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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Recommended!: My Favorite Year (1982)


 
God dammit, Peter O'Toole has died. At 81 years of age it was certainly the end of a long life, robustly lived.

...And for much of the week that was all I was able to write about it. At this point, any piece you're going to read about O'Toole on a blog like this one is going to be more about the writer than about him. The news has already told you the details about his life and death, and now all people like me can offer is testimony. And we have to. We're impelled to.

The obits are all leading with Lawrence of Arabia, but MY Peter O'Toole will always be My Favorite Year.

O'Toole got another Oscar nomination for his performance as Allan Swan, a washed-up matinee idol guest-starring in a mid-1950s comedy variety show. Swan is ushered through the process by Benji Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a junior writer on the show who happens to be Swan's biggest fan. And though Stone is completely unsuccessful in his efforts to keep Swan away from booze, the two men become close friends during the run-up to the show. And when Swan is afflicted with stage fright when he finds out the show is broadcasting live, only some well-chosen, heartfelt words from Stone can get him out of his stupor, and into the role of his life.

It's been said about this role that O'Toole was largely playing himself, which is never a compliment. Yet I don't see it as a problem: yes, the role may well have hit close to home, and called upon O'Toole to address some very personal demons in the process. But that's par for the course in the art of acting. O'Toole draws on the larger-than-life, movie star presence that made his signature roles in Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Jim, and The Lion in Winter so compelling, but the subtler anarchy of some of his less familiar works (The Ruling Class and What's New Pussycat? among them) also manifest. (For example, Swan's hilarious surge into the 1812 overture while being carted up a staircase was an improv from O'Toole.) If he is playing himself, it's a deep, honest, occasionally unflattering likeness.

I know I'm not the only young, budding writer who projected himself onto Stone the first time I saw the film. (I suspect that My Favorite Year created as many writers as All The President's Men created journalists.) Linn-Baker plays his arc beautifully, letting us find out, as he does, that our heroes are as painfully human and fucked up as we are. It's a good lesson to learn at an impressionable age. And yet on his end of the relationship O'Toole remains heroic, moreso for giving his own humanity such direct expression. On our end we're closer to him, appreciative of his own difficulties in the relationship. We can certainly feel his energy lacking in the world, a Peter O'Toole shaped hole in reality (an energy beautifully encompassed in Tim Lucas' own tribute to the man, a piece less enamored of his work than the man himself). But his image lingers, his work remains. The joy he brought us remains, and we hold it to us, and step forward.

Here's to the Musketeer Idiot.

And thank you.


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