William Blake said quite rightly, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
It is true that the most creative minds throughout history have often been quite "different". Certainly, in our own age we have myriad examples of artists, musicians and performers who have lived lives of excess, yet left legacies of work that transcends time and place, even when the excess led to their untimely deaths.
Peter O'Toole did not only take the road of excess, he often took more than one lane. He was well know on and off camera for his drinking and frolicking. In fact, he was one of a class of British actors that included Richard Burton and Oliver Reed, who were as famous for their acting talents as their antics with bottle in one hand and script in the other.
Though no one can deny the gravitas of Burton, nor the aristocratic nature of Reed, there was a playfulness and Everyman appeal about O'Toole, perhaps his Irish soul. His reputation, and his reported behavior, was not unlike the character he played in My Favorite Year, yet he could bring such depth and passion as Henry II, in The Lion in Winter. Even in a production so horribly conceived and executed as Bob Guccioni's Caligula, O'Toole's Tiberius stands out as a singular rendition of the Roman emperor.
Only O'Toole could pull off both regal and mundane characters, and give emperors a human quality, while giving a thief a regal spirit in How to Steal a Million, nearly outshining Audrey Hepburn. Whether he starred in massive epics like Lawrence of Arabia, or quiet tear-jerkers like Lucy, the camera gravitated to O'Toole. His almost feminine features and blonde hair covered a soul that was pure child battling maturity. Each of these facets he could isolate and bring to the fore to create three-dimensional characters that completely inhabited whatever space they were given. He could fondle a meaningless set piece and it suddenly would be infused with some secret history that the audience could only guess at.
Though I regrettably never met O'Toole, I did get to see him in Pygmalion on Broadway in the 80s. His Henry Higgins was positively whacked, which turned out to be influenced by heavy use of cocaine, but he turned even that into a character that was both haunting and disturbing...an entirely new read of the famous Shaw play that seems even more poignant as we enter the Age of Transhumanism.
Like most artists who create transcendent work, I don't think O'Toole ever set out to do it. He was happy to make enough money to support his lavish lifestyle of self-indulgence. In the process, though, he did what all great actors do: he hid most intimate self by placing parts of it on glorious display in his work. We, the audience, though he had only created "characters", when in fact he was confessing to us. In the process, we recognized that what was on the screen and stage was something truly unique, even if we didn't recognize the depth of it.
Since O'Toole's death, hardly untimely in the last week, some have argued that without his propensity for excess, the world might have received so much more. I argue that without the vice, might we have received anything at all? Can we separate Jimi Hendrix or Gerry Garcia from heroin, or Sir Arthur Conan Doye from 7% solution? How about William Burroughs, Marilyn Monroe, or indeed, Richard Burton? How much of their talent was released by, or stifled by excess?
If vice be a virtue for some, then who are we to say no?
For some, creativity comes from scarcity, but for others it comes through lavish excess. I don't concern myself with what we might have gotten. It is enough that we have a body of performances, such as O'Toole's, at all. I'll take The Night of the Generals over Steven Spielburg's finest effort any day. I don't care if the entire cast was sotted and mainlining, watching the chemistry between O'Toole, Sharif and Courtenay is magic.
Bartender! Another round...