STEVE INSKEEP, host:
More than 40 years after a dazzling first run, the 1964 movie "Becket" is back on the big screen. First time around that movie earned a dozen Academy Awards. "Becket" is back now just in time to cast a light on the star, Peter O'Toole, and this year's Oscar race.
Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan enjoys the comparison.
KENNETH TURAN: By a quirk of fate, a newly restored print of "Becket," co-starring Richard Burton and a 32-year-old Peter O'Toole, hits the big screen just when a 74-year-old O'Toole is once again in the heat of an Oscar race for his role in "Venus." The core of "Becket's" appeal is unchanged. That's the onscreen collaboration between two of the English-speaking world's greatest actors working in their vibrant prime. This collaboration is successful because the subject matter is compelling, and frankly, far from what any studio would put into production today.
Set in 12th century England, "Becket" focuses on a savage split between best friends, one of whom happens to be England's king, over the conflicting rights of church and state. Not exactly an MTV-friendly subject, but there you have it.
Major stars thrust together on screen, often end up undercutting each other. But one of the pleasures of "Becket" is how easily and generously these two commanding actors allow each other the space to make the most of their individual roles.
(Soundbite of scene from the movie "Becket")
Mr. PETER O'TOOLE (Actor): (As King Henry II) You can't allow it. You can't stand by. Are you taking yourself seriously as archbishop?
Mr. RICHARD BURTON (Actor): (As Thomas a Becket) I am the archbishop, my prince.
Mr. O'TOOLE: (As King Henry II) By my grace.
While Burton is excellent as the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is O'Toole's King Henry II that is the role of the film. He is a tricky and elusive character we shouldn't like, but we do; someone who manages to make the arrogance of power attractive. He also turns out to be a surprisingly sensitive man who means it when he says I am your friend and you are wrong not to love me.
Mr. BURTON: (Thomas a Becket) How's your son? He must have come of age?
Mr. O'TOOLE: (As King Henry II) He's an idiot, and sly like his mother. Thomas, don't you ever marry.
Mr. BURTON: (As Thomas a Becket): You took that matter out of my hands when you had me ordained.
Mr. O'TOOLE: (As King Henry II) If we start on that we're sure to quarrel. Talk about something else.
TURAN: To see both "Venus" and "Becket" is to get the rare chance to compare O'Toole then and now. To see what he has gained and what has been lost. Inevitably, now that he is noticeably frail, there is an aspect of power O'Toole doesn't attempt anymore. His furious Beckett demand - will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest - is likely something he could no longer bring off convincingly. On the other hand, so much of what makes this man one of the premier film actors of his time, his great bone structure; command of the language; grace of movement; and the live eyes, are as visible in "Venus" as in "Becket". And his age gives more emphasis to wistfulness about his persona. No one, then or now, does this kind of evanescent, bittersweet regret better than Peter O'Toole.
INSKEEP: Ken Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.
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