Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers

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Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers

London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2015.

It’s always a mistake for any biography to announce itself as ‘definitive’ in the title: it invites contradiction; and on the evidence of reading Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, it will not be the last word on the great star: the interior life, what drove him at different stages in his life, even why so many of his film performances continue to thrill when the films themselves don’t, are questions the book does not answer satisfactorily.

But to say that it is not definitive is not to say that it is not good. In fact it’s the best one we’ve got so far and Robert Sellers has conducted dozens of new interviews, dug up and clarified essential facts that we did not know or which were not clear before – for example, he firmly establishes that whilst his father was Irish and his mother Scottish, O’Toole himself was born in Leeds – and we even get charming nuggets such as the following: ‘O’Toole left RADA, aged twenty-three, with a little blue book that every student was given upon graduation, The RADA Keepsake and Counsellor. It gave indispensable advice for the rocky road that lay ahead, gems like: ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the job as long as the shoes you were wearing at the audition were clean.’

Sellers is very good at contextualising O’Toole’s first steps as an actor. We learn that O’Toole ended up in the same class at RADA as Albert Finney and Alan Bates; actors who would really come into their own and symbolise a new type of British cinema in the sixties. Interestingly, of these, and even if one were to include his great friend Richard Harris, O’Toole is the one who would remain least associated with the dominant currents of British Cinema in this period. He’s got no equivalent to Finney’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Harris’ This Sporting Life and Bates is almost exclusively associated with British Cinema (Georgy Girl, Women in Love, The Go-Between, Far From the Madding Crowd, etc.). O’Toole was different. His first big splash was in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, where Noel Coward quipped he was so pretty he should have been called Florence of Arabia. It was a ‘runway production’; British story, director etc. but also international money and international stars (Anthony Quinn, Omar Shariff); a typical Sam Spiegel production. And it’s interesting that many of O’Toole’s greatest success or most famous films of the 60s would have strong associations with Britain but all be in one way or another ‘international’: Becket, Lion in Winter, Lord Jim, Goodbye Mr. Chips, even, in different ways, What’s New Pussycat.

Sellers is marvellous at illuminating his work in theatre. He interviews lots of his contemporaries, co-stars, people who worked with him in various capacities and their accounts are vivid and illuminating. We do get real insight into his time at the Bristol Old Vic, his star-making turn at the Royal Court and the West End in The Long and the Short and the Tall in 59, his legendary performance as Shylock at Stratford for Peter Hall, the famously disastrous Macbeth in 1980 and of course late triumphs such as Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. These aspects of the book are excellent .

The personal life, his relationship with his father and with his son, with his two wives and two daughters, all of these are sketched out clearly if a bit unsatisfactorily, though the fault here might be more with this reader’s wanting to know more than with the way the book tells it. Certainly Sellers seems to have had unprecedented access to the family and to personal papers, all of which are put to good use in the book.

The picture is of a star who continues to dazzle, a man with somewhat bipolar tendencies who drank to unconsciousness during one part of his life and until his body could take it no more; a selfish but good man; a literary man who delighted in performing and in the admiration and applause of others. This is all vividly sketched. So why the grumbling? I suppose I would have wanted more on the film career; that’s what we see now; that’s what matters disproportionally now; that was a large part of his life then. As the book makes clear, he loved being a film star. Lastly, I don’t think we get enough of a sense of who Peter O’Toole was as a person; his actions are clearly narrated and well-documented by the book; his fears, dreams, desires still remain opaque. I suppose we can consult O’Toole’s own excellent autobiographies: Loitering With Intent: The Child and Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice. But they’re only partially revealing, and only on that period before he became famous. Nonetheless, these are perhaps the grumblings of a fan: Sellers’ book tells us so much more than we already knew that it’s begrudging to criticise him for not telling us as much as we want to know. Thus the book might not be definitive. But it is essential to anyone who wants to know more about Peter O’Toole.

José Arroyo

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