A Lawrence like no other

in Memoriam

I had all but forgotten about Peter O’Toole when — about a year ago — I chanced on an obscure little gem he had starred in called Dean Spanley.

Perhaps you’ve seen it? The oddest of movies, really, thoroughly eccentric like its characters, but also surprising and moving. I’ll return to the film a little later, but the experience of seeing and hearing Peter O’Toole after so many years was marvelous. Like so many fans, I was mesmerised by his Lawrence, those shimmering blue eyes, the deeply musical voice with the impeccable accent, and the actor’s incandescent presence — who was that? Lawrence of Arabia or Peter O’Toole? Both, it turned out. The epic, outsize character of Lawrence and O’Toole’s own regal grandeur created an unforgettable Lawrence on screen. What a piece of luck for David Lean and the world that he, an unknown, was cast in this thunderous role.

To my astonishment, I discovered while researching this little tribute-obituary that he had never won a Best Actor Oscar for any of his roles. Not even for Lawrence! I exclaimed to myself. No, not even for Lawrence — it went to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird. A decent, likeable performance but nothing to match or even compare with O’Toole’s magnificent Lawrence. He holds a record of sorts (along with Meryl Streep) for the most number of Oscar nominations for an actor. They eventually honoured him with a lifetime achievement award to make up for the folly — he wasn’t glad that they were writing him off and asked them to hold off because he wanted to be given a shot at “winning one of those little buggers”. Apparently, his children urged him to accept the Oscar and he, of course, did.

I was trying to see in which other year he should or could have won: his next stellar performance was in Beckett as the king, a drunken, articulate lush and it’s his performance that straightaway sweeps you off rather than the hero of the film, Richard Burton. O’Toole has all the best lines, if you remember. All the insults and jibes and wrenching pronouncements. It’s only towards the end that Burton’s steely charisma and intensity takes over and stays with you. His fellow nominee was none other than Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady as Professor Higgins. No one can grudge Harrison the prize here: it remains a glorious performance. (Interestingly, O’Toole would go on to make this role his own in theatre with his version of Professor Higgins in the 1984 Pygmalion at the Shaftesbury and Plymouth theatre).

He lost to John Wayne’s True Grit for Goodbye Mr Chips. I remember seeing this in Symphony and nearly walking out because it dragged on and on and was annoying for being a musical. What I do remember with fondness is O’Toole’s gentle schoolmaster with his beautiful spoken voice and his sadness over his love’s death. Years later when I saw it on DVD again, I realised why Pauline Kael had called his acting here the best she had seen in many years.

He didn’t stand a chance against Brando’s The Godfather the next time around, and after this he lost to Robert De Niro, Ben Kingsley and Forrest Whitaker. Which brings us to Dean Spanley — for which he really ought to have been nominated for the best supporting actor and for which he should have won. The role is that of a curmudgeon; Fisk Senior, a sad, reclusive caustic old man grieving ostensibly for his son but deep at heart, for the dog he lost as a child. The dog, a spaniel called Wag, was more than a pet, he was the boy’s sole (and soul) companion. One day, Wag runs away in the night never to be seen again, and the boy is heartbroken.

It’s a rather tricky job trying to summarise the plot of Dean Spanley, but it goes something like this: Fisk Sr, O’Toole as the old man, is visited once a week faithfully by his son, Fisk Jr, played by Jeremy Northam. They mostly sit in silence during these visits. Their exchanges consist of such lines as: “Do not presume to judge me, young Fisk.” “I should first have to understand you, father. And that, I confess, I do not.” “Perhaps you would have to become a father first.” “Your example disinclines me to that particular comprehension I’m afraid.”

One day, Northam proposes that they go out and hear a lecture by a swami (played by Ark Malik) on the transmigration of souls. His father’s reaction: “Poppycock! Think if we had souls they wouldn’t get in touch? ’course they would! Think your mother wouldn’t be on to me about that garden? ’course she would!”

Father and son go the lecture anyway and the swami is found playing cricket indoors! “Bat and pad together, bat and pad together,” is his mantra! At the lecture, they meet a local clergyman, a vicar by the name of Dean Spanley, (played cleverly and slyly by Sam Neill). And now things take a very odd but fascinating turn. Northam discovers that if the Dean is plied with a certain favourite drink, a Hungarian port called Imperial Torkay, he will slowly begin to reminisce about his past life as a dog. Northan arranges for his father to have dinner with the Dean and ensures there’s plenty of Torkay to go around. And to everyone’s astonishment, the Dean turns into a dog before their eyes as he begins to describe a day in the life of a dog with accuracy, authenticity and real feeling!

The happy, wonderful part is, of course, Fisk the curmudgeon, discovering Dean Spanley is none other than his lost childhood dog, Wag! His soul now transmigrated into this winking English clergyman. What a reunion! Try and find this little film and be treated to a joyous time, and to a funny, moving (a dog song, if not a swan song) performance by Peter O’Toole.  

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