London — It's hard not to stare at Peter O'Toole's face, hunting for vestiges of one of the most beautiful male visages to grace the silver screen. Yet, the clear blue eyes that once peered out from under a white kaffiyeh have gone rheumy. The cheeks sag. The skin no longer gleams. There are flashes of who he used to be: A certain tilt of the face and the amazing bone structure suddenly emerges from the haze of age. There are moments when the smile animates -- and he is again naughty, charming, ruminative and elusive.
On a recent fall afternoon, the actor, now 74, was sitting on a settee in an old-fashioned English hotel, meticulously and repeatedly applying lip balm to his faded lips. He's still tall and thin, with the erect carriage of the fatally elegant but fragile. One misplaced thump looks as if it could send him reeling, though he's dressed for cavorting, dandyish in an olive jacket, tan pants, vest and tie.
He's rhapsodizing about falling in love, as he does in his latest film, "Venus," which lands in theaters Dec. 15. "Within seconds, it's as though these two have known each other for 25, 30 years. It doesn't matter if they're pretty or ugly, suddenly you find yourself at ease and in the pleasure of that particular company. If it is a pretty girl so much the more enchanting." He gives an old roue laugh. "But that is the way it is, I find. And this was written on a piece of paper" -- the script for "Venus" -- "and I thought, 'Hello.' "
This is his first leading role in 20 years. Despite getting seven Academy Award nominations, the last for "My Favorite Year" in 1982, O'Toole is not a recognizable figure for younger moviegoers. One year older than Michael Caine, two years younger than Sean Connery, O'Toole seems to belong to another generation. He sparred with Richard Burton in "Becket." He played opposite Katharine Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter." As T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia, he rode a camel across the desert for David Lean.
When he was nominated for an honorary Oscar in 2003, he initially demurred, sending a letter to the academy saying that he still "might win the lovely bugger outright."
At the time, the quip came off as a jolly, quixotic riposte -- especially since his prodigious early talent seemed all too often squandered. But it appears he wasn't joking. O'Toole, who's spent the last 20 years largely slumming through the movies playing parts like Priam in the paint-by-numbers tent pole "Troy" and a doctor in the little-seen horror flick "Phantoms," returns finally with one of the most hilarious and wrenching performances of the year in "Venus."
The film tells of an aging journeyman actor who spends his days cavorting with his best chum, another aging journeyman actor (Leslie Phillips) and playing stiffs in hospital dramas, until he unexpectedly falls for his friend's niece, a tarty, angry, lost young woman, Jessie, played by newcomer Jodie Whittaker. "It's about a man continuing a hopeless passion for a woman he's too old to fulfill. He's almost enjoying a memory of what he was once capable of," explains screenwriter Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette"). "It's a sad film because he has so much sexual desire, but it's rather cheering because he's still going."
Directed by Roger Michell ("Persuasion"), the film catapults O'Toole from the ether of old-world Hollywood into the gritty domain of modern-day London, from the grand tradition of acting to the current vogue for naturalism at all costs.
These lives are not epic but small and real, and O'Toole strips down for the occasion. Shot without makeup, in natural light, he is unvarnished and almost unrecognizable as a jaunty wreck of a human being grasping for one last flicker of life.
Michell recalls sitting in the Garrick Club, a famed actor's club in London, waiting to meet O'Toole for the first time. "There was a commotion," and suddenly O'Toole was there, climbing up the marble staircase, arm in arm with compatriot Richard Briers. "They were hanging on to each other. I'm not sure who was holding on to whom. There was Peter, mischievous, funny, clever, and very, very alive. I knew before even shaking his hand he was the right man for the part because he has all those combinations of charm and grace, yet he's a person who's quite elderly now, and that brings a wonderful sense of truth and vulnerability to what he does. He's still a swashbuckler, but a swashbuckler who's marching through time."
Indeed, O'Toole appears older than his years but carries himself with perennial panache. The filming took place on the streets of London in midwinter, and O'Toole suggested that the production purchase him a little heater, and a small tent in which he could sit when not acting, so he wouldn't get too cold. "We all thought it was absurd when we heard about it, but it was this rather wonderful invention," says Michell. "Quite a few people would congregate in his tent, having coffee or hot drinks. Then we got into a habit of photographing the tent wherever it was erected, and what resulted is a Christo-like record of the tent all over London.
"He hates the cold. He's terrified of the cold. He found the cold the most intimidating enemy. I don't think he found any of the rest of it particularly difficult," adds Michell.
On this afternoon, O'Toole is almost congenitally charming, dropping names and anecdotes from a famed life like Hansel tripping along the forest path. Although this role in "Venus" is more naked than almost any before this, he insists he prepared as he always does: "Lock myself in a room and send everybody away and see you in a month or a week or however long it takes until I complete the study and memorize everything that I am going to do. And then I am open for suggestions."
"Vanessa," he says, referring to Vanessa Redgrave, who plays his ex-wife. It at first seems like a non sequitur, but it turns out to be a longer explanation. "I have worked with Vanessa's father. I have worked with Vanessa's children. I have worked with Vanessa's sister, brother and niece. Vanessa and I have never worked together before. We have known each other since the '50s; Vanessa is rooted in the old tradition of study, private, uninhibited, unobserved private studies. So I said in theater parlance, 'Do you know the jokes [the lines]?' And she said, 'Of course.' She said, 'Now I am free.' It liberates you. Then you can take advice or direction, whatever."
DURING the afternoon, O'Toole offers glimpses of his life, almost like pristine images in a slide show, from which the psychological threads must be deduced. Born in 1932, the son of an Irish bookie, he grew up during World War II, a real "Hope and Glory" childhood. "The war began for us children of the war when we were 7 and then six years later we were 13. And those six years were an eternity. There were no schools from 1942 on." They spent their days playing -- "we were hiding in shelters that were bombed. I was only in three high explosive raids, only three. It is not the scariest thing in my life, but it was scary. And then there were the fire bombs, and we didn't count those because they didn't often go off and they didn't make much scream or much bang, and yet the nearest I have been to blown up was by an incendiary bomb maybe about 30 yards from me."
He initially tried his hand at journalism at the Yorkshire Evening News, which he didn't like much, although "I loved the company. Men really did have tickets for the match in their hats, and they did get drunk after filing some decent copy."