Landing actor's actor for 'Venus'

The Baltimore Sun

Roger Michell, the 50-year-old director of Venus, is quick to point out that it's the first lead role in a movie that Peter O'Toole has chosen to do in 20 years. Maybe what drew the famously lusty and flamboyant O'Toole is a character who, despite impending mortality, persists in his right to feel amorous and unbowed.

Venus marks the second time in three years that the South African-born British director Michell and the 52-year-old Pakistani-British novelist/screenwriter Hanif Kureishi have showcased stellar performances that incarnate the ecstasies of people in their 60s or 70s.

The Mother (2003) starred Anne Reid as a floundering widow who has a wild fling with Daniel Craig as her daughter's lover. Craig has never been warmer or more startling and charismatic than as this lusty contractor; no wonder Craig's 007 producers tried to hire Michell before "creative differences" got in the way.

Venus stars O'Toole as an aged actor in thrall to his best friend's teenage grandniece (Jodie Whittaker). And for his poignant, coruscating performance, O'Toole has earned his eighth nomination - and become a top contender - for the best actor Oscar.

Film writer David Thomson has called O'Toole a once and future "outsider," picking his own idiosyncratic way to superstardom. And his collaborators on Venus have also taken unique routes to theatrical prominence. In his youth, director Michell witnessed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as the son of an English diplomat. It helped instill in him an early wariness of 20th-century "-isms."

"The only -ism that's left is tourism," Michell says on the phone from London. "What I have is a kind of emotional-cultural tourism, a curiosity about other landscapes. And age is one of them."

But screenwriter Kureishi, who burst onto the cinema scene as a multicultural iconoclast with his script for Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), never intended to write a series of movies about the elderly or to fashion Venus and The Mother as male and female bookends.

"I like the idea of writing about ordinary, everyday stuff now," says Kureishi, in a separate interview from London. In the uproariously irreverent opening scene of Venus, O'Toole and his best friend swap unreliable advice about their medications.

"A group of old men comparing their pills seemed vaguely funny" to Kureishi. "I've lived through scenes like the ones with Peter and his friends at the cafe; their banter was vivid to me. But then I also had the idea of a parallel story about a man remembering the women he had loved throughout his life. It occurred to me it wasn't a good idea to have a movie set in the past: It was a better idea to have a girl in the present, to have her in the room with him."

Venus took its final form when Michell and Kureishi focused on their male characters as devoted stage and screen actors. "It's always quite tricky to discover the profession of your protagonists," says Michell. "Unless you know what they do, they feel a little bit phony. One group Hanif and I know and like are actors - I depend on them. I can't do anything without them."

Although it pokes fun at the encroachments of old age on actors' vanity, the film treats acting as "a noble, dignified profession," Kureishi says. "After all, thinking of good roles for actors like Daniel Craig and Anne Reid in The Mother and O'Toole and Jodie Whittaker in Venus is part of what excites me about screenwriting. One thing we have in Britain, at least, is good actors."

Kureishi sees the paradox of their ubiquity and influence and their reliance on others for their art and livelihood. "It's amazing how much time all of us spend with actors, listening to them on the radio, looking at them on TV: Actors acting - men and women doing this terrifying job. But they're very insecure, because they're really at the mercy of the directors and the writers. If Peter O'Toole's career is rising at the moment, it's because I wrote a part for him. However grand they are, there's one thing they can't do, which is make parts for themselves. I'm fascinated by that dependence and the way actors are conflicted."

O'Toole's participation was key to the ultimate shaping of the film. "Roger and I went through the list," Kureishi says. "Oh, wouldn't it be fantastic if we had Michael Caine? What would it be like with Anthony Hopkins or Paul Scofield? What you're looking for is a face to put to the scenes."

One of O'Toole's main attractions was that at age 74 "he is frail. We wanted a frail man, really; if you had Hopkins in the part, his relationship with the girl would be more upfront sexually, and you might not believe he was dying." And beyond those attributes, "O'Toole is a star, and he's brave. He's not afraid to look in the camera and show that he's old, sad and falling apart. He doesn't want to dress himself up or look 'good.'"

From his big-screen breakthrough with Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, the Galway, Ireland-born O'Toole has been unique for combining the naked emotion of the boldest psycho-dramatists with the dash and magnetism of gallant matinee idols. He's one stage-trained actor able to maintain his larger-than-life stature before the camera. He's never too big for the screen; rather, the screen seems to expand to fit him. His combination of theatrical presence and intuitive behavior have kept him fresh for five decades. Right after Lawrence, he went back to the London stage to play Hamlet.

Michell says O'Toole was peculiarly right for a movie named Venus because he's "a wonderful romantic swashbuckler with a lyric cast to him. And there are very few like him left on the ground. It partly has to do with him being Irish, partly with his look and his physique, and mostly to do with his incredibly bravura personality and his curiosity about the world." Michell's challenge as a filmmaker was to prevent O'Toole's "scale and size" from overwhelming the deliberately banal scenes.

"I wanted to find the bit of Peter that he normally doesn't let us see - this delicate, thin-skinned, opaque, twinkling, quite vulnerable elderly man," Michell says. "I wasn't looking for the bit of Peter that we usually see: the man of great gesture. His character couldn't be further away from Peter - he hasn't been nominated for one Oscar, much less seven or eight. And yet the baggage Peter brings to this role makes it incredibly rich and hypnotic."

"With those eyes and that look and that voice, he is, still, an older Hamlet," says Kureishi. "That's exactly what he is. You fall in love with his beauty - the beauty that he once had, the beauty that you can see now is destroyed."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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