By Andrew LeMay
Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar.
No matter how many times I tell myself this fact, it still seems impossible. Surely he must’ve gotten one, right? But no, eight times he was nominated for Best Actor, and eight times he was denied. Going zero for eight seems statistically unlikely for anyone, but the fact that it happened to one of the greatest actors in film history makes it outright insulting.
In an attempt to figure out why the hell Hollywood did this, I’ve decided to take a closer look at each of the performances for which he was nominated. I probably won’t uncover any decades-long Hollywood plot or some kind of Warren Beatty-style snafu with the envelopes, but I think I can paint a portrait of the high points of the man’s career, and underscore just how ridiculous it is that he never won the highest praise for them.
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I want to begin with a film that, while not one of his better known works, sums up so much of the allure that O’Toole exuded on-screen: 1982’s My Favorite Year.
The film’s title comes from its opening narration, when its protagonist, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) tells us, “1954, you don’t get years like that anymore. It was my favorite year.” Stone writes sketches for The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade, a sketch comedy show based on real programs like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. (Stone himself is based, partially, on a young Mel Brooks, who was a writer for Caesar early in his career.)
Writing jokes for a living is obviously a sweet gig, but it gets even sweeter when Benjy learns the show has booked one of its most famous guests: Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), an Errol Flynn-esque swashbuckling action star. Stone adores Swann and can quote the scripts of hits like Captain From Tortuga and Defender of the Crown verbatim. So, when he learns he’s going to work with the man, he goes through the roof.
There’s only one slight hiccup: Swann is a raging alcoholic who hasn’t had a box-office hit in years. When he arrives at the Cavalcade’s studio, he bursts into the writers’ room, barely able to stand. The show’s head writer, Sy Benson (Bill Macy) clearly sees this and exclaims “He’s plastered!” to which Swan suavely replies, “So are some of the finest erections in Europe!”
He then attempts to prove his sobriety by doing a somersault, only to flop onto the writers’ table and pass out, spread-eagle. The show’s staff, including head-honcho Stan “King” Kaiser, decide it’s best to dump the washed-up Swann, but Benjy begs them not to, promising that he will make sure that Swann stays sober for the week of rehearsals and the episode’s recording. King agrees, but makes it clear that if he fails, and Swann ruins the show, it’ll be Benjy’s ass on the line.
Over the course of the next week, Benjy attempts to steer Swann away from any temptation to drink. Of course, this doesn’t quite work out, and hijinks ensue. As Swann romps through New York with Benjy close behind, we see O’Toole’s underappreciated gift for physical comedy on full display.
Take for instance, the scene following Swann’s introduction to the show’s writers. Benjy and Swann’s driver, Alfie Bumbacelli (Tony DiBenedetto), tie Swann to the top of his suitcase and have two butlers drag him step-by-step up to his penthouse. As they heave him up each step, Swann theatrically waves his arms, like some kind of insane, drunken conductor. When they get him to his room, Alfie ties Swann’s hands to a coathanger and proceeds to take his clothes off. O’Toole rolls back and forth along the wall, declaring “Oh my god, I’m blind!” when his hat falls over his eyes. This scene would resemble some kind of torture sequence if it didn’t end with the two men leaving the drunk star in a relaxing bubble bath.
Swann’s inebriated acrobatics are hilarious to us, but he himself cannot find much humor in his performing life. He admits to Benjy that “Comedy is a mystery to me,” and quotes the actor Edmund Keane’s famous phrase, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Swann’s ridiculous antics also contrast his disappointment with his own life. His career is at its tail-end, and he doesn’t feel very accomplished. Amplifying this sense of failure is his estrangement from his own family, including his 12-year old daughter. For all his cinematic heroics and worldwide fame, he can’t help but feel like a fraud.
And to top it all off, “Alan Swann” is just a stage name; his real name, he tells Benjy, is Clarence Duffy. “Nothing about me is what it seems to be,” he says after this revelation.
His feelings of inadequacy reach their peak on Friday night, when the show finally airs. After surviving a week of drunken escapades (including one instance of “mountaineering” down the side of a high-rise apartment building), Benjy and Swan somehow arrive to the studio on time. Swann is all set to go until Benjy mentions the live audience.
“Live? What’s live?…You mean it just goes into the cameras and spills into people’s living rooms?!” he asks Benjy. Swan reveals he has only performed live once in his career (he had one line and forgot it), and the prospect of doing it again scares him to death. “I’m not an actor!” he shouts. “I’m a movie star!”
Swan heads for the exit and grabs the first bottle of liquor he can put his hands on. He roars at Benjy, “Look at me! I’m flesh and blood, life sized, no larger! I’m not that silly goddamn hero. I never was!” But Benjy’s having none of his excuses, telling him, whether he likes it or not, he needs to be “that silly goddamn hero.”
“What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked!” Benjy screams back at him. He implores Swann to find the courage he showed in his films, telling him it had to be in there somewhere since “no one’s that good an actor.” He then storms off to the set, leaving Swann to his own devices.
Things are not going so great there. King Kaiser, having mocked the corrupt labor leader Boss Rojack on a previous show, is in a fight for his life with the henchmen the Boss sent to teach him a lesson. The tide suddenly turns when Swann appears, swings down from the balcony (in full Musketeer outfit for the skit he’s supposed to do), and helps King fight off the Boss’s henchman. Swan finds his courage, saves the day, and gives Benjy’s “favorite year” its shining moment.
In so many ways, Alan Swann is a reflection of Peter O’Toole. They not only have similar life trajectories–O’Toole was also a famous drunk whose habits destroyed a marriage–but the feelings they provoke in their fans are strikingly similar as well. I’ve never thought of his characters as “silly goddamn heroes,” but they were larger than life figures that he managed to not just embody but give new life. Take Lawrence of Arabia, for example: when you hear that name, you’re far more likely to picture Peter O’Toole than the real T.E. Lawrence. His performance didn’t just mirror history, but reshaped it.
My Favorite Year displays O’Toole’s power to capture the imagination in this way, but it does so while also revealing his vulnerability. While there are plenty of vulnerable moments in O’Toole’s other films, only this film shows him so defenseless as an actor. Seeing O’Toole through the lens of Alan Swann, we see that, despite being a man capable of mighty performances, he is still just a man, with fears and doubts about his own abilities and adequacy. These competing facets of Swann’s (and O’Toole’s) character are central to what make this film such a wonderful depiction of cinematic stardom. Behind stars like Swann or O’Toole, there’s both courage and cowardice. And while their performances may be illusions, that doesn’t mean some truth doesn’t lie beneath them.
I can’t definitively say whether or not O’Toole deserved Best Actor for My Favorite Year (he lost out to typically tough competition: Ben Kingsley for Gandhi). But maybe more so than any of his other films, this one underscores the wide range of performances he is capable of, while also giving us some insight into the tolls such work can take on an actor. In the end, it shows us actors like O’Toole are still just flesh and blood, and that the courage and charisma they exude on screen is something we can all tap into.