O’Toole gets randy with his first starring role in years.

Old Peter 

O’Toole gets randy with his first starring role in years.

Maurice Russell, a septuagenarian actor facing the end of his career and his life, gazes raptly at the present that fate has given him: the company of a sullen but strangely desirable teenage girl. At first, his appraising looks give her the creeps, but something about his courtliness piques her curiosity — not to mention her vanity. This is a man who says something about comparing her to a summer's day. She is intrigued to learn that, during his most recent hospital stay, he passed the time thinking about her body.

Which parts, she asks?

"Your hair," Maurice murmurs in a succulent sigh of erotic nostalgia, "your legs, your behind, your eyes ... your cunt."

That distant pbbbtt! sound you hear is a collective Starbucks spit-take, courtesy of a thousand Academy voters watching their screeners of Venus. In most regards, this funeral wreath of a film about a dying thespian in lust-struck twilight is made-to-order Oscar bait, full of reverential nods to the craft, with reminders of the star's mortality delivered over loudspeakers from a running hearse. What keeps Venus from sinking in Golden Pond is its sexual reverie, pondered by a star who couldn't play a cutely neutered grumpy old man if commanded by God.

Peter O'Toole has never been an actor to disappear into a part, any more than his blue-eyed devil Lawrence could blend into the sands of Arabia. He was born to sweep a role around him like a matador's cape, transforming it by virtue of sheer heroic panache. The heroically ravaged Maurice is another such role.

Maurice's acting days are done, other than the occasional gig playing a corpse on a soap opera. ("Typecast again!" cackles his estranged wife, played by a cheerily disheveled Vanessa Redgrave.) His life is a round of prostate exams and sitcomlike coffee dates with crotchety fellow player Ian (Leslie Phillips). One day, he enters Ian's apartment, where his friend's teenage relative, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), has come to stay. Something about the girl's insolent youth (and the careless peek of midriff between her sweater and jeans) sets Maurice's pulse racing.

The screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi, made his name with disruptive sex-as-weaponry comedies such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. His script for Venus at first appears to be a Lolita. But Maurice sees his own foolishness clearly, even fondly. O'Toole's gentle self-mockery offsets the morbid emphasis on his frailty. Indeed, it's almost impossible to look at the haggard O'Toole, now 74, and not worry about the time left in his company, even if you resent the movie making the point so insistently. And yet the star's own ragged glory rebuffs any impulse to send flowers.

"Come on, old man!" Maurice growls, slapping himself in the face to rouse what spirit he has left.

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