If you read some of the blurbs in social media when the sad news broke that acclaimed veteran actor Peter O'Toole had died, you'd think that his only two films were David Lean's epic, Lawrence of Arabia, the Oscar-winning classic that made the new screen actor an international star, and My Favorite Year, the marvelously funny 1980s comedy that brought the middle-aged O'Toole another of his 8 Oscar nominations for Best Actor. The first one came for Lawrence of Arabia, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1962.
In the 1970s, when I was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, I was a frequent patron at the campus movie theater. It was called The Varsity. I saw four comedies there that made me howl with laughter. They had the same effect on the rest of the audience too. They were comedies for a new generation. Two were written and directed by Mel Brooks -- The Twelve Chairs and Blazing Saddles. One was Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. And there was the wickedly mad satire from Great Britain, The Ruling Class, starring Peter O'Toole. The satire would bring O'Toole, as the 14th Earl of Gurney, another Best Actor Oscar nomination.
A film blogger on Twitter, in his appreciation for the late actor, wrote "My Favorite Year proved how adept he was at comedy." To me, The Ruling Class proved how adept he was at comedy. My Favorite Year confirmed it. In this 1972 release, the story takes us to modern day Britain and its aristocracy. A member of the House of Lords dies accidentally one night while getting his jollies during some costumed fetish behavior. His huge estate is left to his son. Nothing wrong with that. However, his son is a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he's Jesus Christ. The son is played by Peter O'Toole.
He replies, "It's simple. When I pray to Him, I find I'm talking to myself."
His casual Christian attitude obviously has broken with the family tradition. His parting words to others as he leaves the room are "Enjoy yourselves while I'm gone. Relax. Have sex." Yes, this is a different Savior. He's a Savior who can appreciate a shapely blonde. One is recruited to help another relative get control of the estate.
Peter O'Toole goes from daffy to desperate to demonic in this film. He's hysterically funny as the harmless madman, especially when he's Jesus breaking out into a song and dance routine. He's an animated, bright-eyed and chatty Jesus. Yet, O'Toole also gives you glimpses into the desperate part -- you see that this is a man grappling with a serious mental condition. Then comes the cure which makes him fall in line with the other aristocrats like his late father. Which personality is more socially acceptable? Which personality helps his family and his fellow man? Which is embraced by the aristocracy?
The Ruling Class is available on the Criterion Collection DVD label. This really is a must-see for Peter O'Toole fans. When the cure for the schizophrenic Earl comes, so comes a change in tone in the movie. One personality preaches love. The other preaches fear. It's not a beginning-to-end loopy, broad comedy like 1982's My Favorite Year. But, trust me on this -- before Peter O'Toole's comic brilliance in My Favorite Year, there was his outrageous comedy performance in 1972's often overlooked The Ruling Class.
Watch it and keep in mind that's the same actor who played Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Jim and The Lion in Winter. Such big screen versatility, wit and charisma will be missed.