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The Ruling Class

The Ruling Class(2001)

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teaser The Ruling Class (2001)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s such formerly verboten topics as race, religion, and sex were suddenly open for dissection on the big screen, often in a profane, button-pushing manner. Most of the pictures that hit hardest usually featured small budgets and no name actors - Joe [1970], Five Easy Pieces [1970], The Panic in Needle Park [1971] -- and then came Hungarian director Peter Medak's screen adaptation of Peter Barnes' satirical stage play, The Ruling Class (1972), which features none other than Peter O'Toole as an insane British royal who believes he's the second coming of Jesus Christ. Many mainstream critics thought O'Toole, let alone his character, had clearly lost his mind.

You can't really blame them. Who could have expected that the man who was best known as Lawrence of Arabia and King Henry II would enthusiastically accept a role in which he would break into ludicrous songs, spew peace-and-love mumbo-jumbo in between blasphemous tirades, and undergo electroshock treatments. Plus, O'Toole's Ruling Class character, the 14th Earl of Gurney, gets his beauty rest while suspended from a custom-made crucifix! O'Toole was a major star in 1972, folks. Imagine, for instance, Brad Pitt or George Clooney having the guts to pull off something like that nowadays.

Barnes' script takes a lash to the class system and organized religion in England, as well as anything else that he deems worthy of a spanking. The "plot," if that's the proper word for it, is set into gear when the obviously unstable Earl is married by his uncle (William Mervyn) to the uncle's own mistress (Carolyn Seymour), in the hope of producing an heir. The aim is to then lock the Earl up in an asylum and continue ruling with a family member who isn't completely off his rocker.

Alas, it doesn't quite work out that way, because the newlyweds, against all odds, actually fall in love! This leads, as you might expect, to the Earl singing, dancing, and growing convinced that he's Jack the Ripper. But you should be allowed to discover the rest for yourself.

Medak discusses the process of making The Ruling Class in Robert Sellers' outrageously entertaining book, Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed. Medak, who was friends with O'Toole and knew that the actor owned the rights to Barnes' play, often approached O'Toole about getting a film off the ground. Incredibly - and rather fittingly, given the piece's anarchic content - the most productive of these attempts turned out to be an overture Medak made while O'Toole was in the hospital recovering from yet another drinking binge. "Recovering" might be too strong a word, however, since Medak contends that when he entered O'Toole's room, the actor was sitting up in bed, eating caviar and downing vodkas!

Although O'Toole owned the rights to The Ruling Class, the project long sat untouched while he worked on an ever-expanding slate of films. "Then one night (shortly after the hospital visit)," Medak said, "we came back from the theatre. And to go home with Peter meant stopping at every pub between Soho and Hampstead, and it didn't matter if it was after closing hour because he would knock on the door and just say 'Peter's here,' and every door opened for him."

Later on, at O'Toole's apartment, the deeply inebriated actor phoned his manager and said, "I'm with the crazy Hungarian and I know I'm drunk but I give you 24 hours to set this movie up." The next day, Medak received a call from United Artists and a deal was put together to shoot The Ruling Class. Hey - that was easy!

O'Toole's drinking, unsurprisingly, didn't stop there...not that it could affect a film as deeply tipsy in both form and content as The Ruling Class. During the shoot, Medak says, a large portion of the cast and crew got regularly plastered in O'Toole's dressing room during lunch breaks. "Each of us used to drink a bottle of wine at lunchtime at the studio and I don't know how we went on working after that," Medak tells Sellers, "but that was nothing. Everybody drank. It was the culture."

Still, Medak was amazed at O'Toole's photographic memory, stating that O'Toole was a "genius" who could read through a script a single time, then remember every line of dialogue. "Yes, he was very demanding," Medak says, "but all those great actors were demanding, but once they knew the person that was directing them was not a total idiot, then you could get anything done."

Everything but stir up a huge audience. The Ruling Class was a commercial failure upon its release, but not altogether unexpectedly - has since become a cult classic.

Producer: Jules Buck, Jack Hawkins
Director: Peter Medak
Screenplay: Peter Barnes (screenplay and play)
Cinematography: Ken Hodges
Art Direction: Peter Murton
Music: John Cameron
Film Editing: Ray Lovejoy
Cast: Peter O'Toole (Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney), Alastair Sim (Bishop Bertie Lampton), Arthur Lowe (Daniel Tucker), Harry Andrews (Ralph Gurney, 13th Earl of Gurney), Coral Browne (Lady Claire Gurney), Michael Bryant (Dr. Herder), Nigel Green (McKyle), William Mervyn (Sir Charles Gurney), Carolyn Seymour (Grace Shelley), James Villiers (Dinsdale Gurney), Hugh Burden (Matthew Peake), Graham Crowden (Truscott), Kay Walsh (Mrs. Piggot-Jones), Patsy Byrne (Mrs. Treadwell), Joan Cooper (Nurse Brice).

by Paul Tatara

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