Saturday, June 14, 2008

Venus--Peter O'Toole

I fell in love with Peter O'Toole when I was 10 and he was 49. He was Flavius Silva in Masada and he had already had some rough decades in the bottle behind him. But with my already developed Biseinen sensors, I knew that he was or had once been exquisitely beautiful.



Already something of an obsessive, I saw every film I could find that I was allowed to see, good, bad or mediocre. From the near perfect Lawrence of Arabia and Becket, to the fluff of How to Steal a Million to the perfectly dreadful Goodbye Mr. Chips (the musical!). Much was off limits to me and I would wait years to see the cult classics like The Ruling Class or What's New Pussycat. It's hard to describe how stunning he is in Lawrence and the pictures I can find do not do the action justice. Tan, tall and blonde--not my usual MO, but he looks like sculpture in that film. Noel Coward allegedly said, "If he were any prettier in that film, he'd be Florence of Arabia."


In glorious technicolor his eyes are electric blue. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to see that film in theaters. A recent acquaintance went to the screening when it was recently remastered and rereleased.

His eyes are very pale now, but the tour de force performance is still there. My mother told me that she'd always heard that he was gay, but I believe he was a serious womanizer. In Venus he is just that, a very old actor who loved and was loved by women. And he has fallen in love with the 20 year old grand-niece of his best friend, a fellow actor who has probably been in love with him for years.
Venus is that great small English film about growing old. About things we have done and regret, but will do or would do if given the chance again. It is a loose Pygmalion story. The crass 20 year old girl is shown to be wounded deep inside and well, simply young and she learns that wisdom is not in putting on a shell, but being true to yourself. And the ending is inevitable. There are films that must end a certain way and you would be angry if they ended some other way--and there are films that can end a certain way but would be better if they didn't. This is one of the former.
O'Toole's character is old and like most of us, angry at being old. He is also an aging actor--reduced to playing corpses or the near death--except in one spot when he takes on a role he is really too sick to play to earn the money to impress the girl. Interestingly it's a period piece--late 18th century like the last thing I saw him in, the David Tennant Cassanova, which I did not like. And that too was about being old and thinking back on decisions we have made. I know that he is currently playing the Pope in The Tudors.
He is surrounded by a great cast--Leslie Phillips as his friend, Vanessa Redgrave as his long suffering wife (an interesting stand in for the real long-suffering ex-Mrs. O'Toole Sian Phillips), Richard Griffiths in a small role, but it is young Jodie Whittaker's movie really. When she comes on--all brutal accent, slouch and attitude, thinking she can come to London and be a model, or that Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky" is on a par with Shakespeare, she is painful to watch and you wonder how he can be charmed but what he sees and what we come to see through her performance, through moments where she is wounded and even more where she begins to hope and care, is a startling and fully-formed character. It is the sort of performance I would have liked to have seen from Natalie Portman in Closer and didn't.
Several times in the film the others make reference to how beautiful he was (spoiler) and in his obituary they show the picture from the cover of his auto-biography, Loitering With Intent. He receives nearly a page bio--I wonder what O'Toole will receive.

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