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Killing Kennedy (2013)
Oswald's story the more compelling
Will Rothhaar's portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald carries "Killing Kennedy." At two hours, with the last 35 minutes completely dominated by commercial breaks, there is simply not enough time to provide any depth or layering to JFK's side of the story. Rob Lowe does a fine impersonation of Kennedy, but ultimately he is the star of a flip book about the highlights of JFK's presidency. Oswald's ideology and personality disorders were the dominant themes of the last years of his life, more so than the outward trappings. Oswald's life was complex, too, yet the script of "Killing Kennedy" gives Rothhaar far more room to move, and this he uses to build a portrayal of a sociopath driven by paranoia, unfocused anger, misperception and arrogance.
Despite the thousands of forests that have fallen so that books might be printed about the assassination, Oswald remains an enigma to many people. Rothhaar's portrayal of Oswald ably depicts his fundamental inability to accurately assess people, organizations and situations, which left him perpetually confused, frustrated and angry. The peculiar, menacing aspects of his personality made him an abusive husband, made friendships impossible, and insured that he would be fired after only a few weeks from yet another menial job.
"Killing Kennedy" makes the case for Oswald as the lone gunman, as do Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard in their self-same titled book on which the movie is based. Whether or not you subscribe to their version of events, their portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald as political assassin is convincing. Undeterred by his failures and dismissive of his repeated rejections, Oswald maintained the fiction that he was a revolutionary, an insurgent in movements he believed he saw happening before everyone else. There is "misguided," then there is "delusional." The former can evoke some sympathy. The latter, never.
Sociopaths have delusions of grandeur, and a notion that they are better than the groups that reject them. Lee Harvey Oswald had both, and no reason for either.
Superb turn from Dennehy
Deathbed confessional episodes are de rigeur for all police procedural dramas, including every series in the L&O franchise, but not many such stories are as well done as "Scheherzade." The first time I watched this episode was to follow the twists and turns; the second and third times to marvel at Brian Dennehy's wonderful, layered portrayal of a dying man who is going to ease his conscience in his own time on his own terms, in an Emmy-worthy performance that was not nominated. It would have been too easy, and the road many lesser TV series would have taken, to make Dennehy's Judd Tierney just plain evil. He isn't, but neither is he the sociopath Benson and Stabler believe him to be before he begins to gradually let them in on his many secrets.
A complex story told well and without contrivance. Judith Light turns in another sharp, pivotal performance as Judge Donnelly. Paget Brewster as the deeply wounded daughter also does just fine. What the interventionists say is true; "secrets keep people sick."
The Sullivans (1944)
The rest of the story
(I don't remember a time when I didn't know about the Sullivans. I have always been impressed by their character, inspired by their patriotism and certain of their bravery. My comments are in no way intended to denigrate their service to their country, nor the sacrifices of their family.)
"The Fighting Sullivans" compresses the time frame of the Sullivans' long wait for answers about their five sons, all serving on the same ship, and substitutes a firm answer about their status for one that in reality was ambiguous and vague. But Hollywood propaganda movies of the WWII era typically made little angels out of future soldiers, saints out of dead ones, and absolved the military of blame or responsibility in the deaths of those who died to protect All We Hold Dear. The truth is always somewhere in between.
Near the end of "The Fighting Sullivans," there is a scene at the kitchen table where Alleta Sullivan reads a letter from her eldest son, George, while the wife of the youngest brother, Al, reads his latest letter to her. We can assume this scene takes place in the fall of 1942. It's suggested that sitting down to read new letters from the boys is a regular occurrence, but no more is said of this.
Soon those letters stopped coming. The brothers were killed aboard the USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, when it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes at Guadalcanal. Discovery of the fate of the ship was mired in red tape and confusion. The Navy Department, fearful of giving away the ship's position to the enemy ("Loose Lips Sink Ships"), delayed a formal search. When rescue teams arrived at the scene eight days after the sinking, they found that only ten sailors out of a crew of 700 had miraculously survived.
Although approximately 100 sailors survived the ship's explosion, many had life-threatening injuries such as compound fractures or internal bleeding. They died first, and exposure, delirium, shark attacks or some ghastly combination claimed 90% of their shipmates over the next several days. The eldest Sullivan brother, George, survived the sinking in relatively good condition. He searched relentlessly for his brothers until he fell into delirium brought on by the effect of the elements and died just a day or two before the rescue.
The fate of the Juneau and her crew went unknown to the public for weeks. The Sullivan parents must have been out of their minds with worry. Christmas must have been bleak and empty. It's reasonable to assume they made inquiries of the Navy Department, but they would not have gotten very far because definitive answers about the fate of the Juneau survivors would not come for many months. (Ultimately it was learned that there were over 25 sets of brothers on board, and that a family in Connecticut had lost four sons on the ship.)
In early January 1943, their mother heard secondhand through a neighbor, "too bad about the Sullivan boys. I hear their ship sank." But there was no official word given to Tom and Alleta Sullivan about their sons for another week, two full months after the sinking. Even then, when Naval officers arrived at the Sullivan home on January 12 to bring the bad news, they could only tell the parents that their sons were missing in action. That was the official declaration of the US Navy at that time, but the sense of finality it carried for the Sullivan family was surely unmistakable. The desire for a tidy ending and a hasty release for "The Fighting Sullivans" left the story incomplete, but the film can serve as a point of departure for those wanting to learn all the dimensions of a story which went far beyond that of one family's incomprehensible tragedy.
Indecent Proposal (1993)
A lost opportunity
I've always had problems with the title. The word "indecent" means immodest, obscene; unfit for society. When used these days, the word is almost invariably followed by "exposure." "Audacious Proposal" would have made more sense.
The premise is well-known by now, and presents opportunities to muse about the relevance of marital fidelity, personal scruples, and the seductive and emotional power of money, but it sidesteps, muddies or ignores every one of them. It could have addressed any or all of them and still be entertaining and a conversation starter.
Billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) offers one million dollars to a struggling couple, Diana and David Murphy (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson), if he can sleep with her for one night. The proposal is intrepid, adventurous and bold, but it is not indecent. Diana accepts the offer and follows through with the assignation, all the while reminding David that she is doing it for him, to further his career as an architect. I suppose her oft-repeated declaration is meant to show us that yes Diana does too have scruples. See? she can call upon them whenever she wants to.
Diana's tight-lipped and blithe insouciance once the tryst is history and the money is in the bank drives David out of his mind. Director Adrian Lyne wisely keeps Diana's and Gage's night on the yacht out of camera range. (Seeing the hideous gray dress he asks her to wear is enough.) It's too bad he didn't do the same with David's petulance, self-pity and masochism, which overshadows everything else in the second act. David is supposed to be a bright and promising architect whose marriage to Diana is solid as a rock. Of course, the only way we know this is through a lightning fast exposition of their courtship and marriage, told mostly through photos shot with a lens metaphorically coated in Vaseline. In "Love Story," Jenny reminded Oliver many times that "love means never having to say you're sorry." These two like to ask each other the equally inane, "have I ever told you that I love you?"
When Demi Moore gives the best performance in a movie, that's saying something. Although Diana is an underwritten role, the character isn't maddeningly one-note like those of David and Gage. She is two-dimensional, which is as fleshed out as any Lyne character ever gets. Lyne is no more secure in his leading lady's acting abilities than most other directors, so he gives her the expected opportunities to show some skin. Sketchy roles never seem to allow Moore any freedom; she tends to hem herself in. But someone has to restrain themselves in the aftermath of Diana's night on the yacht. As noted, David has gone to pieces with rage and jealousy. Diana cannot deal with his meltdown; his suspicions, leading questions and accusations drive her away.
Meanwhile, John Gage is waiting for Diana around every corner. He is essentially stalking her, but his behavior is supposed to come off as charming. When she, on the other hand -- with good reason -- crashes one of Gage's business luncheons, it's cause for alarm; Diana's behavior is "inappropriate" and unacceptable. This is a double standard Hollywood reinforces over and over again. But soon Diana puts up only token resistance to Gage's pursuit. She didn't when he offered her and David that lifetime of financial security with but one little catch.
Diana eventually caves in, and she and Gage get busy making the social rounds. What they find to talk about is anyone's guess, but Moore and Redford do make for an attractive couple. The passage of time is indicated by David and Diana's both getting teaching jobs. He teaches architecture and suggests bricks are blessed with self-determination. I told you he went nuts after Diana slept with Gage. For her part, Diana teaches U.S. citizenship. Her pupils, all well into adulthood, giggle like 8-year-olds when Gage crashes the class to declare he's crazy about Diana. Even though she has divorced David, her days with Gage as an item at gala openings and silly charity functions are numbered. The time comes for Diana to go back to David, having learned what, exactly? "Have I ever told you I loved you?" "Would we have been able to handle the million bucks any better if we'd earned it?" The credits roll before they begin to figure this out.
I want scriptwriters to STOP recycling Mr. Bernstein's anecdote about the girl on the Jersey ferry from "Citizen Kane." Gage gets to give that little speech here, adapted for modern times. The problem is, the conclusion he wants Diana to draw from it is exactly the opposite of what he says.
"Indecent" describes the amount of money the picture took in at the box office -- about $199,000.000 more worldwide than Gage offers the Murphys. If this is Lyne's idea of a "message picture," as they used to call them, he should have used FedEx.
It's much more fun to write about a middling movie than a great one or even a very bad one.
The Memory Keeper's Daughter (2008)
You know you're in trouble when...
a novel has a reading group study guide at the back. It's as if the author or publisher knows that the novel itself isn't strong enough to merit lively discussion without prompts or cues.
That appendix of Kim Edwards's "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" provided a handy script for the Lifetime movie adaptation. But it makes a big gaffe, and it's a doozy: the title character and her brother are almost incidental!
I read the book to the end mainly because I found Caroline Gill to be such a very strong, very compelling character. I never pictured Emily Watson in the role, although she is superb, given what she has to work with. But what is an actress of Watson's caliber doing in a middling TV movie anyway?
Dermot Mulroney, as David Henry, is doomed from the start. In the book the reader doesn't so much feel what David is going through as he is told.
The script doesn't bring the character any more to life, and Mulroney is not actor enough to fill in the blanks, nor to overcome the ghastly work by the makeup department in his final scenes.
In the book and movie, David's wife Norah is used as a coat hanger over which to drape issues afflicting the disillusioned housewife: suspicion, booze, affairs, a time-killing job and self-absorption. In the thankless role, Gretchen Mol follows Spencer Tracy's advice; she hits her marks and doesn't bump into the furniture.
Oh, well. There have been far worse books and far worse movies made from them. The novel "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" touches on so many issues that it explores only a few of them very thoroughly. The movie wisely cuts out many a subplot and yet it still feels long, sluggish and predictable. It's too bad that Lifetime Network, which has a huge following, doesn't spend a little more coin and effort making better movies from better stories.
Faithful rendering of the greatest anti-war novel
Most of us have probably read a wonderful novel and found ourselves casting a movie version and envisioning how certain scenes would appear on screen. Most of us have probably been disappointed in a movie based of a favorite book.
Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front" is in every way equal to Erich Maria Remarque's World War I novel of the same name. Milestone recreates trench warfare in scenes that still have a raw power, with their gut-wrenching depiction of violence and danger, their rodents and dysentery.
How Paul, the young German soldier who narrates the book, gets to the front lines with his buddies happens quickly in both the novel and the movie. Paul's bellicose schoolmaster has whipped his students into a frenzy over the glories of war and service to one's country. He quotes the famous declaration of the Greek poet Horace, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." The English translation is "sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country." But Professor Kantorek conveniently forgets the lines that follow: "sweeter it is to live for one's country, and sweeter still to drink of it." As the camera pans around the classroom it reveals only little boys, and even viewers who have not read the book know that they will soon be cannon fodder. Before that happens we learn a little about all of them, enough to care when they are gravely wounded or killed. The war makes men out of these boys in only a few weeks.
Lew Ayres plays Paul as an Everyman for all the boys in Division 2. The story is told through his eyes as it is in the novel, in a straightforward, highly effective narrative. As Paul, Ayres does some of the best work of his career. The horrors of war, and many are suggested here; speak for themselves. The screenplay is faithful to the spirit of Remarque's novel. Subjective commentary is really superfluous. The film does several things the book can't, one of which is to use slow tracking shots over the trenches. It's a subtle effect unusual for its day. The production design is so vividly detailed it's nearly impossible to believe "All Quiet on the Western Front" was shot entirely on studio back lots.
It is only towards the end of the story, when Paul has a lengthy leave and goes home, that he departs from his blunt narrative to ask himself the big questions. He worries if he will be able to live a civilian life, to carve out a career, have a family. His excursion from the front, far away from the constant bombardment of the shells should bring him some respite, some pleasure. But he finds none. And maybe it takes a soldier to understand that a lice-infested redoubt where one false move can leave you holding your intestines in your hands can, in a strange way, feel like home.
Milestone and his screenwriters made a smart move in treating the cast of "All Quiet on the Western Front" as an ensemble. As the men grow up -- and many of them do survive for two years or more -- it is obvious that these young soldiers have formed attachments of a kind they will never have again even if they live to be old men. When Paul is out on leave and runs into old acquaintances, they ask him "so, how is it out there?" What can he tell them? When he drops in on his old Professor he is giving the same rousing call to arms he gave to Paul and his buddies several years earlier. Kantorek wants Paul to echo his sentiments. Paul won't lie, but the truth is impossible to describe.
Rarely in the book or the movie are the names of specific battles given. It doesn't matter; they were more or less the same. Visitors to the battlefields of Northern France might be amazed at how much evidence still exists of the trenches and the battle lines like those where Paul and his comrades fought "The War To End Wars." 90 years later, farmers and hikers in the woods still find unexploded bombs (UXBs). Many a farmer tilling his land has been killed by one. If found before they go off, there are three depots in France where UXBs are taken and detonated safely. Children used to decorate fence posts with rusting German and French helmets. Bone fragments were routinely found by anyone working the soil until the 1960s. There is still so much metal in the ground near Verdun that very little green will grow there. And every few months some country loses its last WWI veteran. They are over 100 years old now. How many of their stories mirror those of the men in Paul's Division? Time and the elements are eroding the memories of WWI, but Remarque's story and Milestone's superb film will ensure that they will last, even if their message is never absorbed by any country preparing for war.
Killer of Sheep (1978)
Simple but not simplistic
Because critical and personal opinions about small films like Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" tend to be vehement and sharply divided, the less you know about such films going in, the more you may appreciate them.
Production cost figures I've seen vary from $10,000 to $20,000. Whatever its price tag, it was far below minimal. But if you are of the right disposition, you may find "Killer of Sheep" to be more powerful and affecting than many studio films with big name stars and multi-million dollar budgets.
With "Killer of Sheep," Charles Burnett manages to create a very good movie even though it has no real beginning, middle or end and an anonymous cast. Nothing happens and everything happens. He documents Stan (the slaughterhouse worker of the title), his family and their friends in Watts over a period that could be a day, a week or a month. Yes, the film is a "slice of life," but that phrase has been applied so often to films critics didn't know how to categorize that it's become almost meaningless.
Shooting in black and white wasn't an artistic conceit, it was an economic necessity. Casting friends and family members wasn't Charles Burnett's attempt -- I'm quite sure -- to say "I can make an actor out of anybody." There's only one scene I can recall where the camera cuts from one character to another, and many setpieces are filmed with a static camera. In this way the film does remind me of 1960s French and Italian movies. But in the early films of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, the characters seem to merely feign boredom. Burnett's characters often live it.
Stan, his wife and their two children live in a rented house which needs constant repairs. The always exhausted Stan has to make these himself, as well as worry about their son who is about 13 and inclined to follow the lessons of his father's friends, who believe any problem can be solved with the smash of a fist. Stan is not like this; he is pragmatic, thoughtful and quiet, and above all, decent. Stan's wife is more restive. She's a housewife with a fierce beauty who has never stopped freshening up for her husband before he comes home. Her sexual frustration is a quiet undercurrent. The one day when she and Stan are on the same wavelength, they dance in silhouette to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth." Even viewers unfamiliar with this song will almost certainly be moved, maybe to tears. Exquisite, tender and understated. Like all the music on the eclectic soundtrack, the use of this song at this time is exactly right.
Stan's wife has given up trying to rein in her unruly son. She doesn't pay a tremendous of attention to her daughter, either. But the five-year-old girl is good as gold and never causes her mother any worry. In one of the most effective scenes in the entire film, the little girl (Burnett's daughter) sits on the floor playing with her dolls and singing along -- loudly and with abandon -- to Earth Wind and Fire's "Reasons."
The only real story thread running throughout the film involves the rebuilding of a car engine, dropping it into an old Dodge sedan and taking it out on a joyride into the country. This provides a little comic relief, and part of this sequence brings to mind the Laurel and Hardy film "The Music Box." But it's ultimately sad, too. Without any money, putting together a working car from "pieces parts" is an exhausting and time consuming ordeal. And once the car, packed with neighbors, is ready for a test drive, it soon develops a flat tire. Of course there is no spare. This calamity is greeted with the weary laughter of despair.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it's a lack of bitterness and frustration and anger that permeates "Killer of Sheep," although some characters are embittered and some prone to violence. Charles Burnett could just as easily have adopted another tone, one just as realistic but far darker. He tones nothing down; Stan and his friends live tough lives, no question. There is little rest for the weary. Some of their neighbors are going hungry. No sooner is one thing fixed than another broken. And through it all, the children -- and there are always many of them around -- amuse themselves with precious few toys.
The scenes of sheep being led to the slaughter could serve as symbols for Stan and his family and friends. But they don't. Everyone in the large cast becomes an individual, and they still retain some control over their fates. Charles Burnett could easily have made his film a social commentary or a polemic, layering pity with sentiment. But he didn't. In the vernacular of the mid-70s, he "tells it like it is." And few American filmmakers have ever documented ordinary lives with such objectivity and compassion.
Mountaintop Removal (2007)
"Stop Destroying My Mountains." --God
Most Americans don't think too much about coal mines until men are trapped inside them. I would venture to say that fewer know that the U.S. still derives 50% of its energy consumption from coal. I had no idea our dependence on coal was so great until I watched "Mountain Top Removal," which illuminates the relentless and creative attempts by ordinary West Virginia citizens to halt the environmental havoc waged by strip mining coal from the tops of mountains.
As illustrated in Michael C. O'Connell's straightforward and intimate documentary, the process of mountain top removal leaves the peaks looking as though they were peeled like an orange. And the fallout from washing the coal leaves toxic waste dumps called slurry ponds which not only poison the land at the bases of the mountains, but induce numerous health problems among the residents below. One story thread follows the Marsh Fork Elementary School, and the efforts to relocate the school because of its proximity to mountain top strip mining that takes place directly above it. Local citizens, beginning with the students themselves, stage fund raising drives to relocate the school, and force a meeting with West Virginia governor Joe Manchin to make him aware of the problem. Manchin acknowledges awareness of this kind of problem. It's for sure he has seen it before; although not stated here, Manchin comes from a coal mining family, and if memory serves his father was killed in a mine collapse. He has consistently supported the efforts of residents to address their grievances with mining companies, and to gain some redress, but on this day he leaves the families and students with only vague promises.
Ed Wiley, the grandfather of one of the students at Marsh Fork -- although he only looks to be about 45 -- spearheads the fund raising efforts and the march on the state capitol. He also takes his cause on the road -- walking from Marsh Fork to Washington, D.C. -- in an attempt to meet with West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. Wiley emerges as the true hero of this narrative; he has countless facts at his fingertips and a passionate way of expressing the numerous calamities visited upon the communities in the shadow of the mines. For example, Wiley notes that only four men are required to operate the dragline excavators that make strip mining so efficient, as opposed to the 350 men it would require underground to bring in a similar haul. Once-thriving coal mining towns have dried up as a result. Boarded-up storefronts in dusty streets on a weekday afternoon tell that tale.
Massey Energy, the nation's fourth largest coal company with over $2 billion in coal reserves, is the villain here, although none of its executives are shown attempting to defend the company's practices. They don't have to: their actions speak for themselves. How many first-person accounts of the black water that flows from kitchen faucets, how many research scientists does it take to point out that the water in many parts of West Virginia is but a carrier for arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium and other toxins? You can't drink it, fish in it or swim in it. But greed is good; it certainly has been for Massey over the long haul, (although in recent years the company has run afoul of the Clean Water Act thousands of times and faces billions of dollars in fines). It is left to Bill Raney, spokesperson for the West Virginia Coal Producers Association and a local resident, Paulette Ferguson, to defend the mining industry and its flagrant disregard for the environment and the health of the people and their communities. This they do with such a dispassionate recitation of the coal companies' party line it's difficult to imagine that even they believe this canned rhetoric.
Raney and Ferguson would probably argue that things are better now than ever. There was a time, tourists in an abandoned underground mine are told, when the mining companies operated like fiefdoms. Decades ago miners and their families lived in company built housing; they shopped at company owned stores; their rent and grocery bills came out of their pay. The mining companies even issued their own currency! Nowadays they merely force family members to sign release forms before they can go visit family cemeteries on land bought up by the coal companies. For shame.
"Mountain Top Removal" could easily have been a polemic, but O'Connell merely shows the viewer aerial shots of the decapitated mountains, and allows the eloquent, resilient people of Marsh Fork to tell their own stories. The facts of their sad stories will make you angry, but their determination to fight to preserve the land, the environment, and their very lives and those of their children will leave you with nothing but admiration.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
Flawed genius; good documentary
I think the thing to remember about this documentary is that it's called "Frank Lloyd Wright," not "The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright." There are many other resources for those wishing to learn about his designs and the structures he built. (A personal recommendation is the 2002 documentary, "Restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Heurtley House").
The format that Ken Burns's films use is well known by now: pans of many still photographs, informative narration -- often jam-packed with facts but clearly presented and in a generally objective tone. Shifts in time and place are smoothly integrated such that it's unlikely that an attentive viewer will get lost.
Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 at age 91, and there were very few years in his long life that were not without controversy. He broke all kinds of rules with his architectural designs to create some truly remarkable structures -- "Fallingwater," the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and most especially the Guggenheim Museum in New York. They are all examples of his iconoclasm. They and other structures sealed his reputation as the most famous American architect of his or any other generation. But it was the personal scandals, generally involving other men's wives, that forced him to flee the country on a number of occasions, and put his career in a deep freeze for long spells.
By his own admission Wright was an absent and negligent father to his many children; he seems to have been serially unfaithful until late middle age, and he was wild and extravagant with money -- particularly other people's. Clips from a 1958 TV interview with a chain-smoking Mike Wallace are interspersed throughout, and a snippet of it concludes the documentary with Wright proclaiming his immortality. Wright the man seems to have been insufferable, and he seems to have gotten little joy out of life.
Yet his doesn't appear to have been a tortured soul; his personal life may have been absent any harmony, and yet that quality repeatedly found its way into his work. Many of Wright's buildings are in breathtaking concert with nature. His interior designs, including that of the Unity Temple and almost all of his stained glass, suggest they are the creation of an unfettered and free spirit. Wright may have been such a man, but if so he directed those energies in many of the wrong places. His self-centeredness, arrogance and certainty of his genius hurt a lot of people around him.
It's well to ask why anyone wanted to work under him, and yet the waiting list for the scholarship program he operated at his Taliesin West studios in Arizona in the 1930s, 40s and 50s was a mile long. Students of Wright's were bent to his will; they had to do four hours' manual labor a day, grow their own food, submit to having their love relationships and even some marriages orchestrated by his wife, Olgivanna. The place was run like a boot camp, but the opportunity to work side by side with Wright was enough to keep the applications flowing in. Several graduates of the school are interviewed in the documentary, and for all of them working with Wright seems to have been the seminal experience of their lives -- they don't recall the hoops they had to jump through and the indignities they signed on for in order to have that privilege.
To truly love and appreciate the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, it's almost better if you don't know too much about their designer. Still, the dichotomy between the man and his sublime creations makes a great story, and this documentary is a largely successful attempt to bridge that gap.
An unlikely combination: lovely and repugnant
I think we can pinpoint the time at which Peter O'Toole stopped being an Actor (with a Capital "A") and became a Movie Star with the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," in which his character, Alan Swann, actually says "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" (Jack Nicholson has passed through the same metamorphosis; he now plays the "Jack Nicholson role" in every one of his movies.)
Why tamper with success?
I was anxious to see "Venus" because I am such an O'Toole fan, and I was intrigued to see how much of his innate dignity he would maintain while playing a character, an old thespian named Maurice, who was largely billed as a "dirty old man." My frustration came at seeing Maurice, who quotes from Shakespeare so mellifluously and has had such a storied career on the legitimate stage reduced to his baser instincts. His best friend and roommate, a fellow actor named Ian (Leslie Phillips) requires a caregiver, and a young woman whom Maurice dubs Venus (Jodie Whittaker) is hired for the job. What neither she nor Maurice expect is that he will attempt to relive his salad days as a randy young actor through Venus, but not with her.
Whittaker comes off quite well in her first film, and doesn't seem intimidated in the face of playing practically all her scenes with a legend. But the things the script asks Maurice to request and Venus to provide debase both characters.
When sex is not Topic A, O'Toole infuses his role with his customary élan, and a touch of (perhaps) unexpected pathos. Another unexpected joy in "Venus" is the presence of Vanessa Redgrave, as Maurice's ex-wife. She is truly luminous and on screen far too briefly. In their scenes together, O'Toole and Redgrave are acting on the same plane, and I yearned for more of that throughout the film. The scenes with Ian and Maurice come across as childish and infantile by comparison, a fate the occasionally witty barb they toss in each other's direction can't conceal.
The same writer, Hanif Kureishi, and director, Roger Michell, brought us "The Mother" in 2003, a film which might or might not be equally off-putting as "Venus" depending on your point of view. But I greatly admire "The Mother," partly because its lead character, marvelously played by Anne Reid, retains the viewer's sympathy throughout almost the entire film. She is so vulnerable and such an emotional wreck that her plight is understandable even if her attempted resolution is not. The same might be said of Maurice, except that he seems to be more manipulative than vulnerable. Yes, he's suffering the vagaries of old age, but he is emotionally balanced. (Maurice does know who he is, despite his protestation to the contrary to Redgrave.)
The desire to recapture lost youth is a perennial one, and Maurice's character is an Everyman in that regard. I just wish that his journey had been more dignified and "respectable". Had it been so, I believe Peter O'Toole would have at long last received the competitive Oscar that has eluded him for decades.