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Stars We Won’t Forget

Stars We Won’t Forget

If she had disappeared after making Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, we would still remember Joan
Fontaine for her haunting, empathetic performance as the second Mrs. DeWinter,
whose first name is never revealed. If his only credential was the title role
in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia,
Peter O’Toole would have a place in film history. As it happens, he gave many
other memorable performances, with eight Oscar nominations to prove it. Audrey
Totter isn’t indelibly associated with any one picture, but she enjoyed
latter-day adulation as one of the femmes fatales in a handful of films noir. Eddie Muller even devoted a
chapter of his book Dark City Dames
to her. And although he came to Hollywood later than the others just mentioned,
Tom Laughlin made a singular impression on audiences—and grateful theater
owners—with the enormous success of Billy
Jack,
which he co-wrote, directed, and starred in.

Every time a veteran actor or actress dies, I find myself
reviewing memories of particular films or memorable scenes in which they
appeared. Each loss is like a psychic wound, because someone who was part of my
moviegoing life is gone.

I never met Joan Fontaine, but she was kind enough to sign
my copy of her autobiography after a friend shared her address in Carmel,
California with me. Although she was reclusive in later years, turning down
requests for personal appearances and interviews, she corresponded with a
number of fans. She genuinely appreciated their interest in her and, like many
old-school stars, felt that answering their letters and requests for autographs
was the right thing to do.

Regarding her most famous film she once recalled, for Doug
McClelland, “I made about seven tests for Rebecca.
Everybody tested for it. Loretta
Young, Margaret Sullavan, Vivien Leigh, Susan Hayward, Anne Baxter, you name
her. Supposedly, Hitchcock saw one of my tests and said, ‘This is the only
one.’ I think the word  he used to
describe what set me apart was ‘vulnerability.’ Also, I was not very well-known
and [producer David O.] Selznick probably saw the chance for star-building. And
may I say he also saw the chance to put me under contract for serf’s wages?
David’s brother, Myron, was a top agent and got 10 per cent of clients, but
David, who loaned me here and there and never used me again in one of his own
productions, took 300 percent, and I was always expected to be grateful to
him.”

A then-unknown Peter O’Toole was not David Lean’s first
choice for the role of T.E. Lawrence; he originally cast O’Toole’s RADA
classmate Albert Finney. Decades after giving the spellbinding performance that
made him an overnight star, O’Toole was asked which of his many roles was
closest to his real-life personality. “I think the one that bears the least
resemblance to me is Lawrence of Arabia,”
he replied, “the one for which I’m perhaps more famous. I like to think that
it’s Henry II,” a real-life figure he played twice, in Becket and The Lion in
Winter.
Why? “I like the man. He interests me.  He never lost a battle, and yet he never
fought a battle if he could arrange it diplomatically. The last thing he ever
wanted was to fight but when he did fight, he fought. A man of great wit—funny,
a lawgiver—and yet at the same time, frail, human. Now, am I describing me? I
don’t know. I like to think it is, perhaps, just merely a fabulation but I like
to think it.”

As for how he became an actor in the first place, he said,
“In fact, it was just a series of blunders. I just blundered into this and
blundered into something else. I found myself in the Royal Academy of Dramatic
Arts through a blunder, and then I went to the Theatre of Royal Bristol where I
stayed for three years in repertory. The first year I really felt completely
bogus. I had no confidence…  I often read
books about why people become actors as I read books about why Stalin became
Stalin. What they don’t seem to say in those books is why the people who are
Stalin or are actors are so good at it. It’s a talent, it’s a gift; there’s
nothing one can do about it. All you can do is nurture the gift, polish the
gift. I was gifted. That’s God, not me. I know that my mother’s reading of
poetry stays with me to this day. I can hear my mother, I can recite everything
that she said. All those things clearly were contributory forces, but I didn’t
realize it at the time. I do realize it now.”

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Peter O’Toole
at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival. He was charming, witty, and full of
surprise. As a car deposited us at the location where a group photo was
scheduled, he noticed festival director Bill Pence arriving on a bicycle.
O’Toole insisted on trying it out and before any of us quite realized what was
happening, the actor was pedaling along—at an altitude of 8,600 feet. Luckily,
I had my camera on hand to capture the moment.

Audrey Totter never reached the pinnacle of stardom, but she
was the kind of actress that filmgoers came to recognize and rely on to give a
solid performance in any kind of role. She made her mark in such films as Lady in the Lake, The Unsuspected, Alias
Nick Beal,
and The Set-up. She
could handle comedy or play a devoted wife, but as she later admitted, “the bad
girls were so much fun to play.” She made them fun to watch, too.

No one lives forever, but because Audrey Totter, Peter
O’Toole, Joan Fontaine, and Tom Laughlin made so many films, they will never be
lost to us. Thank goodness for that.

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