For an opening fanfare, allow me pull out a very worn but surprisingly crisp vinyl copy of Aladdin Sane
, if only on the fuzztone grounds that Bowie was once dubbed the Peter O'Toole of rock. (Surely the coolest compliment Davy ever got.) On that sporadic Lawrence-of-Suburbia platter, he did a pretty decent job of translating the great Peter's highly charismatic personal idiom into the prevailing Rock/Paper/Scissors guitar lingo of Stones, Velvets, and Stooges. (Look in the darkened rear view mirror and you can just make out Morrissey lip-synching every ardently baroque syllable.) "Oh honey," our hard-charging leader swoons at the very thought of himself, "watch that man!
Of late I've been keeping tabs on O'Toole himself as he shuffles along the talk show circuit like some ancient extraterrestrial raconteur, reminding us even at such a late date that no film actor has ever been more fun to watch. (That many of his finest exploits seem to have taken place off screen and off the reservation, in barrooms and bedrooms and police stations, has done nothing at all to diminish his stature.)
It seems Letterman and Stewart (that would be Jon, not Martha) remember him primarily for Lawrence of Arabia and perhaps not so very much else beyond his beautifully well-oiled mystique. (I'm thinking costumed period pieces like The Lion in Winter haven't found much favor beyond charter members of the AARP.) But O'Toole's greatest gift ultimately wasn't for stirring, superficially complicated heroic figures; his true forte was instead the wily, wildly romantic-satiric madman. (There was just enough of that in his Lawrence to keep him from being insufferable.) As the lyrically alcoholic Errol Flynn-type in My Favorite Year, the film director playing sardonic God in The Stunt Man, and the longhaired aristocrat who thinks he's Jesus Christ in The Ruling Class (a perfectly understandable mistake under the circumstances), O'Toole hit notes of lovely, nuanced dementia no one else has touched.
Even in his soul-aching, big-blue-eyed 1960s matinee idol prime, he was always this wondrous anachronism, a man whose tousled Byronic air gradually revealed an almost infinite capacity for bravura theatrical mischief. He made a perfect screen Lawrence because he combined modern attributes ? a proper dash of sexual ambiguity, angst, self-loathing and doubt ? with rapt movie-star glamour: your basic shimmering action-hero Hamlet, an existential Valentino. (What could be more existential than a Valentino stranded in a desert without women?) A persona he soon enough parleyed into a bunch of mainly bad but well-paying movies and a reputation for disturbing the peace far more in life than on film.
But Christ a-mighty ("You called?"), The Ruling Class was merely the grandest piece of anarchist vaudeville since the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. O'Toole held the whole sprawling, dottily savage two and a half hour Buñuel-meets-P.G.-Wodehouse farce together with his transcendent timing and delivery ? pound for pound, this is the most engaging single performance I've ever laid eyes on.
And that in roundabout nutshell (one exactly large enough to hold the 14th Earl of Gurney and his effects) is what I love about pop culture: a potential for a distilled audacity that High Art Statements so often sublimate in intellectual anal retentiveness. Like so many figures from the 20th Century, O'Toole's Gurney liked to lounge on his own personal cross. Only he kept his right in the main hall, bigger than life and twice as unnatural. A distressed visitor wonders what that thing is supposed to be. "Watusi walking stick," crows O'Toole, turning the words over in his mouth. "Big people, the Watusi." Spoken like a giant in a world of Pygmies.