Just before the expected love fest for Peter O’Toole at the Academy Awards on Feb. 25 — whether he wins his first "real" Oscar in eight tries or not — his first big hit has been restored and re-released; "Becket," from 1964, is playing in Bay Area theaters.
This suspenseful and moving historical drama, about the friendship and eventual struggle between King Henry II (O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), received 12 Oscar nominations four decades ago, winning for Edward Anhalt’s screenplay (adapted from the play by Jean Anouilh).
Historically and according to film history, the Henry-Thomas clash in "Becket" preceded a similar royal crisis between another Henry (the Eighth) and another Thomas (More) — but dealing with a willful English monarch and a one-time friend, who sacrifices himself for the sake of the Church, both Thomases declared a saint eventually. Historically, the difference is between the 12th century "Becket" and the 16th century story of Henry VIII; in cinema, the latter’s "A Man for All Seasons" came in 1966 (with Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield).
"Becket" also marked rival nominations of O’Toole and Burton for best actor, the two stars in the movieland firmament with the most instances of being "always a bridesmaid, never a bride." Although O’Toole received an honorary Oscar in 2003, his seven nominations before this year’s "Venus" were unsuccessful — and the eighth time must be a charm, even though young, first-time nominee Forest Whitaker, in "The Last King of Scotland," poses a formidable challenge.
For O’Toole, nominations other than for "Becket" include "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962, which should have been an easy win, except for the undeniable competition from Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), "The Lion in Winter" (1968), "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969), "The Ruling Class" (1972), "The Stunt Man" (1980) and "My Favorite Year" (1982). O’Toole is also the only nominee twice for the same role, that of Henry II (in "Becket" and "The Lion in Winter").
Burton, who died Oscarless in 1984, lost seven times: "My Cousin Rachel" (1952), "The Robe" (1953), "Becket" (1964), "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1965), "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), "Anne of the Thousand Days" (1969) and "Equus" (1977).
O’Toole’s performances "have ignited the screen for more than four decades," Academy President Frank Pierson said, awarding the actor an honorary Oscar in 2003. "He has appeared in some of the most unforgettable roles in the history of the medium. He’s seven times been nominated as best actor, which puts him in extremely rarefied air for a performer. The Board of Governors felt it was time for him to hold his own Oscar in his hands."
Now, with that record eighth nod, eclipsed — so to speak — only by Susan Lucci’s 18 winless Emmy nominations, all eyes will be on O’Toole again.