricities, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Ruling Class:

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