The 79th Academy Awards: Can O'Toole win at last?

He has been nominated for an Oscar seven times before, and lost out every time. Now, the veteran actor has one last shot at glory, 45 years after he was first short-listed. By Louise Jury
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The Independent US

When he was offered an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement four years ago, Peter O'Toole requested more time to "win the lovely bugger outright". Now he's got his chance.

Forty-five years after receiving his first Academy Award nomination for playing Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean's desert epic, the legendary actor has secured his eighth - to add to the honorary gong they gave him anyway. On the each of the seven occasions he had been nominated for an Academy Award, he lost out.

Only Forest Whitaker of his four rivals for best actor at next month's awards was even born - just - the first time O'Toole sat through the agonising ceremony in Los Angeles. Now It is Whitaker, playing Idi Amin in Film4's The Last King of Scotland, who is likely to prove his strongest competition, although Leonardo DiCaprio is winning plaudits for Blood Diamond.

And, in fairness, even O'Toole could scarcely claim that his performance in Venus, a small British film directed by Roger Michell, required as much preparation as, say, his Oscar-nominated performances as King Henry II in Becket in 1964 and in The Lion in Winter in 1968. (He is, surely, the only actor shortlisted for playing the same character in two different films.)

For in Venus, O'Toole plays an ageing actor with an eye for the ladies who forms a curious but touching friendship with a considerably younger woman, played by the 24-year-old newcomer Jodie Whittaker.

As the American television interviewer Harry Smith put it to O'Toole this week: "Now, when you were reading the part and you could see that was a lecherous old man, did you think, 'Now, this is going to be a stretch for me?'"

"Oh dear, oh dear. Not exactly," the star replied with a smile.

Which is not to say that he does not deserve to win. Some of his most cracking performances owe not a little to the intrigue of where art ends and real-life begins.

When he played the eponymous Fleet Street boozer in the stage play Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell, the audience roared as Barnard/O'Toole, encouraged to write his autobiography, considered a public appeal to fill the alcohol-induced gaps in his memory.

With My Favourite Year, in 1982, it could be argued that a drunk actor won an Oscar nomination for playing a drunk actor, albeit brilliantly. And who else could the BBC have turned to in 2005 when they required an older Casanova to look back on the decadent escapades brought so vividly to life by David Tennant as the young rake?

So it has been with Venus. Although Hanif Kureishi had already proved deft at writing about love across age barriers in The Mother, there is no doubting that the material could have left a nasty taste in the mouth. Nobody likes a dirty old man.

Yet O'Toole, strongly supported by Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths, is almost heartbreaking at conveying a frail if spirited old man captivated by the charms of youth.

"Peter O'Toole sparkles in Roger Michell's touching and comic Venus," proclaimed The Sunday Times. Even before Christmas, the Evening Standard and The Daily Telegraph were predicting his Oscars victory. It would be a marvellous achievement in his 75th year.

O'Toole was born in August 1932, the son of an Irish bookie and a Scottish nurse. He grew up in Leeds.

He originally trained as a journalist, but after National Service was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the same year as Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Richard Harris.

He won early acclaim as a stage actor, notably at the Bristol Old Vic and Royal Court, before he was chosen by David Lean to play TE Lawrence in his 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia. It made O'Toole a star.

In the four decades since, he has made more than 40 films, including Becket, The Lion in Winter, with Katherine Hepburn, and Goodbye Mr Chips, and had several heavyweight hits on stage in London and Dublin - as well as a disaster in 1980 in one of the worst-reviewed Macbeths ever.

Alongside the work was a colourful personal life, a storm of excess with the likes of Richard Burton and Richard Harris, until eventually stomach cancer and diabetes forced modifications in behaviour. Sian Phillips, the actress to whom he was married for many years, described him as "a dangerous, disruptive human being".

Leslie Phillips, who co-stars in the Film4-backed Venus, admitted O'Toole was keen on getting his own way. "He's a strong man; he's a man who won't tolerate fools. He's very unpredictable, but underneath I think he's very much like me - he's got older and got bags of guts and goes for it. He's also got a tremendous quality of humour. OK, he wants it so that it suits him, but he's a tremendous bloke to work with."

And he's a trouper. Half-way through filming Venus, O'Toole fell and broke his hip. "We all thought the film was finished. They couldn't fix it. They couldn't screw it in, his bones were so brittle," Phillips said.

But after a complete hip replacement, O'Toole pluckily returned to the set and partied until late at Tuesday night's premiere. "The film went like a bomb and he was very high, enjoying himself like mad. He was at his best," Phillips said. "I hope he wins."

Yet should O'Toole be trumped, there are plenty more British hopes for 25 February.

The Queen, about the royal and political reaction to the death of Princess Diana, scored six nominations including best picture, best original screenplay for Peter Morgan, best director for Stephen Frears and best actress for Helen Mirren.

Mirren, who William Hill made 1/12 favourite to win, said it was "astounding" how audiences had taken the film to their hearts. When the idea was first mooted, by Granada television in the wake of the television film The Deal, they had no idea of the potential impact, the actress said. "It is one of the hardest roles to play not just a living person but one who is part of our everyday lives in Britain... I hope that my performance has conveyed a sense of Elizabeth the woman as well as the Queen," she added.

In one of the strongest line-ups for any award, her rivals for best actress are Penelope Cruz (Volver), Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Kate Winslet (Little Children) and Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal).

Notes on a Scandal, taken from Zoë Heller's novel of north London teachers, receives four nominations, including original score for Philip Glass and best adapted screenplay for Patrick Marber. Dench joked: "It is very nice of the Queen to allow me in for a minute. [But] it was one of the harder parts I have played."

Borat received a screenplay nomination; Children of Men, a futuristic thriller, received two nominations, as did United 93, Paul Greengrass's film about the September 11 flight where the passengers fought back.

Greengrass is up for best director against Frears, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, whose film The Departed, received five nominations. Much-touted as a return to form, it might be the movie that wins him best director at the sixth attempt.

If so, he might be adapting the words of O'Toole. Told of his eighth nomination yesterday, the veteran said simply: "If you fail the first time, try try try try try try try again. Yoicks!"

The Oscar nominations

Best motion picture of the year:

Babel

The Departed

Letters From Iwo Jima

Little Miss Sunshine

The Queen

Achievement in directing:

Babel

The Departed

Letters From Iwo Jima

The Queen

United 93

Performance by an actor in a leading role:

Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond)

Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson)

Peter O'Toole (Venus)

Will Smith (The Pursuit Of Happyness)

Forest Whitaker (The Last King Of Scotland)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role:

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)

Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children)

Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond)

Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls)

Mark Wahlberg (The Departed)

Performance by an actress in a leading role:

Penelope Cruz (Volver)

Judi Dench (Notes On A Scandal)

Helen Mirren, below (The Queen)

Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada)

Kate Winslet (Little Children)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role:

Adriana Barraza (Babel)

Cate Blanchett, pictured left at top right (Notes On A Scandal)

Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine)

Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)

Rinko Kikuchi (Babel)

Adapted screenplay:

Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan

Children Of Men

The Departed

Little Children

Notes On A Scandal

Original screenplay:

Babel

Letters From Iwo Jima

Little Miss Sunshine

Pan's Labyrinth

The Queen

Best animated feature film of the year:

Cars

Happy Feet

Monster House

Achievement in make-up:

Apocalypto

Click

Pan's Labyrinth

Achievement in film music (original score):

Babel

The Good German

Notes On A Scandal

Pan's Labyrinth

The Queen

Best foreign language film of the year:

After The Wedding

Days Of Glory (Indigenes)

The Lives Of Others

Pan's Labyrinth

Water

Best animated short film:

The Danish Poet

Lifted

The Little Matchgirl

Maestro

No Time For Nuts

Best live action short film:

Binta and the Great Idea (Binta y La Gran Idea)

Eramos Pocos (One Too Many)

Helmer & Son

The Saviour

West Bank Story

Achievement in film music (original song):

"I Need to Wake Up" (An Inconvenient Truth)

"Listen" (Dreamgirls)

"Love You I Do" (Dreamgirls)

"Our Town" (Cars)

"Patience" (Dreamgirls)

Achievement in sound editing:

Apocalypto

Blood Diamond

Flags Of Our Fathers

Letters From Iwo Jima

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Achievement in sound mixing:

Apocalypto

Blood Diamond

Dreamgirls

Flags Of Our Fathers

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Achievement in visual effects:

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Poseidon

Superman Returns

Achievement in art direction:

Dreamgirls

The Good Shepherd

Pan's Labyrinth

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

The Prestige

Achievement in cinematography:

The Black Dahlia

Children Of Men

The Illusionist

Pan's Labyrinth

The Prestige

Achievement in costume design:

Curse Of The Golden Flower

The Devil Wears Prada

Dreamgirls

Marie Antoinette

The Queen

Best documentary feature:

Deliver Us From Evil

An Inconvenient Truth

Iraq in Fragments

Jesus Camp

My Country, My Country

Best documentary short subject:

The Blood Of Yingzhou District

Recycled Life

Rehearsing A Dream

Two Hands

Achievement in film editing:

Babel

Blood Diamond

Children Of Men

The Departed

United 93

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