A writer who has mastered the art of breezy brilliance on an actor who mastered the art of casual splendor—drink in these three paragraphs and wonder if Lane realized that when he described O'Toole's voice, he was describing a little bit of his own.
No matter. I'm in love with them both.
A fertile start to the nineteen-eighties, for example, with “The Stunt Man” (1980) and “My Favorite Year” (1982), was followed by five years of near-drought; then came “The Last Emperor,” much of it confined to the Forbidden City, where O’Toole played a Scotsman who is employed to tutor a living god. This was just the kind of role he relished—courteously stiff but pliably amused, far too urbane to be shocked, and perfectly at home with modes of life that other men might shy from as surreal. “Nothing is written,” he had declared, as T. E. Lawrence, and here was a new twist on that dictum: no city was forbidden. As the Chinese emperor played tennis, O’Toole sat in the umpire’s chair and called out the score, with such aplomb that a stranger, wandering past the court, might have wondered who was the deity here, and who the hired hand. A small army intruded, interrupting play and giving the Emperor an hour to pack and leave. The Scotsman remained aloft, alone, and aloof, while, all around, a dynasty hastened to its end.
O’Toole was not Scottish, of course; nor was he the fair Englishman who, on a starlit night in the desert, in the midst of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” informs his Hashemite guide that he hails from Oxfordshire—“a fat country.” He was Irish, as tall and slim and unsnappable as a Malacca cane, and one regret, for his moviegoing fans, was that they saw and heard far less of O’Toole the Celt than their theatre-loving counterparts were privileged to enjoy. Onstage, he did a lot of Shaw: Peter Shirley in “Major Barbara,” Jack Tanner in “Man and Superman,” King Magnus in “The Apple Cart,” and Henry Higgins in “Pygmalion.” The part of Tanner—the bachelor anarchist who assumes the part of Don Juan, in the third act, for a debate with the Devil—was close to O’Toole’s heart; it was filmed, but only for TV. Shavian testiness became him well, as you would imagine, but no less important was a profound belief that the gab was more than a gift; it was a glory, to be polished and brandished as Joyce and Shaw had taught us, and it was also a passport that helped you to cross all frontiers and sail through the most trying or chastening of situations. As the tutor pointed out, in old Peking, “If you cannot say what you mean, Your Majesty, you cannot mean what you say; and a gentleman always means what he says.”
The obituaries that latched onto O’Toole’s misdeeds as a boozer missed the point, or grabbed only half of it. Like many stars, he was actually twin stars, fused together; within his nature, the gentleman cohabited with the fearsome rake, just as, within his Lawrence, something fey and dreamy, bordering dangerously on the camp, consorted with the unappeased ferocity of the warrior. Both facets shone in his sapphire stare. And that voice! By what miracle of instinct did Lean manage to cast a man who sounded, even before he reached the desert, as though his words had been naturally sanded? He could strike his consonants hard, as Laurence Olivier did, but with less of a cluck, and that soft, rasping croon of his, when he chose to deploy it, had the ominous effect of making you want to stop the action and offer him a drink. This may be sheer coincidence, but one thing that bound O’Toole to the pack that he ran with, in his lurid years, was that all of them—Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed—had speaking tones so rich and nectared that the rest of us could get drunk on them as they poured into our ears. What drove the hell-raisers, heaven knows; were they wasting talent, drowning sorrow, making hay, or raising their glasses as a complaint against the world for not being a fraction as beautiful as their words would have it be?
Time for another go-round with Burton and O'Toole in their eternal Becket.