The Contenders

Release: Dec. 15

Distributor: Miramax

Oscar Alums: Vanessa Redgrave (supporting actress, “Julia”), Peter O’Toole (2003 Honorary Oscar)

When Peter O’Toole learned he would receive an honorary Oscar in 2003, the veteran thesp initially balked at the offer and wrote a letter to the Academy saying, as he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?” At only 74, with his magnetic presence in Roger Michell’s “Venus,” O’Toole has proven that he is still, indeed, very much “in the game.”

As Maurice, a fading actor who falls in love with a teenage girl, O’Toole delivers a memorable liver-spots-and-all performance. He’s crass, funny, foulmouthed and yet endearing and vulnerable at the same time.

At film festival showings from Telluride to Venice to Toronto, critics and audiences have delighted in O’Toole’s portrayal, as well as the film’s charm and delicate sensibility. Variety’s Todd McCarthy championed the film and the actor after its Telluride world preem.

“Peter O’Toole reigns once again onscreen,” he wrote. “Playing his first meaty leading film role in perhaps two decades, the still charismatic and silver-tongued star scores a bull’s-eye.”

O’Toole’s supporting players have also been heralded, from bright newcomer Jodie Whittaker, who plays the awkward young object of Maurice’s affections, to British stage vet Leslie Phillips, as Maurice’s adorably crotchety old pal Ian, to Vanessa Redgrave (“an utter marvel,” McCarthy writes) as Maurice’s ex-wife. Their scenes together create an arresting and profound intimacy that evokes both actors’ storied, long-standing careers.

The aging Academy has a long history of awarding its own; if older actors have a hard time finding support in Hollywood, they’re not lonely on Oscar night, as previous nominees and winners have shown, from Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench (2002’s “Iris”), to Imelda Staunton (2005’s “Vera Drake”) and Ian McKellen (1997’s “Gods and Monsters”), all the way back to Jessica Tandy’s 1990 win in picture winner “Driving Miss Daisy.”

But no “Driving Miss Daisy,” the provocative, sometimes naughty “Venus” could turn off more prudish Academy voters. And the film’s U.K. roots could help as much as hurt the picture’s Oscar prospects. While the screenplay, written by notable British scribe and Oscar nominee Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”), could garner recognition, the film could be elbowing with another Miramax Brit pic, “The Queen,” for Oscar attention.

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