VENUS: The Age Of Film
by Rob Mills
by Rob Mills
The film Venus, starring Peter O'Toole as, Maurice, an elderly actor obsessively in love with Jessie, a much younger woman played by Jodie Whittaker, is an extraordinarily moving, albeit flawed, film production. I will touch on the flaw only briefly; and, yes, there is more than one but no tapestry is perfect and since it is a singular flaw which lies at the heart of my criticism (and because I liked the whole thing so damned much) I won't pick at those threads nor dwell too long on the flaw. What struck me most about the film was the way in which it spoke volumes not only about how we all age as human beings but how others age before us as cultural icons.
O'Toole is certainly iconic in anything he sets his hand to these days. Such are the vicissitudes of having a lengthy and successful career in the arts. The artist becomes a member of the family, the best friend, the loyal dog, the eternal flame which speaks to and for us. O'Toole is all that and more. And by God he's looking positively ancient. That's mostly because he's old and went through a time in his life where taking care of his physical being fell far down on his list of priorities. I raise my glass in solemn salute. That's another aspect of being a living icon: people applaud simply because you can still draw a breath. It's probably also due to the fact he was playing the part of an old man. It's called "acting", my boy.
The role of Jessie sits on top of the aforementioned flaw. The problem isn't with the casting, Jodie Whittaker was note perfect as the object of Maurice's affections. The problem lay, I think, in the writing. Ouch.
Hanif Kureishi wrote the script and he's no slouch, having penned such gems as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Mother, another remarkable film with disparity in ages as its central theme and which was directed by Roger Michell the director of Venus. Michell also helmed Notting Hill but we won't hold that last one against him.
Kureishi's script worked well enough in drafting the characters and their turmoil as their story unfolds, and some of the lines arising from Maurice's banter with his acting chums (Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths) made me snort out loud from that most deadly of combinations: truth & humour. But, as good as the writing was, there was something missing. It was lacking a key and necessary ingredient. I don't like criticizing screenplays based solely on what is presented on the screen. I haven't read a copy of the script and I've been in the business long enough in a variety of roles to know what hellish combinations of passion, tomfoolery, improvisation, blind greed and pure unabashed stupidity get applied to a screenplay during the process of making a finished film. Maybe what I'm about to point out was in the original script and got left out for any number of legitimate reasons such as time or cost.
Here's my quibble:
Jesse allowed Maurice to become close and intimate with her without conveying to us any sense that he was in any way intriguing to her. My wife, Karen, pointed it out to me first by saying: "I guess it's a guy's wet dream to have a woman allow you to sniff her neck but I would have slugged him." Jessie herself says: "Only with your fingers. Anything else will make me vomitous." The missing element in their platonic yet sensual romance was her appreciation of him as something other than just a dirty old man. Oh sure, she's in it for the money and gifts at first and eventually arrives at that place called love but it's the initial acceptance of his advances that lay out before us as being false and unjustified. There was a moment - and almost moment - where she saw him in an old film on television. Unfortunately the filmmakers chose not to show any actual images of O'Toole on the screen as a younger, more attractive man. Maybe it was because the rights to such footage was too expensive and after having shelled out for their remarkable cast the production decided it could only afford to buy unexposed film. Maybe the filmmakers decided that to show O'Toole in any one of his iconic roles (there's that word again) would have been distracting for an audience who are supposed to accept him the role of a working player instead of "a Star"; which would not only be a mistake but also shamefully doubting of O'Toole's own abilities to make us believe.
The film which best comes to mind is the Steven Soderbergh film The Limey with Terence Stamp as Wilson, a violent career criminal searching for the murderer of his daughter. Soderbergh used old footage of a much younger Stamp from Poor Cow (director Ken Loach's first feature) in a role similar to the one he now played in his later years in The Limey. These images of the youthful Stamp were used as flashbacks to show the path his character had taken which ultimately led him to where he found himself in the present day. Stamp himself said the experience of watching this dual performance unfold was unnerving.
There was a brief glimpse of the younger O'Toole in a newspaper photo at the end of Venus, but they needed that earlier glimpse of him, alive and moving, as a vibrant, attractive young man.
O'Toole is a star. He's also an actor and a damned fine one. Some of this territory was mined by him previously in Richard Benjamin's film My Favourite Year, with that grand line: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" and it's only fair to point out that Venus is not about an old guy who's an actor but about an old guy who is arriving at the end of his time and is reaching out for love and sensual affection before he draws his last breath.
But that moment - that missing moment - where Jessie could have seen Maurice as he was and then look upon him with new eyes could have swiftly and simply opened the door to our understanding of why she allowed him to become closer to her; such a moment would have swept away any falseness in her actions.
Everybody wants to play God when they watch the movies, second guessing the cast and crew and declaring: "Well, if I was directing ... ". I don't know why such a moment wasn't included and feel strongly it should have been. It would have been worth the cost of the film rights, it wouldn't have added any additional or unwarranted screen time, and it would not have conflicted with the ability of an audience to accept O'Toole in that role. As my wife said, maybe it's a guy/girl thing but she couldn't get as deep into the film as I did because of that hollow space in Jessie's choice to allow Maurice to sniff her neck. She needed to see him as he was and then discover who he is. That was the flaw.
Perhaps I was more accepting because I also found myself gazing at O'Toole's wonderfully transparent face, looking like a delicate rice paper sculpture with endless subtle folds and emotions flowing across it like watercolours in the rain. His scenes with Vanessa Redgrave as his ex-wife Valerie were stunning and not just because they are two of the best actors alive today but also for the simple reason that they are now old. O'Toole has played old before, a prime example being his Henry II in James Goldman's remarkable The Lion In Winter opposite Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquataine; she was 61, he was 36.
People grow old. Happens to the best of us. Happens to all of us. We grow old. We look in photo albums and play back home movies and say: "Oh my God, look at that hair!" or "Why didn't somebody tell me I looked like an idiot in those pants?" and most often: "We look so young."
When faces become famous in film they become embedded in our mind's eye and we continue to see those actors, those Stars, as they were. We all know what Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland looked like. If the Stars were lucky enough to have a lengthy and successful career we would have the opportunity to watch them as they grew up and grew old. Mickey Rooney is still kicking around in a career that began back in 1927 and I not only hold him in my head as the horse trainer in The Black Stallion but also as Andy Hardy and as young Puck in 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream. James Dean, of course, will be forever young.
I had a somewhat profound experience a number of years ago (1978 - holy crap) while watching the AFI Tribute to Henry Fonda. They presented the obligatory montage of clips from his films and while I had seen many of these before there was something about that display of his characters, of him and his face as it travelled from youth through the years to old age. I was stunned. I can't explain exactly why but at that moment I gained a deeper understanding of cinema as an expression of time. It captures time, one frame at a time, to create the illusion of movement and stores that time so we may travel back and watch it unfold again and again. This phenomenon of aging icons has only been with us for 100 years and will surely render some as yet unimaginably profound shift in how we see ourselves.
Watching Venus brought that back to me, especially those scenes with O'Toole and Redgrave, the icons of the sexy sixties, looking at each other and doing something most actors are incapable of: acting their age.
You could see a thousand conversations between those sets of shining impossibly blue eyes. Yeah, I know, part of what made their scenes work was their ability to act; and the writing was good; and the direction was decent; yeah, yeah, I know all that. And they were old. They were old and just as amazed and horrified about it all as we are watching them, or ourselves, travel through time and inexorably physically decline. If they were two unknown actors, equally gifted in their craft, the scene would not have had the same impact. It possessed that additional element of iconic faces. We have a shared history with them. We know them. They represent us. Always have and always will. That's what makes them icons.
In a way there's a lot of this summed up in three lines of dialogue in Venus which weave through the human quest for pleasure across the span of time
Maurice: "For most men, the woman's body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see."
Jessie: "What's the most beautiful thing a girl sees? Do you know?"
Maurice: Her first child.
Cradle to grave, right there.
Ultimately, the film Venus (like most stories) is about want and need. We want and need the love of others and despite our best efforts to deny or reject it, whenever we might be so lucky to have love cross our path, we usually manage to fall in it. We also seem to want and need those images of ourselves, our better selves, our icons. We need those images dancing before us, keeping us in thrall and keeping us inspired. Venus is also about time. Film itself is an art form which relies on the use of time and the icons it presents us do more than just date and fall from fashion; they age right along with us. Our cultural icons today are not the fixed images of a stern Christ illuminated upon a panel of wood from the Middle Ages, cold and distant, but are instead shimmering images of moving light which draw us closer, tell a story, bring forth deep emotions and, just like all of us, with every conspiring breath - grows old.