Peter O'Toole has a hangover. And he's relishing it.
Yes, he's still in the game, on screen and off. That's why he initially dismissed the idea of accepting an honorary Academy Award four years ago _ and why he received his eighth best-actor Oscar nomination this week for his performance in "Venus."
But on this morning, he's tucking into a bowl of soup. "Unfortunately, some very mischievous and thoughtless New York friends insisted that I drink a little bit too much last night," he explains. "As you can imagine, I couldn't disappoint them."
It's not like the old days, though, when he would carouse with fellow world-class party animals Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch. He imbibed a "modest" amount of red wine and whiskey the night before.
In his younger days, he preferred voluminous amounts of whiskey straight. "Now I'm afraid I have a pint of water with an eyedropper of whiskey," he says, laughing thunderously.
Back then, moviegoers were intoxicated, too, with his performance in the title role of David Lean's 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia" _ and his breathtaking blond, blue-eyed visage. (At a premiere party Noel Coward told him: "If you'd been any prettier, it would have been `Florence of Arabia.'")
Still, he doesn't miss being younger.
"I quite like being old. I've said this before and I'll repeat it: Yes, I'm 74 years old, but in here," he says, pointing to his temple, "quite a lot of the time and in many instances, I'm 21. Nothing has changed, nothing has changed. And then I realize it's not too wise to climb that tree. And I can't play my beloved cricket anymore. I'm getting more and more used to my limitations, and enjoying them. ... I quite enjoyed the hangover this morning. Do you know the feeling?"
O'Toole certainly knows the feeling of being up for an Oscar. Until Tuesday, the star of such films as "Becket," "The Ruling Class," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Stunt Man" and "My Favorite Year" (he received Oscar nods for all these films, as well as "Arabia" and "The Lion in Winter") had been tied with his late chum Burton for futility in acting nominations, at oh-for-seven. If O'Toole loses again, he'll stand alone in the record books.
In "Venus," he plays Maurice, a modestly successful actor who's reduced to taking roles as dying old men and feeble royals. Off-screen, Maurice calls himself a "scientist of the female heart" who's undeterred by his infirmities, including prostate problems and impotence. So when a close actor-friend has his grandniece (played by newcomer Jodie Whittaker) come to care for him, Maurice ends up squiring her around.
The girl _ coarse, sullen, barely 20 _ gradually succumbs to this doddering dandy who quotes Shakespeare and extends theater invitations, gifts, even a life lesson or two.
Despite the "ick factor" cited by some critics, "Venus" supplies a rare sensitive depiction of how people in their twilight years can feel sadly marginalized. (O'Toole's scenes with Vanessa Redgrave, who plays his ex-wife, bespeak an encyclopedia's worth about long lives of love and pain.)
Directed by Roger Michell, "Venus" supplies the male bookend to his 2003 film "The Mother," in which a widowed grandmother has an affair with a much younger man (future James Bond Daniel Craig).
"Like all great actors, he's full of contradictions. He brings this kind of swashbuckling, extremely masculine, romantic flair, which is set against his frailty, and his vulnerability and his sensitivity _ and his lyricism," Michell said by phone from England. "Of that generation, of the kind of hard-drinking, hard-playing, hard-talking British actor from the '60s _ the group of O'Toole, Harris, Burton _ he's the most romantic of all of them."
In a long, rambling conversation, O'Toole displays his lyricism when discussing topics as far-ranging as how delightful he found "Little Miss Sunshine," his regret over never getting to work with Marlon Brando, the failure of even legendary authors at writing screenplays, and "one of the most noble documents in the world, the American Constitution."
He's able to sustain his passion for acting simply because "it's what I do for a living." He doesn't mind playing small supporting roles _ "just to pop in like an old cuckoo clock ... woo-hoo ... and pop out again" _ since being the star and in nearly every shot can be "a helluva burden."
When the topic of all his late friends comes up, O'Toole initially quips: "All my friends who have died _ and that's practically all of them, there's one left _ I say, their deaths are both inconsiderate and inconvenient to me."
For example, he'll be working on his third volume of memoirs _ which will be more of a textbook on acting _ and want to discuss it over drink with an old friend. Then he'll remember: That person is dead.
"Yes, I do miss them. I've buried four this last year," he says, turning more serious if not maudlin.
"A couple expected: You know, octogenarians wobbling into that twilight. But a couple others just completely unexpected: too young, too young, too young," he says, his voice getting lower and lower.
Some 30 years ago, O'Toole had serious health problems and was "an inch from going" himself. He recovered. And he says: "It really did change me."
But he's not going to kid you about ruing those hard-partying days: He was having a blast. "I don't regret a drop. Not a drop."
He attributes his bacchanalian blowouts with Burton, Harris and others in part to their living through the World War II as youngsters, suffering deprivation and fear _ which continued even after V-E Day.
At least they weren't sad, solitary drinkers who get stupefied alone, he observes. "We did it in public ... For us it was a kind of fuel to carry on with the next escapade."
His first job after the end of World War II was with a newspaper, a post that the "Murphia," as he calls the local Irish version of the Mafia, helped him get. He was quite good at "sniffing out" stories. But he knew that career path wasn't for him, even before he did a stint in the Navy.
"Listen, this is going to sound enormously pompous, and I don't mean it to be: I didn't want to be a reporter. I wanted to be reported."
He says he didn't want to sound pompous, either, when he initially chafed at getting a lifetime achievement Oscar. "But the truth is I can't and don't want to be an honorary any bloody thing. ... Because I still am in the bloody game. And I'm going to go on being in the game."
His children (he has two daughters from his 20-year marriage that ended in 1979 to actress Sian Phillips and a son by model Karen Brown) talked him into taking the award. Now that he has another nomination, he's checking out how much of a longshot he is.
"I shall ring the Las Vegas bookies, and find out what the odds are," says the son of a racetrack bookmaker. "Only once in my life have I ever been favored" (for 1968's `The Lion in Winter,' when he lost to Cliff Robertson in `Charley').
Over the years, he's lost to such formidable winners as Gregory Peck (1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird"), Brando (1972's "The Godfather") and Robert De Niro (1980's "Raging Bull"). This time, the oddsmakers make Forest Whitaker's performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" the prohibitive favorite.
Before the interview ends, O'Toole says he needs to "show off" and pulls from his wallet his membership card from the England and Wales Cricket Board Coaches Association, allowing him to instruct kids as young as 10. "I never want to give it up. It's been such a joy for me all my life. ... I'm too old now, I really am, to be an inspirational teacher. Because one of the things you have to do is occasionally demonstrate."
But, he concludes, that's another way of "staying in the game, baby."
Peter O'Toole has a hangover. And he's relishing it.