Film Studies: Please act your age, Peter

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Three years ago, in this column, I reported on how the Telluride Film Festival was giving a tribute to Peter O'Toole. It was a momentous event and it surely played a large part in persuading the Academy to give O'Toole an honorary Oscar at the next possible occasion. This was deemed necessary in that O'Toole had so far been nominated seven times for the best actor Oscar, without a victory. Now I bring news from this year's Telluride festival that O'Toole - still unmistakably alive - may have delivered the performance that will get his eighth nomination. And maybe his first victory.

The occasion is a small film named Venus, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell. O'Toole plays an elderly actor who has every possible indication that he is dying. He has a chum, another actor, admirably played by Leslie Phillips, who has a niece called Venus (Jodie Whittaker). Despite the mythological name, Venus is an acrid, rather mean-spirited, poker-faced young girl from the London area; a modern girl without unusual aptitude for sentiment. But O'Toole's character fixes on her. He loves her.

He has a lech for her. He just needs her to be around to watch over him, to let him kiss her neck at vulnerable moments and - in a crisis, if a crisis should occur - to show him her full-stop breasts.

Of course, the man dies, with not much more than a glimpse, a whiff and a brief kiss from his beloved Venus. She thinks he's a dirty old man, weird and amazingly old-fashioned. He knows she is the life force and capable, possibly, of giving him a few extra days with fun. At the end, she goes with him to the sea shore at Whitstable, and it is watching the waves come in that takes him away.

It is a small situation to build a whole movie on. But if you have a situation that will affect people, and if you write it well with a good actor, you may end up with a movie. This is the first leading role O'Toole has had since the era of My Favorite Year. Since then, picture people have been generously inclined to him, but always on the assumption that it would be risky expecting more than a few days of his time. Now, someone has had the wit to see the richness of that exact dilemma and asked O'Toole to be the centre-piece of a film. He looks as if he could play a dying man forever.

To say it is touching is not enough. There is a sequence where O'Toole and Phillips go to the Garrick Club and then to a church for actors. They pass the memorial plaques, for those like Robert Shaw: contemporaries of O'Toole once, but come and gone while he survives drastic surgeries and his own serene devotion to alcohol. There is a moment when we suddenly find that his character has a wife - estranged. She comes on with a limp and a stick, and it is Vanessa Redgrave, who had broken a bone just before shooting but who wasn't going to miss a chance like this. Venus could also bring her own seventh Oscar nomination.

For those of us who remember O'Toole dancing on the roof of the ambushed train - a romantic figure in white robes - or Vanessa hunched over her own breasts, begging to get the pictures back in Blow-Up, it's astounding to see the two great players looking like noble wrecks. Is it possible that the change that has overtaken them has affected us, too? Such thoughts are not common at the movies - and you are reminded of this all through Venus - because so few movies have the courage to compose themselves around the guttering lives of old people. By "old people", I suppose, I mean anyone over 32 or so, anyone whose mind has grown as their face has crumpled, anyone who can calculate a bargain with fate to hang on for a week or so more if this sharp, disagreeable girl will smile on him once or twice.

I know. It's very early to be talking about Oscars, and I share your feeling that too much hopeful spin may put a jinx on things. But at this stage of 2006 I can see a lot of actresses likely to be in contention, and not quite so many actors. Venus will not open until December, which means that the people behind it are taking a bet on the Academy. And the Academy is the one section of the movie business where the average age is above that of the audience these days. O'Toole is a great loser, and I think it's clear that he'd let Oscar go for a squeeze from a pretty girl. Venus is a film about that bargain. That's how it is able to be so candid and so merry about death.

Win or lose, it's one of the films this year that you don't want to miss. So let's hope that Mr O'Toole lasts long enough to see your pleasure.