In this Internet Age when all you need to see naked women is a click of a button, it would be surprising for young people to know there was a time when you had to pay to see naked performers in person and that sometimes they would strip as part of a play. Club owner Paul Raymond made a fortune off such shows in London’s Soho district between the 1950’s and 1990’s and was known as England’s Hugh Hefner. As depicted in Michael Winterbottom’s biopic “The Look of Love,” it was a life filled with sex, drugs, alcohol, and a few tragedies.
As with most biopics, the story opens with an older Raymond (Steve Coogan) reflecting on his life. After attending the funeral of his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) in 1992 he looks on how he got there in the first place. A black and white flashback to the 1950’s shows Raymond with his wife Jean (Anne Friel) running a show called Cirque Nu de Paris, which featured nude women in a cage with a lion. After running into the first of many controversies regarding the country’s laws about nudity, Raymond uses the publicity to open a more professional theatre featuring nude dancers.
Moving on to the 1960’s, this time in color, Raymond is now a rich man. He owns many buildings in Soho and lives in a big mansion with his family. Talking to a documentary crew, he briefly discusses his past saying he began his career as a mind reader. He could mostly read men’s mind and read they would pay a lot of money to see naked women. Indeed business is booming, even when the critics attack him. After a newspaper calls one of his erotic plays one of the worst plays in 25 years, he says that is almost as good as saying it is the best play in 25 years. Either way, people will talk about it and the audience will come. Clearly he was a shrewd businessman.
Raymond’s personal life on the other hand was much more troubled. His wife left him, earning her the biggest divorce settlement in the country’s history, after he would not end his affair with Amber St. George (Tamsin Egerton) a dancer from one of his plays. The two moved in together and she eventually became a contributor for Men Only, an erotic magazine that pushed the boundaries with women’s erotic poses. By the 1970’s his daughter decided to join the family business as a singer in one of his shows. Men Only’s editor Tony Power (Chris Addison) introduced her to cocaine at a party, which nowadays would cause a father to punch him in the jaw. Instead, when Raymond catches them he tells her to make sure to use the good stuff. Even worse, when she was giving birth to Raymond’s granddaughter he gave her a line because the doctor could not come fast enough with the anesthetic.
Coogan does a good job of portraying Raymond as a man who was both astute at his work and an unapologetic philanderer. He lived the way he wanted, defended his work to the press always saying it was not pornography, and left all of his earnings to his family, even though family gatherings were always tense.
Yet when it comes to who Paul Raymond was it feels as though the story is only skimming the surface and never dives in. By watching the movie you learn about Raymond and what he did but you never know why he did it. By the end you don’t really care about him, but you do feel sorry for his daughter who grew up around people who consumed cocaine like they were peanuts at a bar.
“The Look of Love” is an interesting look at an era and a man who helped shape it, but as a biopic it could have been more engrossing.
(“The Look of Love” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and is streaming on Netflix.)