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1972: Soaked in Booze with "The Ruling Class"

TFE will be periodically looking back at the 1972 film year before we hit the Supporting Actress Smackdown at month's end. Here's Anna from Defiant Success

Adapted from the play of the same name by Peter Barnes (who also serves the film’s writer), Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class establishes its bizarre nature early on. The plot kicks off after Ralph Gurney, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) accidentally hangs himself while performing autoerotic asphyxiation. Upon his death, his only surviving son Jack (Peter O’Toole) becomes the 14th Earl of Gurney. One problem with this new arrangement: Jack firmly believes that he’s Jesus Christ...

This film has everything: stuffy British people, impromptu song-and-dance numbers, a fourth wall-breaking burlesque, a room full of cobweb-covered corpses, and look over there, is that Jack the Ripper? No, it’s a man in a gorilla costume wearing a top hat and a dinner jacket. (And yes, reading that in Stefon’s voice was intentional as well as recommended.) There’s just so much going on in The Ruling Class, you basically need to watch it to understand what was written within the last two paragraphs. So, on to more coherent analysis.

Having already starred in a production of the play back in 1969, O’Toole also held the rights for The Ruling Class but they had been collecting dust while he pursued other roles. Medak was determined to get them from the actor, and he knew how to convince O’Toole in doing so: they went on a pub crawl. (And this was not long after O’Toole was hospitalized for a different drinking binge!) Afterwards, a thoroughly plastered O’Toole phoned his manager and told him to get the movie underway within the next 24 hours.(Medak got a call from United Artists the next day, and that was that.

O’Toole ended up doing The Ruling Class for free (he got paid handsomely for Man of La Mancha, also released by United Artists that year) but the lack of a paycheck didn’t curb his legendary boozing in the slightest. According to Medak, most of the cast and crew would regularly get drunk with O’Toole in his dressing room during lunch breaks. (One has to wonder how much of said inebriation was captured within the final product.) That being said, Medak was amazed by the actor’s photographic memory, his ability to memorize his lines after one readthrough of the script. Perhaps there truly was a method to O’Toole’s madness.\

In stark contrast to his previous roles in Lawrence of Arabia and The Lion in Winter, O’Toole is clearly having an absolute ball reveling in insanity, unabashedly devouring the scenery as though he hasn’t eaten in ages. Take note that some of his later roles like The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year also have him doing much of the same, minus the insanity… for the most part. Could you imagine if he had won that ever-elusive Oscar for this? Granted, he was up against Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier and Paul Winfield that year so his chances were slim at best.

Nowadays what’s mostly known about The Ruling Class is that O’Toole earned his fifth of eight Oscar nominations for his work (and as many Academy Award aficionados will tell you, he was – save for an Honorary Oscar in 2002 – always the groomsman but never the groom). But that shouldn’t be the only thing to take away from the film. If anything, it’s as if Yorgos Lanthimos got his hands on an Ernst Lubitsch script and amped up the absurdity. But don’t take my word for it – see it for yourself.

more from the 1970s


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Reader Comments (13)

The only reason I watched this was the glorious Coral Browne.

April 8, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Once again Peter O'Toole's brilliant performance was passed over for a second-rate sentimental "comeback". Arthur Lowe should have also been nominated for his hilarious turn as the Marxist butler.

April 8, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

This film is overlong and badly directed, but O'Toole's performance is stunning, and his range here is remarkable.

April 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMatt L.

Been meaning to watch this for ages, and you do a good job of selling it. I haven't followed through yet for the shallowest of reasons - the long running time. That can't be necessary.

April 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I love this and am actually tempted to give him the win over Brando...

April 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

If you don't get the Oscar doing Lawrence of Arabia, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Dangerous Liaisons, you know you never will. :/

April 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoodie

@markgordonuk She was also great in that.

@ken s. I mean, Brando's good in The Godfather but I will agree that an O'Toole win would've been completely out of left field. (And also that Rowe should've been nominated as well. He had the bulk of the movie's best lines.)

@Matt L. To think that he had done The Lion in Winter only four years earlier.

@Dave S. Oh, the time just flies right by for this.

@Andrew Carden I'm somewhat tempted to as well.

@Doodie Well, Glenn Close has the advantage of, you know, being alive so I'm betting she'll win at some point.

April 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

I tried getting through this years ago. It’s pretty dreadful. O’Toole can’t save it.

April 9, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookesboy It's all right. Some movies aren't made for everybody.

April 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

I remember watching this on late night TV and thought 'WTF". But that was decades ago. I wonder how I will feel if I watch it again. O'Toole is always an interesting actor.

April 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

@Bette Streep I assure you, the feeling is mutual.

April 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

"Once again Peter O'Toole's brilliant performance was passed over for a second-rate sentimental "comeback". Arthur Lowe should have also been nominated for his hilarious turn as the Marxist butler."

Egads - this suggests that Gregory Peck was second rate in To Kill a Mockingbird. Unless you mean to attack John Wayne, though is O'Toole really brilliant in Goodbye Mr Chips? Or are you qualifying Rex Harrison in 1964 as a comeback?

Anyway, I would've given O'Toole the oscar in 1968, though I don't think he absolutely has to have one the way I feel about Clift or Burton.

April 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

1964 was Peter Sellers' year

1968 - Cliff Robertson was the worst choice ever - at least until Roberto Benigni - and any of the other 4 were miles ahead (my vote would have been for 1-hit wonder Ron Moody)

As for Peter O'Toole's performance in Goodbye Mr Chips, I'll just direct you to Pauline Kael's review in Deeper Into Movies. More I cannot add.

April 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

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