I'm going to get into an uncomfortable subject - aging - and one even more so when it comes to matinee idols. Billions of dollars paid to Hollywood plastic surgeons attest to actors' terror of time and gravity... That's why "Venus," with a near-skeletal Peter O'Toole, is so startling.
It's especially traumatizing because no male actor has ever been as beautiful as O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia." At 29, he was slim and straw-haired, with full lips and unearthly blue eyes.
That was in 1962, and after that O'Toole was often marvelous — he even made a touching Mr. Chips in the remake of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." He was brilliant in hambone parts like the megalomaniacal director in "The Stunt Man." Best of all was his outlandishly drunk English actor in "My Favorite Year."
In "Venus," the 74-year-old O'Toole plays Maurice, an actor who lived his life through women. The film centers on his relationship with Jessie, played by Jodie Whittaker, the working-class niece of an old theater chum. No, he can't have sex with her; his medications make him impotent. He only wants to look and touch. Gradually, this untutored child — he calls her "Venus" — begins to grasp the depth of his need.
"Venus" isn't a great film: There's something clinical in the way the camera scrutinizes O'Toole's decrepitude, especially next to the girl's ripe flesh. But that is the movie's theme. It's a serious meditation on how glamour can give way to a kind of ghoulishness.
Did I mention that "Venus" is billed as a comedy? It has its share of bittersweet laughs. But the best scenes are heartbreaking, like the ones with a luminous Vanessa Redgrave as the woman Maurice abandoned.
Peter O'Toole is so sublime in these scenes. Never mind the way of all flesh: His spirit is undying.