The Set of 400: #264 – My Favorite Varsity Drag

Today! Because last time I was kissed in a garden it turned out rather awful –

The Ruling Class (1972)

Directed by Peter Medak

Starring Peter O’Toole, Arthur Lowe, William Mervyn, Coral Browne, Alastair Sim, Harry Andrews (x2), Michael Bryant, Carolyn Seymour, James Villiers, Graham Crowden, Nigel Green

A movie that stampeded into my life at a very opportune time, The Ruling Class was adapted by Peter Barnes from his play, but loses virtually none of the dialogue or general staginess, so I’d warn – if the live theater isn’t your cup of tea, this movie might not connect. They certainly try – the towering madness of Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, is mostly conveyed through Peter O’Toole acting his ass off, but there are some surprising hallucinations and visual digressions from reality that try to place us in his paranoid schizophrenic mind.

It might be a touch over the top in parts

But, being an old theater kid that I am, and having a penchant for insanely dark comedy, this movie really hit the spot. Upon the death of the (unbeknownst to virtually all characters, sans the butler) equally insane 13th Earl of Gurney, his son Jack becomes lord of the manor, despite his fervent conviction that he is God the Almighty, Jesus Christ, or more specifically as the movie progresses, the God of Love. This naturally is a concern to his relatives and friends, all again except Tucker the butler, bequeathed substantial dough by the old Earl and thus able to liberally share his half-drunken opinions of the upper class.

And while more than a bit stagey, the acting is terrific. The most nominated actor to never win an Academy Award, O’Toole picked up his fifth of eight noms for this full blown, 150% portrayal of comic madness. It’s the sort of performance that could easily unbalance a lesser film, but the movie makes such deft use of its tone – tiptoeing across lines of satire, black comedy, and full-on horror – that O’Toole’s Jack leads the parade instead of swallowing it whole.

The supporting group is equally up to the task, led by a hilarious turn from Dad’s Army great Arthur Lowe as Tucker, periodically the relatable but cracked voice of reason amidst the shouting. William Mervyn and Carol Browne are great as Jack’s scheming relatives, and the once-and-forever Scrooge from 1951 Alastair Sim makes solid, nervous work as the reluctant bishop roped into this carnival.

Captain Mainwaring himself!

Oh, also, the movie is sort of a musical. Not totally, there aren’t like scripted songs that advance the plot, but the characters do break into snippets of tunes and dance about now and then. And it is as disconcerting as it sounds, and yet it fits fairly well with everything else going on.

But why did this movie matter so significantly to you? I hear you wonder. It was 2006, and I was deep into the execution of my Master’s thesis in creative writing – which, it should come as no surprise, involves writing a book. I was in the fiction course (already well aware that I probably should’ve stayed with play-writing), and had more or less completed the first draft, when I seriously started focusing on finding a title. Not to get too into it, but the story involved small town politics, jealousy, and some minor class issues, so I was watching/reading a lot of these sort of stories at the time. There’s a line in The Ruling Class, Jack deep in his delusions, that states “Oh, but I’m happy, I’m the sunshine-man, the driver of the gravy train. Choo-choo-choo. It’s all so simple for me.” And that really spoke to me about the characters I was dealing with – the entitled ones, anyway. And so the book became The Sunshine Man. I think if you go to the Wilkes University library and ask nicely, you can see it. It still needs like two more drafts to be decent, and I’m busy writing this, so…

O’Toole’s was the only Oscar nomination for the film, and I guess that’s fair – it’s not for everybody. However, this movie does feature the Best Showdown Between Dueling Messiahs that I can remember, as O’Toole’s God of Love takes on the “High-Voltage Messiah, the Electric Christ, the AC/DC God,” portrayed wonderfully by Nigel Green.

Only Harry Andrews, of the Kryptonian Elders in #305 Superman, joins the Two-Timers today, so that’s an easy and deserved spotlight! He is a joy as the mad 13th Earl of Gurney.

He’s only in the one scene, but it’s a doozy

Coming Monday! Give me the power of man’s red flower/So I can be like you –

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