Saturday, September 28, 2013

O'Hara and O'Toole/Lawrence and Leigh - Thoughts on the twin titans of movie acting

For me, the two greatest achievements of film acting are Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind" and Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia."

If you were to rank every performance in every film (if such a list could even be useful), I don't know what exactly would be number one, but it would begin with these two and then everyone else. You could teach whole classes on acting just based on them.

And there are a surprising number of similarities between the two.

Both were not-very-well-known British stage actors who were given starring roles in giant Hollywood productions, beating out big name stars for the part.

Both were young, in their 20s. Leigh was 25 during filming, O'Toole was 28.

Both movies are epics. I mean LONG, about 4 hours.

Think about how important their voices are to the characters: Leigh's Southern belle drawl with its "fiddle-dee-dee" rhythms; O'Toole's watery, wavering tenor. And their trademark facial expressions: Leigh's calculating pout, O'Toole's withering stare.

Both incorporate what Jung would call their anima and animus: the expressions of their feminine and masculine inner personalities. Scarlett O'Hara is a lady, yes, but not a proper one, bristling at the assumptions of the Southern patriarchy, taking charge, not relying on a man, but using them for her own goals. Lawrence is the military hero of the British empire, but he preens and admires his perfect white robes, bonding with his men with a tender devotion not shared by his cold-hearted superiors.

Both show arrogance, and total despair. They're both despicable and admirable. Villains, heroes, victims, oppressors.

These two roles, in their dynamism and their depth, represent the complexities of cinematic acting, the role of the human being in film art. They're our Hamlet.


  1. It's amazing to me how many critics at the time, and even some still who praise the film, don't recognize the complexity of Lawrence's character (and O'Toole's performance), describing him as a cipher. To me he's one of the most fascinating characters in film history, and the film far from being a spectacle with a zero at its center (I think that was Kael's description of it) is DRIVEN by the warped passions and personality of its protagonist. I see it as a film in which geography manifests psychology - the shifts in the landscape and the visual style which captures it mirror, echo, and amplify Lawrence's own self-perception. God, I love that movie - and performance.

    And I don't hate Gone With the Wind either - but Lawrence is what drove me to comment here.

  2. Agreed 100% on Lawrence. Gun to my head, it's probably my favorite movie, or at least the one that most makes me feel amazed at the possibilities of film, of the craft behind every element in every frame. The term I always use to describe it, which fits with your description, is "an intimate epic." The canvas is as big as you can get, but the subject is so focused, the opposite of the typical bloat you get with other epics.

    Kael called it a spectacle with a zero at the center? That's bizarre. I can think of few films that so thoroughly foreground their lead character's psychology, or make their psyche the very central concern of the film. But I suppose that, like a great Shakespearean tragic hero, Lawrence himself is open to many possible readings and interpretations, which perhaps could strike some people as indecisiveness on behalf of the authors, although I read I have never read it as anything other than complexity and subtlety.

  3. Although I suppose my love for Lawrence of Arabia shouldn't be any surprise, given the name of the blog.