Viewers who watched a frail older gentleman graciously accept his special Academy Award back in March will hardly recognize the Peter O’Toole who roars through Welsh actress Sian Phillips’ memoirs.
When he wasn’t getting drunk, driving recklessly, or staying out all night, he was berating Phillips about the men she slept with before she married him in 1959. He expected her to unquestioningly subordinate her career to his — he made her leave the Royal Shakespeare Company after it sued him for dropping out of “Becket” to play Lawrence of Arabia — in return for the opportunity to spend his movie-star earnings on gorgeous homes and a lavish lifestyle he dropped into and out of at will. Mind you, he was a lot of fun, they had some marvelous adventures together in exotic locales, and Phillips tells us, “I learned more about acting from O’Toole (as she always calls him) than I had done from any of my teachers.”
It’s a bit awkward having someone else be the star of your autobiography, though, and Phillips doesn’t help matters by saying very little about the work that made her a respected actress in British theater and television. (She’s best known to Americans as the deliciously evil Livia in “I, Claudius,” and she had a West End success as Vera in “Pal Joey” shortly after her 1977 split with O’Toole.) But she certainly makes her former husband’s dazzling charisma evident in her understandably bitter though generally balanced account of their 20 years together.
Shrewd, funny character sketches of English theater greats, including John Gielgud and Rex Harrison, are also fun. “Public Places” is an odd book in many ways — there’s absolutely nothing about the author’s life before she met O’Toole, for example — but it’s certainly got plenty of juicy material about a famously turbulent marriage.