(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2007)
When Peter O’Toole won a special Oscar a few years ago, it struck me how barely connected he was to the rest of the event. Whereas Meryl Streep could survey the room at this year’s Golden Globes and announce (whether triumphantly or wearily, I’m not sure) that she’d worked with just about all of them, O’Toole poses a real challenge in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon stakes (especially if you don’t cheat via the IMDB). I mean, can you name anything he’s done in the last twenty years? Actually, there’s a lot of it, but it’s all dross. Even those famous seven always a bridesmaid never a bride Oscar nominations, always excepting Lawrence of Arabia, won’t likely spring to mind too easily. It’s as if he was playing a different game all the way along. And of course he was. The elements of his legend can hardly be accommodated within the current industry – brilliant but stylized performances, usually in historical epics or manifest oddities; famously wanton behaviour, which must make Lindsay Lohan wistful if she knows anything about it; sheer longevity, albeit in escalating eccentricity and artistic obscurity. And, crucially, the inescapable sense that it should all have amounted to more, and still might.
Hence the excitement over O’Toole’s new film Venus, certainly his meatiest part in years, giving him a valid shot at that Oscar at last. O’Toole plays Maurice, a close version of himself, although hopefully the real O’Toole has somewhat better digs and isn’t getting by quite so hand to mouth. Hanging out in London with his equally aging pals, snatching a few days’ work here and there (mainly playing actual or pending corpses), he gets a new lease on life via the disruptive, self-centered Jessie, a friend’s grand niece. He takes her to the Royal Court theatre; she introduces him to Bacardi Breezers. He recites to her from Shakespeare; she comes back with Kylie Minogue. But already I can hear you saying, sure, that’s all very cute, but here’s all that matters: do they actually do it?
Well, better put this aside for now if you’re relishing the suspense of finding out for yourself, but the answer is no. Venus’ most interesting, albeit underdeveloped aspect, is in exactly how they don’t do it. Jessie is from a traumatic background, she’s been abused and belittled, and this has left her with “issues” about commitment and body image and connection. Part of her initial attraction to Maurice is no doubt his presumed sexlessness, although this quickly becomes complicated (he is played by Peter O’Toole after all). Slowly she offers him a bit of this, a bit of that, always subject to her own arbitrary but savagely imposed cut off lines. And Maurice goes along, communicating a certain self-disgust, but nowhere near enough that there’s a better way to spend his time. It makes for rather icky, almost sadistic viewing, difficult to reconcile with the chirpy Corinne Bailey Rae song so prominent in the trailer and the movie itself.
I doubt it’s giving anything away to say they don’t get to live happily ever after. The film’s final image is of Jessie, alone now, but having attained a different echelon of confidence, in her body and apparently in herself, now happily inhabiting O’Toole’s elevated vision of her. Based on this, the movie ultimately seems to stand as the story of a woman who puts herself on track by chewing up and spitting out a sad old man, albeit throwing him a few crumbs along the way. In this regard, Jodie Whittaker’s performance as Jessie is quite perfect in the sense that she’s resolutely (and I don’t mean to sound like an elitist about this) a second rate woman – not that pretty or sexy and seemingly not remotely interesting to listen to or be with: the kind of woman for whom one merely settles, because she’s the best there is.
Samuel, The Prophet!
The film effectively evokes the stretched, borderline seedy atmosphere in which Maurice is living out his days, sometimes coming close to the gritty socially observant document of modern Britain normally associated with writer Hanif Kureishi. But how interesting is any of that really? And more crucially, what does it have to do with Peter O’Toole, who never seems fully integrated into this scheme? It’s unclear how coherent the film is even trying to be in this regard: when he visits a church and reads the names of real-life contemporaries such as Robert Shaw and Laurence Harvey off the walls, it’s impossible not to relate this to the real life actor’s pending mortality. It’s all a big show, and ultimately you feel they’d have been better off dumping the plot, especially since it’s so weird and slightly creepy, and just creating moments. As exhibited by Vanessa Redgrave’s few scenes as O’Toole’s ex-wife, philosophical now about the way he dumped her and their three kids for some glamorous co-star, not given much here to convey beyond a kindly weathered quality, but doing it in classic fashion.
And as exhibited by one of the film’s most intriguing moments, although it’s little more than a throwaway, where Maurice has a small (but he insists pivotal) role in some Marie Antoinette-type costume drama. We see him deliver his few lines, and although we don’t know the context (and we don’t know if he knows either) it’s completely mesmerizing, and you have no doubt how the old pro would command the screen. This of course is the bread and butter of the real O’Toole’s career – according to the IMDB, his next film is called One Night with the King, and listed way down the cast list, he plays “Samuel, the Prophet”! The real object of Venus should surely have been to rescue the actor, if only temporarily, from such a fate, but it never really gets there, and thus ends up only sharpening your sad awareness of O’Toole’s odd place in the annals of cinema.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Kirby Dick’s documentary about the US MPAA ratings board recently opened here for a week, just ahead of its DVD release. The movie establishes easily enough that the process is excessively secretive, penalizes sexuality more severely than violence and in a manner subject to all sorts of silly rules and judgments, and is basically just a self-serving tool of the studio system rather than a rational contributor to the general understanding of movies. All of which is fair enough, but really, is that news? And although I love movies as much as anyone, and have no liking for arbitrary restrictions, this seems to me mostly inside-the-box special pleading. More movies get made than ever, it’s easier than ever to see them in one form or another, and what business doesn’t have its problems? The biggest issue is that Dick spends all his time fretting about Hollywood moves, and doesn’t chew on the real galvanizing questions, whether political, ideological or cultural. America, and the world it makes, sink deeper all the time into NC-17 territory, and being allowed to see a few more seconds’ naked thrusting in a failed Atom Egoyan movie won’t help one hell of a lot.