Wednesday, 6 July 2011

On Any Other Year: Gregory Peck vs. Peter O'Toole

Ah, Atticus Finch; devoted parent, defender of the oppressed and the American Film Institute's greatest hero in movie history. To Kill a Mockingbird was a peerless adaptation of one of the most ground-breaking books of the 20th century, and at the centre of it all was Gregory Peck as the saintly and crusading Finch. In an era when heroes were heroes, Atticus Finch was arguably the greatest of them all, and Peck had the role of a lifetime. He would never forget how lucky he was to be given the part.

At around about the same time of Mockingbird's release, a very different type of hero rode his camel into the limelight and attempted to steal Finch's thunder. That man was T.E. Lawrence or, rather, Peter O'Toole, a complete unknown who had just starred in the epic to end all epics - Lawrence of Arabia. 

O'Toole's performance is also on the American Film Institutes's list of heroes (number 10) but his actions are far more ambiguous in their virtue. Lawrence is portrayed as an egotist who, by the end of the film, actively engages in a massacre and is on the brink of losing all sense of perspective. However, O'Toole's endless charisma and gravitas leave the viewer remembering Lawrence for his bravery and bravado; the man who turned back to rescue Gasim in the desert, rather than the bloodthirsty avenger he becomes.

Charisma and gravitas are two great strengths that were also possessed by Gregory Peck, and he showed it in spades in his portrayal of Finch. Mockingbird's author, Harper Lee, once said of Peck that "Atticus Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself." Peck often compared his own childhood to that of Scout and Jem in the book and his love for the character and understanding of the film's themes and messages shine through in his performance. Firm and disciplined, yet tender and reassuring, Peck not only convinces as a caring father, but as a lawyer who does his utmost to defend an innocent black man from prejudice and injustice.

For Peck not to win the 1963 Oscar for Best Actor would have been a crime. In my view it is one of cinema's greatest ever performances and perhaps the most perfect piece of casting in a book-to-film adaptation. It is such a shame, then, that Peter O'Toole role as T.E. Lawrence happened to be in the same year.

Poor Peter O'Toole, a man with 8 Best Actor nominations to his name, but not a single win (honorary awards do not count). Lawrence of Arabia remains his best performance and the most deserving of those nominations. For an unknown actor to burst onto the scene in such an epic way is remarkable. The sheer amount of effort required for the role would make other actors balk at the task. The fatigue was genuine, the shoot was notoriously arduous and O'Toole was nearly killed when he fell of his camel. But what we got at the end of it was a film that will never be forgotten, despite its flaws, and a central performance that stands out among the miles of desert and thousands of extras on display. On any other year, O'Toole would have Oscar glory. Forty-Eight years later, he is still waiting.

On Any Other Year takes on the Best Actress category once more next time. Anne Bancroft, Katharine Hepburn (again!), and Faye Dunaway make a hell of a line-up, but how exactly did the Academy choose between them?

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