Peter O’Toole still lights up the silver screen in randy romance
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Roger Mitchell
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips
Oscar is a funny old thing. Lots of very deserving people don’t seem to have one. Three 6 Mafia has one, but Martin Scorsese doesn’t. Legends Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Kirk Douglas and Cary Grant never took home statues for acting. Roberto Benigni was handed an Academy Award for directing, but Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t. Peter O’Toole, nominated as Best Actor for work in Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips and four other films, has never formally won. (The actor tried in 2003 to turn down an honorary Oscar, saying he still thought he had a chance to win one outright. Academy officials finally convinced him to accept it.)
This year, though, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a chance to right at least two of those previous wrongs. Both Martin Scorsese and Peter O’Toole are nominated in the 79th annual Academy Awards. (Marty’s seventh nom, Pete’s eighth!) Scorsese got his latest Best Director nod for The Departed, while O’Toole is rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his work in the comedy/drama Venus.
In Venus, the Irish-born O’Toole (75 and counting) is perfectly typecast as Maurice, an aged actor and not-quite-reformed ladies’ man who makes ends meet with the occasional TV role (often as “the corpse”) and hangs out in suburban London with his rapidly dwindling coterie of thespian pals (Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths among them). They camp out at the local pub, talk shop, reminisce about the good old days and generally bitch about how lousy it is to be a septuagenarian.
One day, pal Ian (Phillips, who has more than 130 films on his résumé) agrees to let his niece’s daughter move into his flat and act as a nursemaid. Ian’s dreams of a spotless apartment and lovely fish dinners are quickly spoiled with the arrival of Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker), a provincial layabout with a foul mouth and no intention of working for a living. Cowed by the brash 19-year-old, Ian summons his friend Maurice, who always had a certain way with the ladies. Despite her uncouth ways, Maurice finds himself smitten with the slim blonde. There’s nothing particularly notable about Jessie’s appearance, but she has a certain liveliness to her that seems to entrance our aged actor. In short order, Maurice is taking Jessie off Ian’s hands by escorting her to the theater, to dinner and on the occasional shopping spree.
Though the film could easily have come off as a twee English modification of Harold and Maude, Venus understands the many cute-’n’-uncomfortable facets of its May-December romance. On the one hand, lower-class Jessie is ripe for the Pygmalion treatment at the hands of her wise, old admirer. On the other hand, she’s just savvy enough to milk the old coot for what little money he has. For his part, Maurice looks upon Jessie as his life-affirming muse. Of course, he’s just enough of an old lech to wanna see her naked. (An early bout of prostate trouble conveniently ensures that things aren’t going to get too physical.)
Though it flirts in the arena of sex and romance, Venus is clearly a love letter (or is it an obituary?) to the whole fading golden age of English acting. Every day, Maurice and his pals comb through the death notices in the newspaper. More often than not, there’s someone they know. All our boys can do is wonder how many column inches they’ll get when they pass on. Ultimately, Maurice’s affair (if you can even call it that) isn’t so much an attempt to recapture his glory days as a sincere wish that the younger generation actually gave a damn about what’s dying off--not just people, mind you, but an entire culture of art, taste and class that began with Laurence Olivier and is passing away with, well, Peter O’Toole.
Director Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill) knows he’s creating what could be a fond farewell for his increasingly frail star. He acts accordingly, dwelling on O’Toole in nearly every frame. O’Toole’s secret weapon has always been his eyes. No matter how lecherous, drunk or scheming his characters may be, they’re always undone by those soft, pale, delicately fringed orbs. Mitchell knows that and lets O’Toole’s face do most of the talking. No doubt about it: O’Toole looks like a man not long for this world. But those eyes still have the same innocent spark of youth we saw in Lawrence of Arabia. Maurice may be a dog, but he’s a lovable old dog.
Scriptwise, Venus isn’t anything all that special. It scores a few easy laughs off O’Toole’s Lolita-ish ogling and heads toward a largely predictable climax. In other hands, it might have been just another bit of easy-to-dismiss British whimsy. O’Toole’s bittersweet performance lends it an air of gravity, however, that sticks with you. Respectably mature and just randy enough to shock, Venus is an appropriate coda (if not the absolute final note) to the career of the prodigiously talented, soon-to-be Oscar-winner Peter O’Toole.
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