Becket

returns to the big screen this week, riding the swell of affection for its spectral star, Peter O'Toole.

Last week, the gaunt Irishman won his eighth Oscar nomination as the ailing septuagenarian in Venus. If the perennially rakish O'Toole loses to Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), that would make His Gauntness the most-nominated actor never to win a competitive Oscar.

Becket (1964), the literate pageant about King Henry II turning on best bud Thomas á Becket when his Archbishop of Canterbury kneels before God but not the crown, marked the first of two occasions O'Toole played the medieval monarch. The second: The Lion in Winter. Based on a Jean Anouilh play, the story of archbishop and king eloquently argues for the separation of church and state.

Superbly photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, Becket is most compelling as a cinematic record of two uniquely charismatic actors, O'Toole and Richard Burton (as the title character), as legendary for their resonant exhalations as for their alcoholic intake.

It's hard to think of two more exquisite specimens of masculinity than this pair (OK, maybe O'Toole and Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia), who resemble a towering salt shaker and a squat peppermill seasoning every tasty line. Peter Glenville's staging of the material is the opposite of cinematic, but the pleasure of these two extravagantly gifted actors at the top of their game - their diction! their conviction! their beauty! - is enormous.

As with Lawrence of Arabia, there are implications of homoeroticism here that seemed subtle in 1964 and seem a little campy today. Still, I cherish the king, who in a fit of pique, demands of his minions, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

By the way, the second-most-nominated Oscar non-winner? That would be Burton.

Becket (1964) *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Hal B. Wallis, directed by Peter Glenville, written by Jean Anouilh and Edward Anhalt, photography by Geoffrey Unsworth, music by Laurence Rosenthal, distributed by Slowhand Cinema Releasing.

Running time: 2 hours, 28 mins.

Thomas à Becket. . . Richard Burton

King Henry II. . . Peter O'Toole

King Louis VII. . . John Gielgud

Gilbert Folliot. . . Donald Wolfit

Parent's guide: NR

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse, Ritz Sixteen/NJ

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Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey ar 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.