Venus is Peter O'Toole's latest variation on the same theme he's been playing
for most of his career, one that has stamped role after role with his own wit, intelligence,
quirky charm and heart. Mostly heart. That's really what distinguishes him,
isn't it? He is perhaps the most blatantly sentimental famous actor of his
generation. The gushing of Richard Harris was leavened by a certain mad, macho
ferocity. The gentleness of Michael Caine has always been tempered by a
roguish carnality. Richard Farnsworth was locked out of effusive emotional
displays by the natural reserve of the gentlemen of the American West. But
there has never been anything ferocious or reserved about Peter O'Toole, and
he's at his best when he can stay on the fey side of sexuality. He just
seems to be out there with his heart on his sleeve, puckish but wise, and seeming to possess infinite layers of compassion
man who has seen too much malice and always understood it, but forgave it
This time he's wooing a woman barely out of high school (actress Jessie
Whittaker is 24), even though O'Toole is 74 and looks ten years older, and is
playing a character who is impotent, incontinent, and dying of cancer. He
can't provide much in the way of hanky-panky, and his beloved is actually
quite thankful for that, and yet there is genuine sexual love between them, and their
talks are the playful banter of lovers, not the asexual chit-chat of a
grandfather and his favorite granddaughter. There is the kind of mutual mocking and
hesitant suggestion that marks our courtship rituals, and there is even some nudity and a tiny bit of physical contact. It is a testimony to O'Toole's unique
genius that he can play an 80-year-old man telling a 20-year-old girl that he
has been thinking of her "cunt" and not only avoid the concomitant creepiness vibe, but
actually make it sound as if he were serenading her with a love song, or reading from a
very vivid translation of the Song of Solomon. The important point is that
there is a physical love connection between them, if not in the normal sense.
I suppose O'Toole is the greatest performer never to have won an Oscar.
O'Toole's alpha and omega nominations are more than four decades apart. He was
nominated again for this role, losing this time to Forest Whitaker.
His first nomination came for his iconic portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia, a
performance which is considered among the greatest in history, and would probably have won in 90% of Oscar's years, but
ran up against another performance which, while perhaps not requiring as much talent
as Lawrence of Arabia, may be the single most beloved portrayal in screen
history - Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. When O'Toole
lost that one, he had his passionate defenders who thought he should have won,
but nobody gave it all that much thought because O'Toole was a mere stripling,
still in his twenties when he played Lawrence, and he was obviously possessed
of such prodigious talent and good looks that he would win many future Oscars.
Didn't happen. He has picked up eight nominations, but has come home
empty-handed each time. He's a feisty ol' fucker, though, and continues to
make two or three films a year, so he may do it yet.
Venus is one of those films much beloved by critics but with very little
broad-based appeal, which is a shame because it's the kind of heartfelt quirky
comedy film that the Brits do so beautifully, and it's the genre that O'Toole
doth bestride like a colossus. I image
that a composite critic and a composite mainstream moviegoer would have a
dialogue like this:
CRITIC: I have to see so many films, that it's wonderful for me when something
like this comes along - so original, so quirky, so filled with real characters
and witty banter. Thumb up!
AVERAGE JOE: I suppose all that is true, but I see only four or five films a
year, and I'm not going to spend one of my movie nights on a film about a
dotty old dying grandpa who's hitting on a young girl. I was hoping for
something with a little more energy. I might catch it on cable some night, if
I'm too tired to reach for the remote, and I'll probably be surprised by how
much I like it.
So it goes.
My head can sympathize with both positions, but my heart came down on the same
side as the critics. I enjoyed the film. This is really one for those of you
who see a lot of films and are tired of the same old thing. Of course, I seem to enjoy almost
everything O'Toole does (My Favorite Year is one of my favorite films), so
maybe I'm not Mr. Objective in this case.