Sunday, November 20, 2022

#2,865. The Ruling Class (1972) - Peter O'Toole Triple Feature


Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor eight times by the Academy. He never won it.

Occasionally, it was just bad timing. O’Toole was brilliant in Lawrence of Arabia, but then so was Gregory Peck, who won the Oscar that year for To Kill a Mockingbird; and his superb turn in 1980’s The Stunt Man saw O'Toole pitted against Robert De Niro, whose Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (the winning performance) is one of that decade’s most remarkable turns.

There were also times when O’Toole was robbed. Rex Harrison, who won the 1965 Oscar for My Fair Lady, was quite good, but not nearly as strong as O’Toole in Becket. An even bigger travesty occurred a few years later, when O’Toole was again nominated for playing King Henry II, this time in The Lion in Winter, only to lose to Cliff Robertson… for Charley!

O’Toole was remarkable in all of these films, as well as 1969’s Goodbye Mr. Chips and 1982’s My Favorite Year, for which he was also nominated.

His greatest screen performance, however, would come in 1972’s The Ruling Class, a biting satire directed by Peter Medak in which O’Toole played one role - aka: Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney - but what amounted to two separate characters. As the movie opens, Jack, who has spent seven years in a psychiatric clinic, believes he is Jesus Christ, the God of Love. Then, near the film’s halfway point, he is “cured”, and suddenly believes he is a different “Jack” altogether!

Following the bizarre and untimely death of his father (Harry Andrews), Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney, is named sole heir of the Gurney estate. This does not sit well with the rest of the clan - Jack’s uncles Sir Charles (William Mervyn) and Bishop Lampton (Alistair Sim); Sir Charles’ wife Lady Claire (Coral Browne); and their son Dinsdale (James Villiers) - because Jack is stark-raving mad! Convinced he is Jesus Christ, preaching peace and love, Jack could ruin the Gurney family’s proud legacy if his condition is ever made public.

In an effort to secure another male heir, a marriage is arranged between Jack and Grace Shelley (Carolyn Seymour), Sir Charles’ mistress. Once a male child is born, the Gurneys, with the help of Jack’s psychiatrist Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), will have Jack locked away for good.

But before their plan can come to fruition, a few things happen that might just alter Jack’s fate. For starters, Grace, who initially was in it for the money and title, falls in love with Jack. Second, Dr. Herder, with the help of another patient who calls himself the “High Voltage Messiah” (Nigel Green), manages to convince Jack that he is not the Christ. While on the road to recovery, Jack has an epiphany. He is, indeed, Jack. But not the 14th Earl of Gurney. No, he is Jack the Ripper reborn, and heaven help anyone who gets in his way!

Based on a stage play by Peter Barnes (who also penned the screenplay), The Ruling Class, is, first and foremost, a comedy. O’Toole is hilarious early on as the “God of Love”, looking every bit the savior as he makes us laugh time and again with his witty asides. Lady Claire asks him at one point how he knows he’s God, to which Jack replies “Simple. When I pray to him, I find I am talking to myself”. Also getting his share of laughs is the Gurney’s longtime servant Tucker (Arthur Lowe), who, after inheriting £30,000 in the 13th Earl’s will, no longer gives a damn, and tells the Gurneys time and again exactly what he thinks of them.

Alistair Sim is quite good as the man of God put in a difficult position; the scene in which he officiates at Jack’s and Grace’s wedding ceremony, all the while lamenting Jack’s “sacrilegious” behavior, is hilarious. Taking potshots at the upper class time and again, showing how ridiculous propriety can be under certain circumstances, The Ruling Class will have you in stitches.

In addition, the film is (at least in part) a toe-tapping musical. With numbers that center on such time-honored tunes as “Varsity Drag” and “Dem Bones” (a sequence as unsettling as it is humorous), The Ruling Class never fails to entertain.

O’Toole is marvelous as both the kind, loving “Messiah” and the murderous aristocrat, with these two facets of his personality bringing into focus the film’s very cryptic, yet also hilarious take on the upper class. Preach about peace and love, and you are a fruitcake, while extolling the virtues of capital punishment (which he does as the “Second Jack”) brings one back into the fold with the greatest of ease.

O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor for his dual Jacks in The Ruling Class, but had the misfortune of going up against Marlon Brando, whose Don Corleone in The Godfather has become one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history. He never did capture that top prize (he was given an honorary Oscar in 2003 for his lifetime of work), yet Peter O’Toole remains one of the greatest actors to ever grace the big screen, and The Ruling Class sees him at the very top of his game.
Rating: 10 out of 10

No comments: