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‘Venus’ shines

O'Toole is a master.

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LOVE: O'Toole and Whittaker make it sweet.
  • LOVE: O'Toole and Whittaker make it sweet.

Sad to say, but Hollywood is just not the deity factory it once was. Fifty years from now, do you really think any of these blow-dried, toothy upstarts will have the staying power of a Humphrey Bogart or an Elizabeth Taylor?

Still, as seen in the new film “Venus,” starring Peter O’Toole, the great masters still have things to teach us about acting, even when they’re at an age when the Julias, Toms, Brads and Angelinas will have probably long since hung up their cleats.

In “Venus,” O’Toole plays a version of his real self: Maurice, a veteran, highly respected screen and film actor who has quietly settled into reluctant semi-retirement. Early in the film, Maurice is diagnosed with prostate cancer. Soon after that, he strikes up a friendship with Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the twenty-something niece and would-be caretaker of Maurice’s actor friend Ian (Leslie Phillips).

Though Ian can’t stand the rough-edged, thoroughly modern Jessie, Maurice is instantly smitten. Maurice has been rendered impotent by this time, but he and Jessie begin an oddly sexual relationship, with Maurice buying the girl gifts in exchange for dates and small “favors” — a kiss on the cheek, a smell of her hair, a touch on her wrist. Eventually, this leads to something approaching a genuine friendship between the two of them, a confrontation with Jessie’s loser, rave-kid boyfriend, and circumstances that change them both.

Though Phillips holds her own, it is O’Toole who delivers what is undoubtedly one of the great performances in film. Through the force of his presence and skill, he transforms what could have been one of the creepiest on-screen affairs of all time into the tale of an old lion having one last fling with the female of the species — and through her, one last waltz with life.

Watching O’Toole sell the idea that Maurice’s dalliance with Jessie is simply a way of him remembering — possibly even honoring — every woman he has ever loved is a beautiful, heartbreaking thing to behold, and you have to wonder how much of himself O’Toole brings to it. He is surely there near the end of the film, when Maurice wanders onto an empty stage and is surrounded by a cacophony, his own, commanding voice — lines from the hundreds of films and plays the real O’Toole has performed in over the course of his long, long career. Like many in “Venus,” it’s a scene that makes you want to cry, laugh and applaud all at once.

While Oscar season is always clogged with films that this writer is dying to see, I can honestly say that if you miss everything else, don’t miss “Venus.” Not only is it a chance to see what could be one of the last performances by a true screen icon, it’s also a chance to see that icon give the whippersnappers a lesson on how to get it done. In short: beautiful, sad, compelling and altogether wonderful.

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