film

The last taboo: geriatric romance

With his Oscar-worthy turn in 'Venus,1 Peter O'Toole leads a new wave of lovesick seniors

BRIAN D. JOHNSON January 22 2007
film

The last taboo: geriatric romance

With his Oscar-worthy turn in 'Venus,1 Peter O'Toole leads a new wave of lovesick seniors

BRIAN D. JOHNSON January 22 2007

The last taboo: geriatric romance

With his Oscar-worthy turn in 'Venus,1 Peter O'Toole leads a new wave of lovesick seniors

film

In a movie industry besotted with youth, the notion of anyone over 60 falling in love, or expressing lust, is usually played for laughs. You get Jack Nicholson blundering into a naked Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. Or a retirement community fostering a singles scene in Boynton Beach Club. It seems any love story involving old folks has to begin with the notion that there’s nothing funnier, or more grotesque, than aging flesh. Lately, however, we’ve seen some films that dare to take elder romance seriously.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Sarah Polley’s Away From Fier—which hits Sundance next week after a triumphant premiere at the Toronto festival—stars Julie Christie, 65, and Gordon Pinsent, 76, as a married couple estranged by Alzheimer’s. It’s one of the most touching love stories in years. In Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench, 72, plays a cunning crone who entraps Cate Blanchett in a web of sexual blackmail. And now in Venus, Peter O’Toole, 74, plays the year’s unlikeliest romantic lead: a geriatric flirt infatuated with a woman more than half a century his junior.

It’s a dodgy premise, and it could so easily curdle into something unsavoury: the sentimental redemption of a dirty old man. But O’Toole, skating a delicate line between wit and pathos, embraces his mission of romantic mischief with irresistible charm. An elegaic portrait of an actor as an old man, this is the kind of performance that is tailor-made for the Academy. O’Toole has seven Oscar nominations, the most any actor has received without winning. Last year the legendary star of Lawrence of Arabia accepted an honorary Oscar with some chagrin, declaring he was “still in the game.” With Venus, he makes good on his promise: he’s now the year’s leading contender for Best Actor.

Venus rolls along for the most part as a gentle, good-natured comedy. Maurice (O’Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) are a pair of veteran thespians whose glory days are behind them. They play bit parts in soap operas, as dying relatives and corpses. Over café breakfasts, these grumpy old men divvy up handfuls of prescription pills like kids sorting Smarties and gripe about the unearned contentment of the young—“Oh just kill them, kill the young, exterminate their disgusting happiness and hope.” Then, to Ian’s horror, his grandniece, a white-trash slacker named Jesse (Jodie Whittaker), shows up on his doorstep and makes herself at home. Maurice, an inveterate lady’s man, senses an opportunity: disarming this callow young woman with abject worship, he calls her Venus and initiates a quixotic, bantering courtship. The ensuing relationship, by turns ludicrous and tender, is quite unlike anything we’ve seen onscreen.

Although Maurice’s intentions are blithely carnal—he wants to see her naked and touch her body—there’s not a lot he can do about it. Early in the film, he undergoes prostate surgery, which his doctor cheerily predicts will leave him impotent and incontinent. So the chemistry between these two solitudes of youth and age remains theoretical, and all the more electric because of it.

But there’s more than a generation gap at work. As the tale of a Shakespearean actor lavishing poetry on a uncultured workingclass girl, Venus is a Pygmalion coming-ofage story. And as the portrait of a septuagenarian Peter Pan, it’s a coming-of-oW-age story. Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) have played with this chemistry of age and class beforein The Mother (2003), starring Daniel Craig as a contracter who seduces an older woman. But the magic of Venus is in the casting.

The movie throws together two actors at opposite ends of their careers: O’Toole, pulling off one last great performance, and Whittaker, making a bold screen debut fresh out of drama school. He plays the incurable romantic, happy to act the fool in a hopeless cause. She’s the impudent object of desire, who discovers her beauty in an old man’s gaze, and in the parchment-soft sound of his voice reciting verse. The movie’s real object of desire, however, is O’Toole, as the camera finds glimmers of youthful radiance in the desert planes of his face, or in those Adriatic blue eyes framed by a wayward shock of hair.

Venus is flawed by some broad strokes of contrivance. But O’Toole redeems the pratfalls and the sentiment with the nonchalance of an old pro giving a master class with no evidence of effort—an actor unafraid to show his age, yet not ready to abandon his youth. M