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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

A Scór of Fleadhs

Note: This is the column I had written at the beginning of the Galway Film Fleadh but which I was not able to post because of the death of my computer’s motherboard. Somewhat belatedly (to be precise, 16 days later) I am now posting it. I will resume my normal posting schedule next week.

It’s time for the Galway Film Fleadh again, and this year is the 20th installment. It’s hard to believe that this film festival on Ireland’s west coast has been going on for only 20 years. I could have sworn that I personally have been coming to it now for 30 years.

A quick check clarifies that I have attended but six of the Fleadh’s iterations, the first time ten years ago. So I actually climbed on board at the halfway mark, as of now.

One area where this Galway fest excels is in coming up with new Irish films—as well as the usual North American independent films and plenty of examples of world cinema and archival films. And there are quite a few new Irish flicks in this year’s Fleadh, including some by directors I already know. Bob Quinn, who made the first Irish language feature film, Poitín, has a new movie called Vox Humana, set in Galway. (I hope I have that right. Last year I mixed up Bob with his son Robert, also a filmmaker, and I haven’t felt right since.) Lance Daly, who previously made an interesting slice of Dublin urban life called The Halo Effect, has another one, called Kisses. And Gerard Stembridge has a new film, a thriller called Alarm. Stembridge has made some very good movies, including the twisty mystery Guiltrip and the bubbly romcom About Adam. He also had a hand in a very funny political/media satire TV series called The State of Us, which was devastating on its satiric take on Irish politicians and, even more effectively, media personalities. Stembridge is a delightful man and one film director whom I have actually met. I mean, he and I were actually properly introduced once. It was one of the perks of being involved in Seattle’s Irish Reels Film & Video Festival, which screened About Adam.

Martin Duffy, who came up with a very moving film about childhood with extraterrestrial elements in The Boy from Mercury, looks set to do something similar with Summer of the Flying Saucer. And Ian Fitzgibbon, who had his own unique view of Dublin life in Spin the Bottle, looks like he might be coming up with some additional meta-narrative filmmaking with A Film with Me in It.

On the opening day (Tuesday) there was a piece on the Fleadh on the morning news program of the national broadcaster. There was a strange incongruity when the reporter mentioned the two big names that are being honored this week: “two-time Oscar winner” Jessica Lange and… Peter O’Toole. Does this not point out some imbalance in the universe that Jessica Lange has won two Academy Awards (in 1983 for Tootsie and in 1995 for Blue Sky) and Peter O’Toole has won none? Well, he did get an honorary Oscar in 2003 for his life’s work to date. But he has never won an Oscar for acting in competition, despite being nominated eight times, beginning in 1963 for his star-making turn in Lawrence of Arabia, and most recently two years ago for Venus. In between there were Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year. It doesn’t matter what other actors were in competition during any of those years. The fact is that, if there were any sanity in this plane of reality, this man would have a shelf full of those statuettes.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge Lange her Oscars at all. Of course, I never saw Blue Sky, and I don’t know how many other people did. And it was strange that she won for Tootsie (for Best Supporting Actress) in 1983 when she was also nominated for Best Actress for Frances, in which she rose to the much higher challenge of playing the tragic real-life actor Frances Farmer. Anyway, with those roles—as well as with her many other ones over the years, including her other Oscar-nominated ones in Country, Sweet Dreams and Music Box—she persevered in an industry where attractive blonde female actors are not always taken seriously as artists. Especially when the first impression we had of her in a movie was playing a dumb blonde type in a big special-effects extravaganza, the Dino De Laurentiis-produced 1976 remake of King Kong.

But back to O’Toole. Seeing him in the flesh, answering questions in a public interview promises to be quite a treat. He is reputed to be shy about film festival appearances, so this is a real coup for the Fleadh. Perhaps he was coaxed into it because the Fleadh amounts to something like a hometown event for the Connemara-born thespian. (The fact that his daughter is the chair of the Film Fleadh board probably didn’t hurt.) Though he grew up in Leeds, England, he was born near Clifden on the extreme west coast of Ireland and County Galway. Apparently, sometime after he became a celebrated actor, he established a home there because the Missus has a story from her wayward youth, when she was working in Clifden, of peeping over a wall on his property to look at some horses. As far as I am concerned, this, plus the fact that I am less than half a day’s drive from his home place, makes us neighbors. And I said as much when I publicly rooted for him to get the Oscar he deserved two years ago.

My other soft spot for O’Toole comes from his starring turn in The Stunt Man because that movie will be forever tied to my erstwhile home city of Seattle. Directed by Richard Rush, the film gave O’Toole a flamboyant scenery-chewing role that was perfectly matched to his persona and his talents. He played an autocratic film director (he said he modeled his performance on Lawrence of Arabia’s director, David Lean) who gives a stunt man job to Steve Railsback, who has stumbled onto the movie set while on the lam from the law. The story’s tension comes from Railsback trying to figure out if O’Toole is actually trying to kill him in a potential case of cinéma vérité. Unable to get studio backing, Rush financed The Stunt Man himself, and it was a huge hit at the Seattle International Film Festival. Then, when Rush couldn’t get it distributed, he arranged for it to be shown in a test run in Seattle, where it was a box office smash. Finally, 20th Century Fox distributed it, and not only did it become a successful release but also got three Academy Award nominations, for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Because of the risk of building unsustainable hopes, I’m trying not to anticipate too much the stories and anecdotes O’Toole will have for Sunday. But it really doesn’t matter. Frankly, he is one of the few actors to whom I would be happy to sit in an audience listen as he read the telephone book.

-S.L., 10 July 2008

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