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An Oscar, finally, for Peter O'Toole?

September 3, 2006 |  4:43 am

Otoolevenustrio

When Audrey Hepburn failed to be recognized by the motion picture academy for starring in best pic winner "My Fair Lady," which also reaped a best actor trophy for Rex Harrison, she was comforted by another Hepburn, Katharine, who sent her a telegram, reading, "Don’t worry about not being nominated. Someday you’ll get it for a part that doesn't rate it."

When Harrison won, it was another one of those undeserved wins. Sure, his Harry Higgins was an iconic, career-capping role, but, let's be honest, there was no emotional oomph to the part and what made that victory one of Oscar's biggest travesties was that Harrison beat two actors who gave reigning perfs of their careers: Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in "Becket." Ah, well, at least O'Toole won a Golden Globe in consolation that year, beating his costar, but otherwise those two Hollywood hooligans ended up sharing the same tragic Oscar fate. Today O'Toole and Burton are tied as that award's biggest losers (7 defeats).

Being hooligans was probably to blame. Booze-fueled antics were no doubt the reason that Judy Garland never won and Albert Finney still hasn't and why all of the following were never even nommed: Tallulah Bankhead, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Glenn Ford and Marilyn Monroe, among so many pickled others. At least Barrymore had a sense of humor about it, saying, "The reason that the academy never nominates me is because they're afraid I'll show up at the ceremony drunk. And they're right!"

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Burton's behavior in Hollywood was so foul that it was probably inevitable that he'd end up Oscarless. If it wasn't obvious what academy voters thought of him when he lost for his greatest performance on celluloid, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," then it was painfully so, and humiliatingly so, when he received his seventh bid for "Equus." As he campaigned shamelessly for the prize, People magazine noted his "touching desire to win. He's been tirelessly making the talk-show circuit, apologizing profusely for his past overindulgence in good whiskey and bad movies." On Oscar night Burton was convinced he had done his penance and had the statuette at last. Legend goes that he rose in his seat when he heard the words "And the winner is . . . Richard . . ." only to have the gold grasped from his reach this time by the like-named Dreyfus, who was so shocked to prevail for the Neil Simon comedy "The Goodbye Girl" that he arrived at the podium, befuddled, saying. "I didn't prepare anything. Wait a minute. Am I here?"

But Peter O'Toole has always retained his reputation as a fine British gent, possibly because he imbibed so much of his hooch back in far-away Britain. Seldom did he ever hang out in Hollywood, actually. He's never really liked the place much, he confesses. But Hollywooders have continued to think enough of him to keep nominating him. They even decided to give him something they never gave Burton: an honorary Oscar. When O'Toole got wind of it, though, he popped his cork like a bottle of bubbly, and, at age 70, reminded the academy that he was "still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright," adding "Would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?"

It didn't. Three years ago AMPAS summoned Ye Olde Rascal to town anyway and he came, quite graciously, to receive the gimme prize, buoyed by the reminder that other stars like Paul Newman, Henry Fonda and Charlie Chaplin won competitive Oscars (Chaplin for songwriting) after receiving an honorary kudo.

Now this year O'Toole has renewed hope for nabbing that lovely bugger at last for "Venus," which debuts this weekend at Telluride. Early word is that his performance is a real winner as a lecherous geezer thesp who lusts after his colleague's teen-age grand-niece (Jodie Whittaker). Here's a tease of it — a trailer preview in which we can hear him recite Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" as his nymphet lounges nude nearby: CLICK HERE! (Look for the link along the left column.)

But can he win for it?

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Top photos: O'Toole in "Venus."(Miramax) Bottom Photos: O'Toole's 7 Oscar noms (clockwise from top) — "Lawrence of Arabia," "Becket," "The Lion in Winter," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "My Favorite Year," "The Stuntman," "The Ruling Class."(Columbia/ Paramount/ AVCO Embassy/ MGM/ MGM-US/ 20th Century Fox/ AVCO Embassy) He was not nommed for other notable roles in "Lord Jim," "The Last Emperor," "How to Steal a Million" or "Man of La Mancha." He won an Emmy in 1999 as best supporting actor in a TV film/mini for "Joan of Arc."

Most likely he'll be nommed considering Miramax plans to mount a serious Oscar campaign and O'Toole has agreed to cross the Atlantic a few times for the effort, arriving first at the Toronto Film Festival next week where I'm skedded to interview him on camera so we can stream the video here at The Envelope for all of us Oscar nuts to relish.

Once nommed, O'Toole has an excellent chance of winning. Perhaps even better than that considering Oscar voters' notorious love of Brits plus their penchant for doling out career achievement awards (mostly to men) in the acting races. Even when the merit of the award is dubious: consider victories by Jack Palance, Lee Marvin and John Wayne, just to name a few. (I'd add some others like James Coburn, but you'd quarrel with me.)

The most heinous Oscar giveaway I can think of is Jack Lemmon's best actor victory in 1973. Yes, he won early in his career in the supporting slot for "Mister Roberts," but academy members were so hellbent to give him a lead win that they ended up awarding the most hambone, unwatchable assault on the senses ever put on celluloid: "Save the Tiger." Pity future film lovers who sit down to watch it with a joyous heart and a big bowl of popcorn, thinking, "Oh, this has gotta be great! Jack Lemmon won the Oscar! "

Katharine Hepburn's warning sure turned out to be true about Paul Newman's triumph for "The Color of Money," a performance that certainly would've been forgotten in film lore if the Blue-Eyed Boy wasn't shamefully overdue for a Golden Boy. At least, "Color," unlike "Tiger," is watchable, if not memorable.

One charitable thing you can say about Oscar voters is that they put such trifling matters as a movie's quality aside if guilt gets to them and they realize it's high time they make up for past crimes of omission. Usually, it happens in the range of 6 to 8 noms. Al Pacino won on his 8th bid for "Scent of a Woman." Newman won on his seventh, although at that point, even though it was obvious he'd win, he refused to show up to accept. Newman explained to the Associated Press that his past pursuit of the statuette had been "like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years. Finally, she relents and you say, 'I am terribly sorry. I'm tired.'"

O'Toole seems to have something going for him that Newman, Pacino and Lemmon didn't, though: a good movie. That should help. But what is disheartening is that he lost for so many magnificent turns in great pix in the past.

Even if the academy makes everything up to him this year, I shall never, never, ever forgive voters for snubbing his Oscar bid for "The Lion in Winter" in favor of Cliff Robertson in "Charly" or for preferring Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi" over O'Toole in "My Favorite Year." Allowances may be made for some of his other losses for worthy bids: "The Stuntman" (Robert De Niro won for "Raging Bull") and even "Lawrence of Arabia" (Gregory Peck won for "To Kill a Mockingbird" — oops, wait a minute, should I take that allowance back?). And maybe for one dubious bid: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (a guilty pleasure pic I admit to loving, but, hey, he lost to John Wayne in "True Grit"!). Oh, but what are we to make of his loss for one of the greatest perfs of his esteemed career — in "The Ruling Class"? Sure, Marlon Brando was aces in "The Godfather," but Brando made it clear that he didn't even want that dang Oscar and voters gave it to him anyway (or tried to).

Sir Peter O'Toole's victory is not a foregone conclusion, however. Let us not forget another "slam-dunk, shoo-in" nominee of recent years — involving another aging, knighted Brit, no less — who ended up getting skunked, shocking everyone: Sir Ian McKellen ("The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"), losing to Jim Broadbent ("Iris") in one of the biggest upsets in modern Oscar days.

*****

NOTE OF OSCAR TRIVIA: O'Toole is only one of four actors to be nominated twice for playing the same role in two films: King Henry II in "Becket" and "The Lion in Winter." The others: Paul Newman (Fast Eddie Felson in "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money"), Bing Crosby (Father O'Malley in "Going My Way" and "The Bells of St. Mary's") and Al Pacino (Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II").


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