The great actor, Peter O’Toole has announced his retirement from acting. Now aged 80, this idiosyncratic thespian said it was time to ‘chuck in the sponge’ and that he bids the profession ‘a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell’.
It’s a great loss because he was truly one of a kind; a powerful presence wrapped in a fragile beauty that captivated both stage and screen. In his youth, the Irish-born O’Toole was known as a hell-raising, hard-drinking iconoclast who played by his own rules. And even in his dotage, he projected a devil-may-care insouciance that was irresistible. He was always one of my favourites.
The real tragedy of this news, however, is that it means the towering O’Toole will never win his Oscar. True, he’s won BAFTAs, Golden Globes and an Emmy – and he even won an honorary Academy Award for his body of work (a poor consolation, somewhat akin to getting the Miss Personality prize at a beauty pageant). But he’s never won a proper acting Oscar, despite being nominated a record 8 times.
His last nomination was for Venus, in 2006, and I clearly remember his face when they announced Forest Whitaker as the winner for ‘The Last King of Scotland’. It was a brittle mask of civility that barely concealed an ocean of disappointment, frustration and resignation. I was gutted on his behalf.
And it is somewhat incomprehensible that this towering figure has never received the Oscar. From his breakthrough role as Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean’s masterpiece, to his show-stopping performance as Henry II in ‘The Lion in Winter’, to ‘The Ruling Class’, to ‘The Stunt Man’, to the ‘The Last Emperor’, to ‘My Favourite Year’, to ‘King Ralph’ – Peter O’Toole always transcended the material (whether good, bad or indifferent) to deliver an engaging performance every time.
Yet the old pro could never crack the Oscars and ruefully accepted his fate to be ever the bridesmaid, never the bride (hence his ‘dry-eyed’ comment above, IMHO).
Then again, why am I surprised at the 50 years of Academy snubbery? The Oscars are, after all, a pretty unreliable indicator of quality – especially in the glaring light of hindsight. Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award from his 5 nominations. Charlie Chaplin never won an Oscar (with only one real nomination). Stanley Kubrick (4 nominations), Robert Altman (5 nominations), Cecil B. DeMille (1 nomination), Orson Welles (1 nomination), Sam Peckinpah (no nominations) – none of these historically important directors ever got their hands on the golden statuette (apart from a couple who received an honorary ‘Miss Personality’ award, which don’t count).
The record’s no better when it comes to actors. Richard Burton (7 noms), Cary Grant (2 noms), Glenn Close (6 noms), Kirk Douglas (3 noms), Albert Finney (5 noms), Greta Garbo (4 noms), Deborah Kerr (6 noms), Peter Sellers (2 noms), Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Donald Sutherland, Fred Astaire and dozens of other significant figures never got the nod from the voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And yet Hilary Swank’s won two! It’s enough to make you choke on your popcorn.
And don’t even get me started on the winners for Best Picture…
So, with such a spotty track record, why are the Oscars still considered the gold standard for film excellence? Truthfully, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because AMPAS has the most recognisable statuette, with the best nickname. Or maybe it’s the expensive awards show. Or maybe their press agents are just really good. Or maybe it’s just a matter of heritage – the one thing in Hollywood that can’t be bought.
What I can tell you is that the membership of AMPAS (i.e. the people who vote) is neither diverse nor adventurous. Although the exact details are shrouded in secrecy, the LA Times has done some digging and come up with the following stats about the people who ultimately decide to whom the Oscar goes. And it’s no shock to discover that it all comes down to old, rich, white men.
In fact, out of the roughly 6000 members of AMPAS (lifetime membership by invitation only, BTW) 94% are white, 77% are male and 64% have never even received so much as an Oscar nomination – in fact only 50% have appeared onscreen in the last two years, and ‘hundreds’ haven’t worked on a film in decades. Furthermore, the average age of the Oscar voter is 62, with people under 50 comprising just 14% of the organisation.
Not that any of this matters, in the greater scheme of things. The Oscars will continue to peddle its particular blend of hype and hyperbole, and Peter O’Toole will go down in history as one of the greats – with or without an Academy Award on the mantle. I can only wish him a pleasant retirement and hope that he may still be coaxed out for the occasional role (he’d make a killer King Lear).
In conclusion, allow me to quote one of the most chilling and revealing discussions about war I’ve ever heard, from Lawrence of Arabia – delivered to perfection by the peerless Peter:
I killed two people. One was… yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was… well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
That’s to be expected.
No, something else.
Well, then let it be a lesson.
No… something else.
I enjoyed it.