Oscar 2006: Peter O’Toole in Venus

Peter OToole gives yet another astonishing performance in the British chamber piece Venus, a poignant drama about the unexpected relationship between an old, bitter actor and a much younger and spunkier woman that revitalizes him, bringing joy to the autumn of his life. OToole plays a cynical actor named Maurice who gets involved with Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the grand-niece of Maurice's best friend Ian (Leslie Phillips), also a vet thespian.

Was O'Toole “prophetic” in 2004, when he rejected the Honorary Oscar from the Academy, based on his belief that he was still in the run for a legit recognition, not quite ready yet for a career achievement trophy In the end, you may recall, O'Toole consented and accepted the award.

I mention that, because O'Toole's astoundingly subtle performance as the seventysomething thespian should earn him his eighth Oscar nomination (and perhaps the coveted award itself), when Miramax opens the movie stateside December 15. Right now, “Venus” plays the major film festivals. It premieres this weekend in Telluride and goes to Toronto next week, where O'Toole is bound to be critically acclaimed, giving Miramax enough ammunition to plan a strategic Oscar campaign for him.

If OToole gets an Oscar nomination for Venus it will be his eighth no in close to half a century. Though one of the biggest losers in the Academys annals, OToole is one of the few mulitple-nominated actors, whose nods were always in the lead category. Al Pacino has also received eight nominations (winning for the 1982 Scent of a Woman), but two of his nods were in the Supporting Oscar league. Remarkably, OToole has almost always been the leading man of his films; one of the excpetions was the 2004 Troy, in which he played a secondary part, also of a king. (Its hard to think of other actors who have played so many monarchssee list below).

If OToole receives a nomination, he will also break the record of actors who have experienced a huge time between their first and last nominations. In OTooles case, it would be 44 years, from Lawrence of Arabia, in 1962, to the present.

Discussing O'Toole's career at this juncture of his life brings to mind Henry Fonda for several reasons. First, there was a huge gap between Fondas first acting nomination, in The Grapes of Wrath, in 1940, and his second (and last) nomination, for On Golden Pond, in 1981. Fonda received a nomination as one of the producers of Sidney Lumets 12 Angry Men, in 1957.

Second, if OTooles is nominatedand winsthe Oscar, he will join a vet winning circle that includes, among others, John Wayne and Henry Fonda, who was 74 (roughly the same age as O'Toole is now), when winning the Oscar; unfortunately, Fonda died just three months after his win and couldnt reap the benefits of the award.

OTooles Role in Venus

In the first chapters, Maurice and Ian, two vet actor friends are seen chatting about their deteriorating health, increased reliance on medication, declining memory, and so on. Comfy with each other, they bicker and exchange witty barbs affectionately in their regular meetings in their modest London flats and coffee shops.

Ian is preparing for the arrival of Jessie, his nieces daughter, who is arriving from the more provincial North of England to stay with him, hoping she would take care of his needs. However, initially, Jessie proves to be your typical “irresponsible” girl, lazy, crass, and hard-drinking; she makes it clear she has no intent of becoming Ian's maid, nurse, or even social companion.

To help his friend, Maurice takes Jessie under his wing and starts showing her London. He takes her to see a play, to movie set to watch him play a bit role, and to the National Gallery to see (again) his favorite painting, Velazquez's portriat of Venus; the film's very last scene makes the title even more poignant.

Gradually, to Maurice and Jessee's surprise, they grow fond of and become attached to each other. A brief scene to his former wife (Vanessa Redgrave) shows that Maurice has probably never met an abrasive girl like Jesse. Even so, more open-minded than his age or position would suggest, he dubs Jessie his Venus.

Living a life of quiet desperation, Maurice is resigned to the fact that his own life is coming to an end, but through Jesse, he rediscovers repressed feelings and desire that's been dormant for years. For her part, Jessie is drawn to Maurice, confiding in him. The film takes a turn when Jessie starts dating a loutish youth, and soon abuses Maurice's trust by asking for money and other favors. Maurice consents, aware that his romantic hope for Jessie are futile, but also recognizing the last taste of youth and passion she has been granting him.

Under his tutorship, a deeper, more intimate, even erotic relationship develops between the couple. Very much a journey of self-discovery movie, in due process, both Maurice and Jessie discover how little they each know each other's needs and desires, their expectations from others, and from life in general.

“Venus” could have been titled Educating Jessie, after the 1984 movie, “Educating Rita,” with Michael Caine and Julie Walters as his student-hairdresser. Indeed, along with conversations, educational sessions, visits to to museums and to the theater (one scene is set in the Royal Court Theatre), there are more intimate scenes. In time, Maurice sets a bath for Jessie and is allowed to watch her, and later, she lets him caress, but not kiss, her neck.

In position of undeniable power, Jessie sets the rules, at least as far as physical contact is concerned. When Maurice crosses the line and grabs her breasts (for example), Jesse gets upset, walks out, and disappears for a day or, only to come back later.

In remarkably subdued performance, O'Toole, an actor who often chews the scenery with his histrionics, portrays the kind of old man we have never seen before, certainly not in American films. Though not physically well, Maurice is not limping, and he is not crotchety, as Henry Fonda was in “On Golden Pond.”

“Venus” doesn't make the mistake of de-sexualizing an old man. Reflecting the puritanical and perhaps even hypocritical nature of sexuality in American culture, Hollywood movies seldom depict desire, and if they do, it's in a pejorative, judgmental way. At times, the romantic and erotic scenes in “Venus” feel deliberately awkward, and they might make both younger and older viewers uncomfortable. It's like watching your old father or grandfather desire (and lusts after) a much younger alluring woman.

Peter OTooles Oscar Nominations

Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Best Actor, title role, historic leader
Becket (1964), Best Actor, King Henry II
The Lion in Winter (1968), Best Actor, King Henry II
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Best Actor, title role, schoolmaster
The Ruling Class (1972), Best Actor, Earl of Gurney, who thinks hes Jesus
The Stunt Man (1980), Best Actor, Film directir Eli Cross
My Favorite Year (1982), Best Actor, flamboyant actor Allan Swann

Venus Oscar Alert

Laced with a good deal of humor and irony, “Venus” is more commercially viable than “Mother,” and Miramax could exploit its subject, high-caliber acting, and prestige, in a way that other small British movies have in the past. Peter Yates' “The Dresser, in 1983, also set in the theater world, with Oscar-nominated turns from Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, comes to mind.