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|A CurtainUp Book Review
Public Places, My Life in the Theater, with Peter O'Toole and Beyond
By Elyse Sommer
Few would argue that the Welch born actress Siân Phillips has many achievements that would qualify her as having had a successful career. Yet her husband of twenty years, Peter O'Toole, once told someone who asked her how she managed a career and a busy private life "Siân doesn't have a career. She has jobs."
If you equate a stage or film career with international stardom on a grand scale, the star of Lawrence of Arabia certainly was the O'Toole with the big career. And, while Phillips, who like her husband trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, achieved considerable fame as Livia in the I Claudius TV mini-series, and has appeared in many dramas and musicals, the role that determined the course of her life for two decades was that of Mrs. O'Toole.
Those years of being O'Toole's lover, companion, mother of his children, nursemaid and overseer of several complicated households may cause many a feminist eyebrow to arch at this example of yet another smart woman making foolish choices when it comes to men (An affair with a much younger but less successful man, led to another and also troubled marriage). Yet, this memoir is neither a self-pitying litany of regrets or a an expose written with pen dipped in poison, but a generous appraisal of her bittersweet Camelot years with the difficult, often self-destructive actor she simultaneously adored and disliked.
Sure, the author leans on her association with her more famous ex-spouse to lure book store browsers into becoming buyers; and sure, she drops lots of famous names in between the covers. But unlike a lot of ghost-written actor bios, this one is written eloquently and full of fascinating details and observations.
The famous people wandering in and out of these reminiscences are there for good reason and the anecdotes about them are fresh and insightful rather than re-hashed. Mrs. Peter O'Toole is the honey-soaked name to draw the bees to the cash register, but this is very much Siân Phillips' story -- a story told so honestly and with so much dignity and style that the domestic details of her life are as interesting as her journeys to distant lands to be with her husband during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia and Beckett
The O'Toole marriage was beset with problems even before skyrocketing fame and excessive drinking brought him to the brink of death and her to a realization that the marriage would eventualkt end. To become fully known to each other, the young marrieds left no stone of their former lives unturned, but O'Toole being an old-fashioned macho male turned Siân's revelations against her and it is perhaps her willingness, even given that this occurred in the late 1950s, that is the most difficult to watch this elegant and accomplished woman endure. When the storm of this sin-suffer-repent episode subsided, and O'Toole beccame increasingly famous (and difficult) in the 1960s, new clouds overhung their glamorous, good days-bad days life.
Some of the books's most pungent celebrity anecdotes involve a Man Who Came to Dinner style visit from Peter Sellers who upon being presented with a wonderful Boeuf Bourguignon expressed disgust that "Petey " did not send advance word that he was a vegetarian. (While Sellers and a few others refer to O'Toole by his first name, to Siân' he is inexplicably and consistently "O'Toole")
Phillips' trenchant observations on "huge stars" include a take on Katherine Hepburn's relationship with Spencer Tracey as less a case of being pushed into the background (as Phillips was by O'Toole) but a setup which suited her life style. Her advice to Phillips: "You let him push you around -- stop it. I'm spoiled. Get spoiled!" Also wrily funny are the author's comments on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as they relished their perch on top of the big "Scandale" surrounding their marriage. The couple's food consumption astounds Phillips whose own fashion model thinness apparently came at the expense of bouts of anorexia.
While O'Toole will strike many as an intolerable chauvinist, Phillips makes a persuasive case for the satisfying aspects of her marriage to him. The dissolution of this and her subsequent marriages is personal and painful to follow.
Since Phillips has appeared in New York twice in the past five years, it would have been interesting to have her comment on her most recent American appearances, in a solo show Marlene (about Marlene Dietrich) and in My Old Lady. But no matter. By the memoir's end we have come to know Phillips and admire her as an independent woman of a certain age -- and at the risk of making this sound like a cliche advice book, a role model for survival.
New York plays starring Phillips reviewed by CurtainUp:
My Old Lady
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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