Peter O'Toole is instantly recognizable by his stage-trained voice and immaculate diction, regal bearing, and piercing blue eyes. Known mostly, if not primarily, for his role in David Lean's (Passage to India,Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, BriefEncounter, OliverTwist) 1962 adaptation of T.E. Lawrence's memoirs, Lawrence of Arabia, O'Toole delivered a string of mesmerizing performances, beginning with Lawrence of Arabia, and continuing through Beckett (1964), Lord Jim (1965), A Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), and, the subject of this week's feature, The Ruling Class(1972), an adaptation of Peter Barnes' 1968 much-lauded play for the English stage.

In The Ruling Class, Ralph Gurney, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews), dies via auto-erotic asphyxiation, leaving Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney (Peter O'Toole) to inherit his title, land, property, and the family seat in the House of Lords. Jack, however, inherited something else from his predecessor: mental illness. Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic. He believes he's the literal Second coming of Jesus Christ, he's eager to spread the message of "unity in universal love" beyond the confines of his family's estate. To match the popular depiction of Jesus, Jack's grown out his hair and beard, wears a monk's robe and sandals. That's nothing compared to his penchant for breaking out in song and dance and sleeping upright on a cross.
To relatives eager to get their hands on his estate, there's nothing more dangerous than Jack-as-Jesus who, if exposed, would bring ridicule to the family. They're also afraid he'll take his vow of poverty seriously and give his estate away to charity, leaving them penniless. Not surprisingly, they want nothing more than to commit him to a mental asylum and take over his estate, but can't do the latter until he's produced an heir to the title. A scheming uncle, Sir Charles Gurney (William Mervyn), comes up with the idea to marry Jack to Charles' mistress, Grace Shelley (Carolyn Seymour). They also decide to bring in a psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), to cure Jack of his objectionably altruistic, compassionate behavior.

What starts as a consistently hilarious farce, however, grows progressively darker and more disturbing until, an hour-and-a-half into its 154-minute running time, it becomes the blackest of black comedies, ultimately suggesting that sociopathic behavior, disguised as self- or class-interest, will go unnoticed and tolerated, if not outright supported, by other members of the English aristocracy. It's a bitter, cynical view of English society circa 1972. The Ruling Class also says little positive about human nature, suggesting that "Social Darwinism" is the norm, not the exception.

The Ruling Class shows its origin as a stage play through long dialogue scenes and static camerawork. Director Peter Medak (SpeciesIII, Pontiac Moon, Romeo is Bleeding, Let Him Have It, The Krays, The Changeling) does little to open up the play, filming primarily on massive soundstages, often foregoing classical scene composition (i.e., master shot, medium shot, shot-reverse shot, etc.) and allowing scenes to play out with few close-ups. Medak also holds shots, preferring to let the actors deliver their lines rather than increase visual interest. But visual composition and filmmaking style aren't why TheRuling Class' is currently acknowledged as a classic of early 70s cinema.

For that, we have to look to Peter Barnes' scabrous, satirical play, which he adapted for Medak, and Peter O'Toole's performance. O'Toole never fails to give a believable, persuasive performance, using the full range of his abilities of an actor, as well as his decades-long training for the stage, to give the mentally unstable, mentally ill Jack a complex, contradictory inner life, even when Jack's behavior devolves into the irrational and the bizarre.

O'Toole left that year's Academy Awards ceremony empty handed, losing to Marlon Brando' performance as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. O'Toole holds the record of most Academy Award nominations without winning (eight), a record he or anyone wouldn't want to hold. Attempting to rectify the egregious oversight, the Academy gave him an Academy Honorary Award in 2003 (essentially a lifetime achievement award). He refused at first, but ultimately relented. Luckily, we don't need the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences to validate the quality of O'Toole's performances, none better (with maybe one or two on the same level) than his performance in The Ruling Class.

Do you agree or disagree? Is there another O'Toole performance you prefer? If so, which one?
categories Cinematical