Dylan Jones: The sharpest O'Toole in the acting box

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The first thing I noticed about Peter O'Toole at the premiere of Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi's rather extraordinary Venus last week was the shameless way in which he took an absolute age to walk to the stage when asked to show himself to the audience. Admittedly he had to top Leslie Phillips, who, having been introduced, to great delight, as "The man who put the ding into dong", had grabbed the microphone and reduced the audience in the Chelsea Cinema to a cackling herd after a simple "Hellooo..." But O'Toole's walk was the walk of a man who knows how to grandstand seriously, even at the age of 74, and even after breaking his hip on Boxing Day. In fact, he may even have got away with it had he not positively sprinted back to his seat after we had finished clapping - all 6ft 3in of him.

On the surface, O'Toole has always given the impression that appreciation is something he has given up chasing. Not only did it not appear to make him happy when he got it - and it's difficult now, 45 years later, to grasp just how famous he became after Lawrence of Arabia - but after seven Oscar nominations, and only an honorary Lifetime Achievement gong in 2003, he long ago stopped worrying about getting a proper one. However, that could all change on 25 February, as he has been nominated (justly) yet again, and certainly for the last time, for his role as the veteran thesp infatuated with a slimline Vicky Pollard in Venus. And if there were any justice in Hollywood - and I realise this is tantamount to finding Lenny Henry's gag writer - he'd get it.

O'Toole has also become, if not quite dismissive of, then at least partially distanced from a lot of the work he did in his prime, especially the bigger stuff. "Listen, everybody was offered the part of Lawrence of Arabia," he said recently. "Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Groucho Marx. Everybody but me. They all turned it down for various reasons. And David Lean had banked his life on that picture. David's wife was seeing a guru at the time, and this guru had seen a film called The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, in which I played a silly English officer. And the guru told her that he had just seen the man who should play Lawrence."

The salient thing about his performance in Venus - a film which, without wishing to undermine the director, belongs largely to Kureishi - is that it offers an all-too-believable alternative to O'Toole's own twilight years. And his good-natured banter with Leslie Phillips reminds me - at least - of the relationship between Walter Matthau and George Burns in the sublime 1975 film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys.

"Good parts make good actors," he says. "I take them as they come." Trust me: you will see many films this year, but few will be as good as Venus.

Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ