Here’s to the glorious campery of ancient luvvies! We had one in the home for a while. Dear, dear Vicarious Vincent. He wafted as fast as the zimmer would let, declaiming his theatrical successes and the miseries of decrepitude. When his fans turned up, he would sigh deeply. Some had been following him for fifty years: once banging at the stage door and offering favours, later pitching up in organised groups of similar promise, then – as his face sagged and the whisky did its thing – patting him down for bottles, pulling him away from their daughters and muttering, a little sadly, how love had fled. Poor Vincent. Never quite the success he wanted to be.
And so to Venus and Peter O’Toole. He plays an ancient luvvy with lustful intent and a failing body. It is a glorious performance: enough like his public image to convince; camp and silly enough to entertain; rich with the sadness of every room in this home. He’s not in a home, mind, he potters around his old, slow life taking small acting jobs (flatteringly enough as dying or dead old men) and bitching with stellar company about column inches given to obits of old comrades.
O’Toole, not even close to the prettiness of his Arabian glory days, has a sallow, lucid quality throughout, shining grouchily with the force of will. Old Jack rather liked that: isn’t it how we all feel? He may be old, but he can still wrench ironic pleasure from the world. And perhaps one last beauty…
Vicarious Vincent – or Just-fuck-off-will-you-Vinnie as I liked to think of him – had a theory about women and men. He thought women who fancied men instinctively kept the fanciable age-range five years either side of their own. Whereas men who fancied women, “ahhhhh, dear boy, now there is the tragedy…we tingle so much longer. We love ’em at twenty. We love ’em at seventy. And we love ’em all t’ years in between!” He was off his head on gin and daiquiris when he shared that gem, but he wasn’t wrong…
Leslie Phillips as O’Toole’s buddy Ian reaches the point of needing home help and his niece supplies her daughter, the Venus herself, Jessie. And Jessie is a brittle-tempered chav filled with hostility, laziness and a dream of modelling. Imagine that drinking all your good stuff and fucking up the cooking. Jessie is played by Jodie Whittaker in her first film job (gold medal for the snark and the sullen), battling for airtime against 3,000 years of actorly experience. She wins.
O’Toole spies Jessie’s beauty instantly: beady eyes lusting as she chows Scooby-Dooishly through a Pot Noodle. In a moment, the relationship is clear: he lusts but will guide; she knows it and will take the benefits. As things play out, the skill of old and new actor make it rather more affecting than that sounds. There’s a knowingness beneath the clash of camp and real.
Maurice takes Jessie to the theatre: like May to December of the following year. Whittaker’s startled stare at the play caricaturing her, um, people (and was probably called Shout Cunt!, so beware) is glorious, and old Jack felt the giggling kindness in Maurice, opening her mind whilst basking in the company of her beauty. Jessie drags him on to a bar and gets paralytic, which sums up her respect for the evening.
Old Jack’s favourite moment in Venus comes after the belly-laughs of a life class. Maurice wants to see Jessie’s skin, to touch her face and feet (and…less creepily than you might expect, does so when she’s unconscious), but he also wants her to understand her beauty. So he shows her the Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez: “for most men, a woman’s body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see.” For a girl, he answers her, it is her first child. In a moment, Whittaker’s face takes us far into Jessie’s fears. But Maurice is not done admiring her, and is happy to let her take advantage in a clothes store for the moment she stands before him in a long dress.
It’s an awkward watch in places. Old Jack is not blind to the beauty of young women nor the cruelties of being foolish and fond. So Venus stings when things turn sour – and the film rather flies off kilter. Jessie asks to use Maurice’s flat to have sex with her (surprise!) boyfriend. Maurice acquiesces, then bitterly doesn’t, and gets shoved to the floor as the couple run out. The moment is, I guess, a plot-twist and an escalation of fate’s cold hand, but it clunks horribly and the relationship never quite gets back to the knowing romanticism of the early scenes. Bronson Webb as the boy delivers a terrifying crack of doom that breaks the film.
Jessie’s guilt takes her to caring for Maurice. O’Toole disappears under bed-blankets. The sharp shift from dancing in the Dead Actors’ Church (O’Toole and Phillips circling like happy crows) to being too damaged to enjoy Jessie showing her breasts to cheer him…well, it’s stark and dreadful and a nightmare for the oldsters. George Melly once celebrated losing his libido in his seventies as “wonderful, like being unshackled from a lunatic”. Maurice’s unshackling is so sad: as though we must all be punished for enjoying beauty. Who’d be old and flirty, eh?
Venus is available on iTunes. If you’re stuck in a home with beautiful nurses and ancient longings – go rent! It has surprises to the end, including Vanessa Redgrave using a scant few scenes to give some underfloor heating as O’Toole’s wife. Knowing, loving, she quells Jessie’s panic at losing friend and home and reminds us of the undeserved support lucky men get before the shackles drop.
The final shots, as Jessie goes back to modelling and takes the pose Velázquez wanted three hundred and fifty years before, are the coda we all want when we’re dead. Life will go on, but those we loved and guided get the point at last and become all the better for knowing us. And thanks for being beautiful.
Of Maurice, as much as O’Toole, the film passes a final comment: God, he was gorgeous.
But, then, aren’t we all?