If you want a lesson in how awards are inadequate indicators of talent look no further than the case of the late, great Peter O’Toole. Before his death in 2013, O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar 7 times but he lost on every occasion. In 2002, when the British actor was 70-years-old, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally found it in themselves to give O’Toole an Honorary Award for his professional achievements but he wanted no part of it. The proud thespian sent a letter to the Academy reminding them that he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright” and requested that they “please defer the honor until I am 80.” His children finally convinced him to accept the Honorary Award and you can currently watch his acceptance speech on YouTube.

O’Toole’s speech was short and snappy but also eloquent and deeply touching. I suspect that the working-class lad who had fought long and hard to get onto that stage was thinking of the back rows of the Kodak Theatre and the poor folks at home who could only view the events on TV. To accommodate those of us in the cheap seats he was well-prepared, on point and most of all entertaining. O’Toole’s professionalism is unsurpassed and to this day it remains one of the most memorable and moving Oscar speeches I’ve seen. It also slyly illustrates how wrong the Academy had been for neglecting the man and his unique talents during the previous 40 years.

FilmStruck is giving subscribers the opportunity to make up their own minds about the actor’s skills with their current “Starring Peter O’Toole” theme. It includes a documented discussion between O’Toole and the recently departed Robert Osborne recorded at the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival as well as four films O’Toole appeared in including The Stunt Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982) and The Last Emporer (1987). The earliest O’Toole film available to stream is The Ruling Class (1972) directed by Hungarian-born filmmaker Peter Medak (The Changeling [1979], The Krays [1990], Romeo is Bleeding [1993]).

The Ruling Class (1972) Directed by Peter Medak Shown: Peter O'Toole
In The Ruling Class, Peter O’Toole stars as Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney. After his father (Harry Andrews) accidentally kills himself during a private autoerotic asphyxiation session it becomes Jack’s responsibility to manage the Gurney family estate and assume his father’s place at the House of Lords but there’s one problem: Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he’s Jesus Christ. In an attempt to gain control of the family fortune Jack’s nefarious uncle (William Mervyn) and aunt (Coral Browne) decide to commit their nephew to an asylum but not before marrying him off to a beautiful young woman (Carolyn Seymour) so she can produce a family heir. Their plan goes awry after Jack undergoes some creative ‘shock therapy’ that seems to rid him of his delusions but instead of being cured he succumbs to a grimmer mania and adopts the identity of the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. The result is a smart and acerbic social satire that savages the power-wielding British upper classes while casting a critical eye on organized religion and modern psychiatry.

Much like the work of writer David Mercer (Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment [1966], Family Life [1971], Providence [1977]) whose oeuvre was once described as “social alienation expressed in terms of psychological alienation” (The Second Wave by John Russell Taylor), The Ruling Class explores similar terrain but screenwriter and playwright Peter Barnes specialized in what’s been called “anti-naturalistic” techniques. Combining his appreciation of baroque language with German Expressionist drama and Elizabethan theatre, Barnes rejected realism for surreal scenarios, off-kilter musical numbers and potent symbolism in a manner similar to Ken Russell (The Music Lovers [1970], The Devils [1971], Tommy [1975]).

In his ungenerous two and a half star review of The Ruling Class (1972), the late film critic Roger Ebert said, “In the last 70 or 80 minutes, it seems to lose its way. It adds another delusion or two to O’Toole’s already heavy load. It indulges in scenes of fantasy and hallucination, often a sign of desperation in a comedy. It becomes very dark and violent and, even worse, it meanders. We get no real feeling that it knows where it’s going, and every good comedy needs a certain headlong conviction.”

My response to the film when I first saw it some 30 years ago, and again as I rewatched it this past weekend, was the exact opposite of Ebert’s. From where I’m sitting, The Ruling Class gets especially interesting around the 80-minute mark. That’s when the script’s compelling themes finally and truly crystallize. I am not deliberately trying to be contradictory but I maintain that the second half of the film is better written, better directed and better acted by its seminal star, Peter O’Toole.

O’Toole seems to thoroughly inhabit Jack’s skin when he’s donning a stovetop hat and belting out his sinister and wickedly funny rendition of “Dem Bones.” The comedy does get darker and the cultural critiques become much more cutting and cruel while the true gravity of Jack’s situation is finally realized. As his idealism gives way to gloomy visions and violent fantasies we get a true sense of the childhood trauma plaguing the grown man but sadly help is out of reach. Jack’s mind has deserted him and the bleak phantasmagoria that accompanies his disconnect is truly horrific and frightening. I love a good horror movie and prefer my comedy pitch black so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I find the second half of The Ruling Class much more to my taste.

Despite what I or Roger Ebert think, I hope you should give this cult classic a look for yourself. The film has a lot to offer patient and adventurous viewers who are curious to see Peter O’Toole in one of his best and most profoundly moving screen roles.

by Kimberly Lindbergs (originally written for FilmStruck on 8/24/17)