It has been a terrible week, because of the loss of two wonderful voices and faces.
At 81, Peter O’Toole died on 14th December . At 96, a day later, Joan Fontaine. O’Toole, who never won a proper best actor Oscar, emitted sparks even when standing still, his eyes piercing the screen so vividly, Paul Newman’s looked beige by comparison.
Fontaine worked in a more confidential key, often as a tremulous naif caught in one web or another. But O’Toole, a masterly externalist, and Fontaine, more of an interior dweller, had one thing in common: eyes that told a story. Fontaine once said it was director George Cukor, on “The Women,” who taught her to do less, to “think and feel and the rest will take care of itself.” O’Toole knew that as well, but what size he had as a performer! The brio was incomparable. When he trumpets in “My Favorite Year”: “I’m not an actor! I’m a movie star!” it’s a lie and the truth in the same dashing, sloshed, irresisitble pronouncement.
Every obituary and appreciation of O’Toole begins and ends with “Lawrence of Arabia,” the David Lean film that made O’Toole a star. But if you’ve never seen it, take the time to see “The Stunt Man.” Here, as a reckless, charismatic film director who may be the devil himself, a mid-career O’Toole found a role ideally suited to his air of elegantly debauched integrity. Funny, terrifying, blithely amoral: a role on which to feast.
There’s a 1963 BBC television interview featuring O’Toole and Orson Welles mixing it up on the subject of “Hamlet,” in which O’Toole had one of his great early theatrical triumphs. You can see the seasoned tragedian in O’Toole, even when he’s cracking wise. “Why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius when he had the chance?” asks the interviewer. Quick as a wink: “Because there’d be no play if he had.”
In 2011 Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne interviewed O’Toole on stage, during TCM’s film festival in Hollywood. “Like Kate Hepburn I think O’Toole felt the greatest sin would be to not fascinate,” Osborne wrote me after O’Toole’s death. “Almost 80 at that time, he no longer looked like Lawrence (years of booze and drugs had done much damage). But the eyes still twinkled and he still possessed that extra-kilowatt ‘it’ factor that one has to have to be a star — something special which can’t be bought or acquired, that’s either there at birth or never surfaces.”
Fontaine will forever be best known for “Rebecca” and another Hitchcock film, “Suspicion,” for which she won her Oscar.
But the film to see, I think, if you don’t know her work well, comes a little later.
In “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” directed by the peerless Max Ophuls, Fontaine breaks your heart as the heartsick Vienna woman who can’t imagine a life without the rakish pianist played by Louis Jourdan. He can very easily imagine a life without her, and does. Fontaine’s work here is so delicately shaded, so sweetly moving in its delineation of an innocent, tarnished, you may wonder (if the film is indeed new to you) why Fate has kept the film, and Ophuls, away from you for so long.
Actors? Movie stars? The best were, and are, both.
Rest in peace.