The Hugh Hefner of Britain, Paul Raymond worked his way up from humble beginnings to become the richest man in the UK, building an empire in the 1960s and ’70s on strip clubs, nude theater, girlie mags, and Soho real estate. By most accounts, though, Raymond was a shy, awkward man whose stammering public statements hardly fit the image of a taboo-busting porn entrepreneur. “He was a reserved sort of person,” his friend Noel Botham told biographer Paul Willetts. “Never really open. I don’t think he had a full-blooded relationship with anyone.” Raymond spent years grooming his only daughter, Debbie, to take over the family business, and after she died of a heroin overdose in 1992, he became a recluse, passing away 16 years later at age 82. Steve Coogan has long harbored an ambition to play Raymond, and in the stylish biopic The Look of Love, he’s an atypically sad and gentle figure; along with his stern, unsentimental performance as a neglectful father in the recent Henry James adaptation What Maisie Knew, the new role makes you wonder whether Coogan hasn’t long outgrown his comic persona as a peevish dick.
As portrayed by Coogan, Raymond seems not just conflicted but divided against himself, as if his entire life were built on a fault line. Like so many other skin merchants, he craved respectability; in fact the key to his showmanship was knowing how to make smut seem oh-so-sophisticated. His Raymond Revuebar, which he opened in 1958 as a private club in order to circumvent public nudity laws, drew such classy patrons as Peter Sellers, John Mills, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland. As a theater owner and impresario in the early 70s, Raymond produced the hit sex comedy Pyjama Tops, which featured such onstage spectacle as nude women swimming in a glass tank. In The Look of Love he comes across as a man chronically insecure about how others see him; time and again he reminds people that he’s friendly with all the Beatles (“except Yoko”) and that Ringo Starr designed the godawful pop-art décor in his swanky flat.
The most touching moments in The Look of Love involve Raymond’s tender relationship with Debbie (Imogen Poots), a sweet, spoiled, utterly talentless young woman who flops miserably first as a performer in one of his shows (she’s the only cast member who gets to keep her top on) and then as a producer spending his money. Inevitably, she parties her way into a serious cocaine habit, which she shares with her dad (he even sneaks her a line in the hospital as she’s going into labor). Michael Winterbottom, who also directed Coogan in The Trip (2010) and Tristram Shandy (2005), and Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote the Ian Curtis biopic Control (2007) and the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy (2009), provide the essential outline of Raymond’s story. But they’re a little too preoccupied with its glitzier aspects to lay bare the inherent, some might say tragic, contradiction of a man who spent his professional life debasing women and his personal life trying fruitlessly to elevate the young woman he loved most. “Take it off!” I kept thinking as the story unfolded. “Take it all off!”