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Public Places, Private Moments

Charles Wright cracks open Siân Phillips's new memoir of her life with and without Peter O'Toole. logo
In 1960, a "day-in-the-life" documentary produced by BBC Television declared Siân Phillips to be one of the most promising newcomers on the British stage and a talent to watch. At the same moment, Phillips's second husband, Peter O'Toole -- another promising young theater artist -- was "going Hollywood" in Lawrence of Arabia, which was commencing pre-production in Jordan. They were an enviable sight, Phillips and O'Toole: gifted, well-trained, conspicuously handsome, advancing rapidly in their careers.

By merely being cast in the Sam Spiegel-David Lean desert epic, O'Toole gained a place on the international film world's "A" list. His subsequent career proceeded from one high-profile movie to another, interrupted by occasional returns to the stage. With or without T.E. Lawrence's flowing robes and headdress, O'Toole was -- and remains -- one of the most recognizable faces in the generation of actors that included Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Alan Bates, and Richard Harris. Phillips, on the other hand, has worked constantly in theater, television, and films, without achieving O'Toole's kind of visibility or the stature of her female contemporaries Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (both born the same year as Phillips). Despite assignments such as last season's Off-Broadway production of Israel Horovitz's My Old Lady, her renown in this country rests largely on a handful of zesty performances that are near-classics of camp -- the ball-busting Livia in I, Claudius; Madame de Volanges in Valmont, Milos Forman's version of Les Liasons Dangereuses; the Duchess of Windsor in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles; and Dietrich in Marlene, a glorified cabaret act that ran on Broadway in 1999 for 25 performances.

The Welsh-born Phillips, turning 70 next year, has just published a memoir, Public Places: My Life in the Theater, with Peter O'Toole and Beyond (Faber and Faber, 444 pages; $30.00). She draws the title from one of the book's two epigraphs, an excerpt of Auden's Orators: "Private faces in public places / are wiser and nicer / than public faces in private places." The book's subtitle acknowledges that Phillips's public identity remains linked to O'Toole, even a quarter century after the couple's break-up. What Phillips has written in the 400-plus pages of Public Places suggests that her sense of self is also markedly dependent on her status as the wife -- or former wife -- of a "great man."

Phillips describes the young O'Toole as irresistible; universally adored; "the perfect travelling companion," who saw each day as "a challenge and a hilarious adventure." Even before becoming famous, he was a figure "everyone wanted to spend time with," a "Pied Piper, collecting people wherever he went." Born in Connemara, County Galway, and raised in Yorkshire, O'Toole was mightily ambitious, capable of focus and hard work, and adept at getting whatever he wanted. He displayed the substantial appetites for language, storytelling, camaraderie, and strong drink that are supposedly integral to the Irish DNA. He swigged whiskey and ulcer medication together, puffing an endless chain of unfiltered Gauloises; and his excesses took a toll on his health from an early age. By the mid-1970s, he was a physical wreck, on the brink of death for a considerable time from the effects of self-indulgence.

Public Places is, among other things, a reflection on the contrast between the glittering surface -- the public face, if you will -- of Phillips's life and the putrid underside of the relationship she deems most significant to her whole life. The author claims she married O'Toole in the belief they would be, could be, equals and support each other's aspirations. She writes of her dismay at finding, in the months and years after the wedding, "that my free spirit, my equal partner, expected me to take care of myself, clean the house, wash and iron and provide meals and be on parade when needed. This was the standard male expectation at that time. And I was faintly ashamed that I was so ill-equipped for the job."

The couple decided to have a baby before they'd ever discussed the possibility of marriage. Then, expecting the first of their two daughters, they bowed to social strictures and married to keep scandal at bay. Phillips writes that, after the wedding, she was "taken aback...when I was told that the baby, when it arrived, was not to interfere with my husband's work. That wasn't what I'd expected at all; I think I'd rather hoped that I and my baby would be the center of admiring attention...."

Phillips found herself in a world that revolved entirely around O'Toole and his career. Her husband's promise attracted opportunists and hangers-on, riding his coattails to prosperity. Jules Buck, a sometime film producer who had been in business with Sam Spiegel, established a corporation, Keep Films, that claimed as its principal asset O'Toole (in his capacity as on-screen "talent"). While Buck ran the Peter O'Toole cottage industry, his wife, Joan, coached Phillips in establishing domestic arrangements suitable for the family of a motion picture star. Under the banner of Keep Films, the two couples developed a sideline producing or co-producing some of O'Toole's movies. "Naturally, everything exist[ed] because of O'Toole," writes Phillips, "and everyone's effort [was] directed towards his work and well-being. I [was] very much a willing part of this team and I [could] see that my co-operation [was] essential to the enterprise but I [was] mortified to realize that my work hardly figure[d]."

By Phillips's account, life with O'Toole was a lonely affair. The actor was away a great deal -- spending months in the Middle East, for instance, during production of Lawrence of Arabia. But even when he and Phillips were in residence under the same roof, O'Toole went his own way, socializing with friends he didn't introduce to the family. "I made meals at night and threw them away uneaten before I went alone to bed," Phillips writes. "Sometimes there'd be a dawn demand for something to eat; more often I would wake to find O'Toole asleep in an armchair, an overturned glass beside him. I looked out to see if the car was all right and wished I could take an axe to it. His driving when drunk had become my chief worry and source of fear."

Peter O’Toole
O'Toole seems not to have battered Phillips physically; yet, according to her report, he belittled her, tortured her with reminders about her sexual past, and shut her out of much of his activity: "[O]ur roles in life were made separate and strictly defined and I mentally revised the scenario of my life within wedlock. I couldn't begin to think where my work fitted into his and there were no discussions on that subject." Plus there was the mischief of booze: "From being only a part of life, enjoyed in an endless festive atmosphere, drink became a dominant factor in my daily life," she writes.

Early in her relationship with O'Toole, a friend asked Phillips, "Do you really think you can sustain being Mrs. Edmund Kean?" Inexperienced and besotted with O'Toole, she didn't grasp the significance of her friend's challenge. "I loathed the romanticism," she says, "rejected the exaggeration of the notion of the wild, doomed genius. But, all the same, I was hitched to an acting genius...and I was attempting the impossible." The Phillips-O'Toole saga, at least in the wife's telling, became a nightmare of codependency. "We clung to each other like drowning people, incapable of helping one another, unwilling to let go," she claims. "We both had an instinct towards health and we kicked away from each other, only to return for another possibly fatal embrace....Parting for good was inconceivable....I don't think I hoped for happiness but I couldn't stop trying for resolution."

If Phillips worked alone on Public Places, as is represented (there's no co-author and no visible ghost), she deserves a great deal of credit. Her style is seductively chatty yet literary, with a richness of diction rare for the casual memoirist and, these days, even uncommon among professional writers. Her prose, always felicitous, is often as arresting and evocative as a good British novelist's -- Fay Weldon, say, or Margaret Drabble. Although Phillips's recollections masquerade as free association and, at times, something akin to stream of consciousness, each chapter is a structural marvel, with the tangents lending canny emphasis to landmarks along the main route of the narrative.

Phillips is particularly adept at evoking the tension that characterized her union with O'Toole; she's a dab hand at description of the luxury and opulence that were the quid pro quo for those years of stress and aggravation. Phillips may have suffered a tortured psyche but she was pampered and chauffeured, showered with treasures, and always turned out in designer togs. In sentences that roll along in a mesmerizing, musical cadence, she conjures the sumptuousness of the physical world she shared with her husband, a realm of "unbelievable beauty; beautiful things, beautiful places and acquisitions." The paintings in the O'Toole residences, for instance, are "lovely: a quiet Bonnard for the wall opposite our bed, gorgeous vivid Brós for the entrance hall, a Braque for the drawing room." If Phillips was a prisoner of her own and her spouse's weird psychologies, she was nevertheless put up in a gilded cage.

After 20 years, Phillips got away from O'Toole and entered another long union. Her third husband, Robin Sachs, was 17 years younger than Phillips and as problematic a match as O'Toole, though in different ways. Again, as during the O'Toole years, Phillips submitted to her spouse's demands, overt and implied, until the marriage was beyond salvage. It's tempting to say that Phillips's story is perfectly summed up by the quotation from Horace that is the book's second epigraph: "They change their climate, not their lives, who rush across the sea." In the book's last paragraph, Phillips remarks cryptically that her "life has changed," yet she also writes that there's "no solution, no resolution, no conclusion." The redemptive note in the slough of Phillips's recollections is that, even at the worst moments, nothing could -- to use her exact words -- "make me give up that first childhood resolve to be an actress."

Its subtitle notwithstanding, Public Places is largely about O'Toole and his role in the author's life, and only incidentally about "life in the theater." It's the first-person account of a sensitive woman who permitted her own voice to be drowned in the din of her big-shot husband's ego; and its subtext, whether intended or not, has to do with the noxious effect of grudgingly made compromises and pretending that neurosis is health. Public Places is compelling, like a vivid news account of some horrible disaster. But Phillips's authorial voice is so intimate, so sympathetic, that the reader can't help rooting for her to break free of recurring patterns. As a result, the book's pleasure is undercut by a nagging sense that the author would be better off rehashing this tale with a good psychoanalyst rather than presenting it to the court of public opinion.

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