Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

O’Toole in the Palace of Wisdom


Peter O’Toole has died and I’d like to draw a little attention to three of his movies: The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year.

Take a little of the madness of his title character in Lawrence of Arabia, put a magnifying glass on it the size of the sun and you’ll be eyeball to eyeball with O’Toole’s Jack Gurney character in 1972’s The Ruling Class, a Python-esque extravaganza labeled variously as a cult classic, a devastating social satire and the blackest of black comedies. Gurney is a schizophrenic nobleman who inherits a peerage, believes he’s God, sleeps upright on a cross, dispenses wit aplenty, gets electroshock treatments, turns into a misogynistic killer, forms allegiances with dupes and stays a step ahead of relatives, psychiatrists and, basically, society itself, even though he’s a deranged psychopath. The film skewers the British upper class, family, politics, religion, speciesism and education.

I’m tempted to write that there is no film like The Ruling Class but it does share some of the same targets, sensibilities and visceral shocks as A Clockwork Orange which was released a year earlier, although I find O’Toole’s character more disturbing than Malcolm McDowell’s Alex. (The Ruling Class was written by Peter Barnes, based on his 1968 stage play.) O’Toole was nominated for the Oscar but Brando won for The Godfather, sending American cinema down three decades of safe and comfy Italian gangster fascination/glorification as opposed to films on the gangster state of the American government which was/is rampaging openly, violently and successfully in real life. The Godfather is a very tidy conformist movie compared to The Ruling Class. Bizarre and never-forgotten once seen, O’Toole’s performance had (wrote critic Jay Cocks) “such intensity that it may trouble sleep as surely as it will haunt memory. All actors can play insanity; few play it well. O’Toole begins where other actors stop, with the unfocused gaze, the abrupt bursts of frenzied high spirits and precipitous depressions. Funny, disturbing, finally devastating, O’Toole finds his way into the workings of madness, revealing the anger and consuming anguish at the source.”

There’s also a bit of madness in O’Toole’s performance as the megalomaniacal film director Eli Cross in 1980’s The Stunt Man. O’Toole’s character, said to be based on director David Lean, is a funny, bombastic, arrogant, grandiose, charismatic, manipulative, occasionally cruel, possibly negligent homicider who we have a blast with for two hours and eleven minutes. There is no movie like The Stunt Man with its cavalcade of surprises, laughs, suspense, behind-the-scenes looks at moviemaking, romance, betrayals, escapes, chases, philosophizing and social commentary. Pauline Kael said O’Toole gave a “peerless comic performance” and called the film a “virtuoso piece of kinetic moviemaking.” Director Richard Rush suffered two heart attacks during the 10 year making and release of the film. Hollywood executives tried valiantly at every turn to make it boring and conventional — but Rush prevailed. Every major distributor turned it down and, as O’Toole himself said, “The film wasn’t released, it escaped.”

The Stunt Man’s plot: Steve Railsback is a criminal on the run who literally stumbles into the filming of a movie where a stunt man has drowned, a fact that the director (O’Toole) tries to hide from the local police so he can keep the location and complete the film. Railsback’s character gets a makeover, assumes the dead stunt man’s identity, the cast and crew covers for the director and the fun begins as O’Toole and Railsback use each other, verbally spar and compete for the attention of the lead actress. The father figure/director (O’Toole) finds he has a rebellious stunt man/son figure/criminal (Railsback) on his hands. O’Toole cranks up the danger of the stunts and Railsback believes the director will kill him before the filming ends. O’Toole, Railsback and director Rush had their greatest career achievements in The Stunt Man, sez me. Real life stunt man Chuck Bail is also impeccable as Railsback’s mentor. But O’Toole couldn’t catch a break in the 1980 Oscars either — Robert De Niro won for Raging Bull. That year also saw Oscar nominee Robert Duvall in a way under known gem, The Great Santini. Those were the days.

The madness was gone but drunkenness was front and center for O’Toole’s character of Alan Swann in 1982’s My Favorite Year, a sweet and wistful romantic/mad cap comedy. The real life hard-drinking and gambling O’Toole was perfectly cast as a washed-up former swashbuckling matinee idol who agrees to be a guest on a 1950s television variety show, much terrified to find out that there are no do overs on live television. (“I’m not an actor, I’m a film star!” he protests.) O’Toole’s Swann is idolized by a young comedy writer who promises the show’s host that he can keep Swann sober for a week and get him to perform successfully on the big night. There’s gangsters, a love story, advice from O’Toole for the young writer on how to get the girl, a subplot concerning O’Toole’s broken relationship with his daughter and a fantastic rousing climax. O’Toole’s character is based on Errol Flynn and others are versions of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Sid Caesar. Rotten Tomatoes rates it 100% “fresh.”

These three movies are rewarding in different ways: The Ruling Class braces you in your seat the same way as reading descriptions of violence in a William Burrough’s novel. The Stunt Man is mind-blowing fun and My Favorite Year will tug your heart in all the right directions. We’ve now had three more decades of capitalist alienation and money-grubbing conformity under our belts since these movies were made and, needless to say, no movie made today is as challenging and jarring as The Ruling Class, as wild, free and uncategorizable as The Stunt Man or as innocent and genuinely tender as My Favorite Year. It doesn’t matter how many special effects or technological advances there are — the spirits that make today’s films are not free, their chief stake is in comfort with capitalism, not making meaningful art — for that, go to documentaries. Drone on, capitalism, you can’t fucking die fast enough. And your “creative artists” and their “product” (Zero Dark Thirty, The Fifth Estate, Argo, etc.) are as poisoned and as corrupt as your politicians.

And to Peter O’Toole: Thanks for the madness, the manias and the depressions, thanks for the wit and going over the top, thanks for doing The Ruling Class for free because you believed in it so much, thanks for telling The Stunt Man director Richard Rush: “I am an articulate, intelligent man. I read the screenplay and if you don’t give me the part I will kill you.” Thanks for giving your films, stage work and even TV talk show appearances your all. Thanks for the non-balance, for living out one of William Blake’s proverbs from hell: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Randy Shields can be reached at His writings and art are collected at

Randy Shields can be reached at His writings and art are collected at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017