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December 15, 2013 9:09 PM R.I.P. Joan Fontaine and Peter O’Toole

By Kathleen Geier

We lost two great acting talents today. Peter O’Toole, who was 81, and Joan Fontaine, who was 96. I always feel melancholy at the passing of figures like these two. It’s a reminder that the film culture they were a part of, and that I am such a huge fan of, is receding ever further into the distant past.

Joan Fontaine, for instance, was one of the last remaining survivors of the classic Hollywood era; her 97-year old sister (and lifelong rival) Olivia de Havilland is one of the only other major stars from that period who is still alive today. Beautiful, demure, and elegant, Fontaine made her Hollywood debut in 1935. She appeared in over a dozen films before she finally got her big break: being cast as the second Mrs. Max de Winter in the Hitchcock classic, Rebecca, in 1940. For a fascinating case study in the art of acting, compare Joan Fontaine’s screen test for Rebecca to Vivien Leigh’s. Vivien Leigh was a great actress, fresh from her triumph in Gone with the Wind. But she’s just not nailing the part, while Fontaine inhabits it with naturalness and warmth.

Rebecca proved to be one of Fontaine’s most enduring films; check out Steve Hayes’ fun video review for more on why it remains one of the most irresistible entertainments of its era. Two words: Mrs. Danvers!

Fontaine won an Oscar for the second film she made with Hitchcock, Suspicion (1941). But to me, her greatest performance, and film, will always be the haunting melodrama she made with the great Max Ophuls, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Playing a woman in the grips of romantic obsession, she showed a depth and range (the character she plays ages from a schoolgirl to mature woman) she’d never revealed before. Farran Smith Nehme is correct; Letter from an Unknown Woman is “the greatest woman’s picture of all time.” You can read Nehme’s wonderful essay on that remarkable film here.

Fontaine made many other highly watchable movies, including two films in which this quintessential nice girl proved highly adept at roles that required her to break bad: Nicholas Ray’s semi-noir Born to Be Bad (1950) and the period melodrama Ivy (1947). In the 50s and 60s, Fontaine transitioned to theater and to television, where in 1994 she made he last film. The classic Hollywood actors who were starring in films in the 30s have, sadly, dwindled down to just a few survivors. Besides De Havilland, there’s Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, and Luise Rainer. Other than them, I think that’s it.

Peter O’Toole was only 15 years younger than Fontaine, but they came from such different worlds that it feels like at least a couple of generations should have separated them. While Fontaine was old school Hollywood, O’Toole was part of a new breed of frequently rebellious, British stage-turned-film actors that included such major talents as Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Anthony Hopkins, and Richard Harris. Born and raised in Ireland, O’Toole attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art between 1952 and 1954 and soon after, was making his mark as a Shakespearean actor on the London stage.

The movie that made him a star and for which he will primarily be remembered is, of course, is David Lean’s magnificent Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Sheila O’Malley’s 2012 essay on that film includes a detailed and insightful analysis of O’Toole’s performance. She pays tribute to O’Toole’s “sheer mystery and odd-ness”:

O’Toole’s [performance] becomes more mysterious the more you watch it. But it’s all there in his haunting bizarre eyes, which seem to take in all that is before him, but also appear to be always looking deeply inward. At what, we can never know. O’Toole is playing The Man, but he is also playing The Myth.

O’Toole’s performance as Lawrence is iconic and indelible. And yet, like O’Malley, when I heard about O’Toole’s death, I, too, immediately thought not of Lawrence of Arabia, but the 1982 comedy, My Favorite Year.

In the latter film, O’Toole plays a character closely modeled on Erroll Flynn: a carousing, womanizing past-his-prime star of movie swashbucklers. He’s terrified when he learns that the 1950s television show he’s agreed to appear on will be aired live. Panicked, O’Toole’s character exclaims, “I am not an actor! I am a movie star!”

Peter O’Toole, of course, was both. He had the movie star’s can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma as well as the actor’s mysterious gift for dissolving his personality and effortlessly slipping inside the skin of many people utterly different from himself.

Farran Smith Nehme has penned moving tributes to O’Toole and Fontaine. UPDATE: See also Sheila O’Malley’s superb Fontaine tribute.

I wanted to post videos of both Joan Fontaine and Peter O’Toole, but I couldn’t find one of Fontaine that was appropriate. The YouTubes I came across with scenes from her best films were either too long or gave too much of the plot away.

But I did find a clip of Peter O’Toole I think is appropriate. It’s a scene from one of his final films, Venus (2006), in which he recites the Shakespeare sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” His reading of it is so gorgeous and full of feeling that it makes me fantasize about time-traveling back to attend some of his famous Shakespeare roles. (His Hamlet was said to be “electrifying.”)

Enjoy, and if you have a few spare bucks to donate to our fundraiser, you can contribute here. By doing so, you can show your appreciation for the occasional forays into cultural writing we do here at the Monthly.


Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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