It happened with the buzz of a motorcycle and a flash of a British serving officer rushing past Peter O’Toole’s motorcar on his way home from Damascus. This was the exact moment that not only forever altered the course of my life but also provided me with a clear vision of my passion for cinema. T. E. Lawrence was going home, as his guide famously told him, rushed away from the region that had become both his passion and his madness. Yet for me, at a 40th anniversary screening of the 70mm print of David Lean’s timeless masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, I felt that I was, for the first time, truly home.
The revival event was hosted by the fantastic Bob Mondello, of “All Things Considered” fame, and served as the experience that has driven all of my work since that initial screening. With the historical backdrop of Baltimore’s Senator Theatre and the rousing speech from Bob, Lawrence of Arabia astounded me with its simultaneous larger-than-life scope and intimate character portrayal. It presented to me the raw power of the cinematic medium, the passion in the community that surrounded it, and its deepening connection to our cultural history.
That’s not to say that film wasn’t always a large part of my life. Even now I can remember recording the audio for Star Wars off of the television, prior to its VHS release, so that I could listen to it under my pillow as I fell to sleep. The images played in my mind and my childhood dreams picked up where the story of the Skywalkers left off. The history behind the films suddenly became just as interesting at the movies themselves. Who were these people that brought all my dreams to life?
This week the world lost one of these people. Peter O’Toole passed away at the age of 81 and the world of acting, both on stage and screen, will never be the same again. Nominated for eight Academy Awards and never winning, Peter O’Toole joked that he was “always the bridesmaid and never the bride.” He had the toughest of competition every year. When he was cast in his first onscreen performance, at the age of 29, as TE Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, no one knew what to expect. He was cast by Lean over Albert Finney and Marlon Brando, before him, and caught everyone unawares. Yet he was competing for an Oscar against Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
When he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar he insisted that the Academy keep the statue and continued saying that, “I am still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright.”
Between O’Toole and Lean, I cannot think of two artists who have had a greater influence on my life. I got lost in O’Toole’s deep blue eyes as he scanned the desert of Sinai. The performance opened my eyes and redirected the course of my life. I knew that from that moment on I had to be a part of the world that could create images and characters like the ones in Lawrence of Arabia.
For all of Lawrence’s bombast, eccentricities, and paint-on suntan, I cannot think of a stronger performance in all of cinema. He is a character made for expression on the biggest of silver screens. Peter O’Toole was the correct actor to deliver that performance. When he dances in the sunlight on top of a Turkish train there can be no denying that all of tools that cinema has to offer are being pushed to their apex.
Caught in the light, O’Toole’s Lawrence, a murderer, warrior, desert lover, and tortured soul, becomes more than just a man. He’s a character straight from the heavens, God’s man to deliver his people to victory; or don’t know you know that only a silver bullet can kill him? Peter O’Toole may be gone, but his legacy is caught somewhere in that light. It is a place even silver bullets cannot harm.
Thank you, Peter O’Toole.