The story of a 'dirty old man and a sluttish young woman' as Peter O'Toole described 'Venus' doesn't perhaps sound like the beautiful tale it became in the skilled hands of Hanif Kureishi. The topic is 'off' - taboo, an impotent OAP lusting after a young girl is the stuff of awkward cliche. As a teenager I remember being chased round a cocktail party by some charming old dear in his seventies - his wife apologised as I left 'He doesn't mean any harm. He is awful,' she said, 'but I do love him'. Kureishi took the cliche of the harmless old flirt a step further. O'Toole plays a celebrated actor and old roue on his last legs. His character retains the essence of his youthful self - the good and the bad. Lusting after his friend's young niece is his swansong. He takes his long-suffering ex-wife a final champagne feast, but takes his dying breath with Venus on the beach at Whitstable after a last supper of oysters.
Hanif Kureishi's work is always challenging. I love the way he makes you look at a subject with fresh eyes. Maybe you remember - 'My Beautiful Launderette', one of the first films of my generation to deal with an overtly gay theme in a mainstream story? It was interesting reading about how his work has changed over the years. When he was interviewed about Venus, he said 'once I had children, I had to worry about my writing because first, your day is limited, and second you've got to make money out of this game. The writer's block was forced, as it were to disappear'. Perhaps you identify with that? I certainly do. He went on to say: 'I feel guilty sitting in my house all day doing nothing. I have to pay for my kids to go to school'. It's reassuring to hear someone of Kureishi's status talking about juggling work and family the way we all are.
'Venus' is sublime - painful, beautiful, funny. If you haven't seen it do look it out on DVD. It's central motif is Velazquez's 'Rokeby Venus'. It's a gorgeous painting, and the line of the nude has been echoed by artists ever since - most recently Sam Taylor Wood in a self portrait:
Interestingly she also produced this beautiful image of Robert Downey Jr - the vulnerable pose is more typical of female nudes, but the challenging stare isn't (unless you take Manet's 'Olympia' or Goya's 'Maja' into consideration - atypical and at the time deliberately shocking paintings). What do you think of these images - where does nude and naked cross over?
To me, this is what great art and writing is all about - taking eternal truths, things we know but haven't noticed properly before and creating something lasting, provocative, beautiful. O'Toole's character wasn't easy - he was selfish, flawed, but (crucially) intelligent, experienced, talented. Instead of being repulsed, I found myself wondering if Venus hadn't got the best end of the deal. She had the youthful beauty but he brought everything else to the table. In western society the older man/younger woman scenario is typical - Kureishi just pushed the boundaries. When the tables are turned as in 'The Graduate' with Anne Bancroft playing the glorious prototype of all Cougars to come (jaded, smouldering, draped in leopard skin), it's still surprising.
TODAY'S TOPIC: Youth and beauty vs age and experience is a central dynamic in countless stories. What are the great examples you can think of? Which stories touched you? Do you think as women gain ground in Hollywood we will see more great roles for women over 40 (the absence of which is a regular lament)? I read an interview with Charlize Theron yesterday that discussed this problem - like many she has set up her own production company so that she can dictate which projects she develops and takes on. Actresses like her interest me in the same way Kureishi's writing does - they don't shy away from what is awkward and uncomfortable in real life. Today, why not think about how age features in your work - are your characters all 'like you', or do you explore every stage of the journey we're on? Which subjects wouldn't you write about - what is too uncomfortable for you? In O'Toole's character you saw a reflection of his youthful self - the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful - just like Venus and her mirror. When it is really great, art and writing holds a mirror up to us all.