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Why is a low-budget Emma Thompson film about sexual choices at 60+ a rage around the world?

The British sex comedy has stoked critics, feminists and movie lovers alike primarily for its sex positivity message.

June 26, 2022 / 08:35 PM IST
A still from 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande'. Roles for American and European actresses above 50 are more diverse than ever before.

A still from 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande'. Roles for American and European actresses above 50 are more diverse than ever before.

The deceptively-titled Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, which started streaming on Hulu recently, is a film that’s less about little dramas and little plot twists than about a singularly momentous affirmation for its protagonist Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson): At 62, not only can I have the only orgasm of my life, I can also undress a gorgeous 20-something man, physically, mentally and emotionally. The title is a riff on possibly how difficult that would be for Leo (Daryl McCormack), a professional sex worker with elite clients, to do, because the woman he meets a few times inside a cold-lit, plush hotel room for sex isn’t just 62, her emotional health is also questionable. While meeting this challenge, Leo unravels emotionally too.

The British sex comedy, created by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde, has stoked critics, feminists and movie lovers alike primarily for its sex positivity message, but also how Emma Thompson, about the age of the character she plays, combines the real anxieties of her age including the inability to be completely sex- and body-positive with the craft she is boss at: Acting. She recently told Elle magazine how done she is with “boring wife roles”. Here’s the spoiler: We see her almost nude, looking at herself in front of a life-size mirror, looking at her body less with admiration and more with a life-affirming acceptance of it—the sagging skin and breasts that have given up on defying gravity are all okay. Finally, as she tells Leo later, she feels like her life has begun. With a confidence that emanates from her terrific acting veins, Thompson celebrates the vulnerability of all women who don’t necessarily like the bodies they have but know in their hearts how far our bodies have got us.

Actresses over 50 are more uninhibited and more comfortable in their skin than ever before. And roles for American and European actresses above 50 are more diverse than ever before. A lot of these women are opening up about what 50 years and some more bring to the table.

In Netflix’s Halftime, an unscripted film on Jennifer Lopez, that is celebratory of her journey to superstardom, the singer-actress is as unapologetic about her age and her body’s resilience—“I am a 50-year-old actress who has the biggest hit of her career playing a stripper, a woman who embraces the power of her sexuality and turns the way women are objectified on its head”—as about her politics. Born to Puerto Rican parents, living in Trump’s America while part of the documentary is filmed, she calls her country “a United States I didn’t recognise”.

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One of Hollywood’s most gifted actors, Viola Davis, is supremely articulate and staggeringly honest about the highs and lows that have shaped her as an actress in her memoir Finding Me, which comes out when she is 56. She clearly is enjoying the best phase of her career. She writes how authenticity and the power to speak the truth about herself and her life is a gift in her 50s that she wouldn’t let go at any cost. “I am a dark-skinned woman,” Davis writes in her elegant, unclouded prose. “Culturally, there is a spoken and unspoken narrative rooted in Jim Crow. It tells us that dark-skinned women are simply not desirable… In the past we’ve been used as chattel, fodder for inhumane experimentation, and it has evolved into invisibility. How it plays out in entertainment is that we are relegated to best friends, to strong, loudmouth, sassy lawyers, and doctors.” She talks about struggling with alopecia and uterine fibroids, and how she embraced her body’s struggles while finding her own voice and changing the narrative of abuse that haunted her all her life.

At the Cannes red carpet this year, actress Andie McDowell, 64, made the 60s look nothing less than aspirational. In a sequinned dress, her greying curly hair lush, strong and flowy, she sported an ageless glow through the crow feet and wrinkles surrounding her deep-set eyes. She said recently that it took her 20 years to break up with her dye bottle; she has been selling hair colour as a L’oreal brand ambassador for a long time.

Andie McDowell, 64 Andie McDowell, 64

Her career as an actor is also on a comeback with roles, mostly mom roles that subvert all notion of the British or American mother. In the fifth series of the BBC comedy series Cuckoo (2019), in the Netflix series Maid (2021) and the Netflix movie Along For the Ride (2022), Mc Dowell channelises a recklessly courageous mom, unapologetic about her baggage and her claim to a life beyond being a parent—a far cry from the 1990s’ romantic comedies in which she did great things with her calm comic timing.

The comic timing is still pat, but the roles and the self she embodies as a woman and actor have definitely changed. As she said at the red carpet interview, “Men can go salt and pepper; we just think they’re gorgeous. We’ve been sold this idea that they’re better than we are. It’s bullshit!”

Unlike much younger actresses and L’oreal ladies like, says, Aishwarya Rai, whose stylists continue to recreate a version of herself that’s as ageless, cosmetic and apolitical as can be, McDowell showed how to own authenticity with elegance.

In Indian entertainment, roles for 60-plus women, in which the women get to play robust characters with anxieties and flights unique to the age, are a rarity. Tanvi Azmi’s reprisal of an ageing author who is a target of resentment for her daughter because she wasn’t the mother society expected her to be in Tribhanga (2021), an otherwise mediocre Netflix film, and chose to fulfil her ambitions instead, is the kind of character we don’t often see.

The poster girl of 60-plus brio in India is Neena Gupta. Not only is her career going better than ever before, she is embodying a liberated, joyous and unhindered second innings—a star to look forward to in the second season of Masaba Masaba, coming this year to Amazon Prime Video.

How the subversion of ageism and age-related stereotypes, which weigh women actresses and artistes in their 50s and beyond down, change storytelling in the near-future will be obvious in the next few years—for one, it will make stories less youth-obsessed. That itself is a big leap for cinema and television.
Sanjukta Sharma is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai.
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