The movie “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” premiering June 17, is already garnering praise, and even some heated headlines.
It’s about a woman, recently widowed, hiring a sex worker. It features a number of frankly erotic scenes, including an extended montage of acrobatic positions. And it ends with a long, unabashed, fully frontal nude shot of its star.
But that’s not the controversial part.
The controversial part is that its star is Emma Thompson, 63.
And while an increasingly prudish Hollywood doesn’t like putting really sexy stuff onscreen anymore, they’re particularly against putting sexy older women on screen. Perhaps it’s because they already know what the ageist, and sexist, reactions will be.
“If an actress of Thompson’s age wants to do a full-frontal nude scene, fine,” one particularly rude movie writer blogged recently. “I just think it’s fair to ask them to first get a nice tummy tuck and boob lift.”
Well, no, it’s not.
Particularly when the message at the big heart of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is that it’s important to get past our hang-ups about physical perfection. Especially when the final shot of this lovely film — Thompson, alone, looking at her own, surgically unenhanced body in the mirror, and giving a small smile of acceptance — is the story’s entire point.
Sadly, though, that writer’s stone-age cluelessness isn’t rare — and has been reinforced by years of cinematic double standards.
For decades, Hollywood’s actors were exempt from any demands they look perpetually youthful. Macho icons like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum grew sizable guts and still starred as cowboys and private eyes, well into their Social Security years. Leading men like Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper turned bald and wrinkled and still wooed dewy 20-somethings like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.
Men were stars till they dropped.
But what happened to leading ladies when they aged? Rarely anything good. While their male colleagues continued making the kind of movies they always made, women were often relegated to the “horror hag” genre, trading their warm sexuality for overheated psychosis.
Bette Davis was only 54 when she made “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”; when Gloria Swanson made “Sunset Boulevard,” she was 50. Yet those pitch black and bitterly cynical movies treated the idea that a middle-aged woman might be desirable, might even have desires of her own, as not just pathetic, but dangerous. Davis tries to cling to youth, Swanson chases after a younger man — and both attempts end in murder and madness.
These, warned Hollywood, are the wages of an older woman’s sad, self-deceiving vanity.
True, things have improved since those days when middle-aged actresses were immediately put out to pasture, or their characters relegated to the madhouse. Today, veterans like Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and Diane Keaton continue to seek out — and often find — good parts. They even, very occasionally, land a romantic lead, like Streep’s “It’s Complicated” in 2009, or Keaton’s “Something’s Gotta Give” in 2003.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, both films were written and directed by a mature woman, Nancy Meyers.
But Meyers hasn’t directed a film in seven years, and her brand of romcoms seems to have gone out of style. Most of the films that feature older actresses today cast them as pushy grandmothers or lonely retirees. The idea of a woman staying active, running a business, having adventures, looking for love — let alone searching for sex — just isn’t something we see on movie screens.
There may be some small signs of change ahead. After all, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” debuts this month. Coming out later this summer is “Mack & Rita,” a comedic fantasy with a 30-ish single woman magically becoming a feisty 70-year-old lady. And a sequel to the 2018 hit “Book Club,” with an all-star cast headed by Keaton and Jane Fonda, is already in production.
Still, in many of these movies, aging — and its disadvantages — remains central. (The first “Book Club” made particularly rude fun of co-star Candice Bergen’s middle-age spread.) Yet in movies such as “Top Gun: Maverick” (with Tom Cruise as a pushing-60 test pilot) or the in-progress, still-untitled “Indiana Jones 5” (with Harrison Ford as an 80-year-old adventurer), age is beside the point.
Hollywood’s message is clear. Women get old. Men just get … older.
And that’s not fair to actresses, or audiences.
What’s really needed are movies in which a woman’s age isn’t a definition, but a description — and just one of many. What’s required are more stories in which we see women in their 50s, 60s and beyond, learning new things, meeting new challenges, overcoming new obstacles — and yes, occasionally, like Thompson in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” making out like bunnies.
It’s a lesson that the streamers already seem to have learned. (It’s no surprise that Thompson’s movie will be available on Hulu after premiering at film festivals, including the Tribeca Festival, where it can be seen June 15-17.) Think of how riveting “Mare of Easttown” was, and how richly drawn was Kate Winslet’s weary, sloppy, completely human cop. Think of how endlessly, acerbically hysterical Jean Smart is in “Hacks” or how Robin Wright coldly, regally prowled through “House of Cards.” All smart, serious, sexually active older ladies.
So why do characters like these only show up in small-screen series? Why isn’t there room for these lusty, complicated women on the big screen, too?
Maybe it’s not surprising that Hollywood — where every other executive is on his third young wife, or latest boy toy — is scared of aging. But this is a terribly dated double standard, and an offensively reductive point of view — that only men have a variety of stories to tell, that only men get to keep having sex, adventures, lives.
And the more filmmakers insist on it, the more it diminishes everyone.
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