PUBLIC PLACES by Sian Phillips


My Life in the Theater, with Peter O’Toole and Beyond
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A memoir gets mired in heavy detail and an endless procession of admittedly justifiable mood swings.

The mood swings and the lamentable lack of focus can both be blamed on the huge presence of Peter O'Toole, to whom British actress Phillips was married for many years. Too many pages are occupied by his over-the-top lifestyle, while his long-suffering wife tends to disappear into the background setting. It’s not terribly shocking to learn that O'Toole was a “dangerous, disruptive human being” whose “only slight difficulty was drink”—well, maybe there were those other little problems like being a megalomaniacal control freak and a truly frightening driver, as well as having a tendency to simply take off and go missing. Nor will anyone be surprised that life with Peter was “intermittently ecstatic or unbelievably dreadful.” Phillips sure was a sucker for the ecstasy and perhaps even sought out those swings, for she also writes of her acting career that “the highs were glorious and the lows difficult to look back on without shuddering.” Among the highs she ably captures is the opening of O'Toole's Merchant of Venice, “a night to cherish for a lifetime. At the wild curtain calls I sat in my unbecoming dress, tears rolling down my face.” The lows rarely have any twist of the knife, but when Phillips is candid, she conveys a gripping sense of her emotions. (During a thoroughly unexpected affair, she admits, “Behaving badly was making me happy.”) Her own career is downplayed, though fully covered. Some of the incidentals are captivating, as when she describes Judi Dench's intelligence as an actor, but too often her rambling text offers only a laundry list of names without any meat attached: “Penelope Wilson was a wonderful colleague,” and that's enough about her.

A life as if seen from afar. (16 pp. b&w photos)

Pub Date: May 21st, 2003
ISBN: 0-571-21128-3
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2003


NonfictionPETER O'TOOLE by Robert Sellers
by Robert Sellers