Rich leading roles for older women in movies and television have been notoriously absent until recent years as more creators recognize the audience’s growing appetite for realistic representations of all ages, genders, ethnicity, and races of people. Sexuality on-screen has generally been limited to younger actors, or to an older leading man and a younger woman. But all that is starting to change and Emma Thompson’s (age 63) role as Nancy in Hulu’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, wittily confronts body image, ageist stereotypes, sexuality, and sexism head-on in this intimate comedy.
Following the death of her husband, “Nancy”(not her real name) finds herself hiring a young, handsome sex worker to help her discover what she had been missing in her 30-year marriage, sans orgasm. In keeping with her background as a teacher, she makes a list of sex acts she wants to try, but nearly talks herself out of the whole thing. With patience and skill, Leo (not his real name), the young Irish sex worker, gains Nancy’s trust and she learns to enjoy the pleasures of sex and acceptance of her own imperfect body.
The scenes in Leo Grande are not romantically lit, nor are body imperfections masked with carefully draped linens or structured undergarments. Thomson’s role of widow Nancy Stokes – age 55 also delves into motherhood and marriage, as well as sexuality and the craving for a bit of adventure and human connection. Leo reveals that his oldest female client is 83, giving Nancy some comfort that her desire to have good sex for once in her life isn’t ridiculous.
The film, beyond helping to break down ageist stereotypes around sexuality, also confronts the legitimate role of sex workers to help people find pleasure in their bodies and human connection without shame. Leo eloquently voices a defense of his vocation, and the value it provides his clients, and himself.
Meaningful roles for older female actors are slowly emerging in Hollywood and it’s a pleasure to see actors like Jean Smart (70), playing smart, sexy, funny, and sometimes vulnerable roles like Deborah Vance in HBO Max’s comedy series Hacks. Better Things, starring Gen X working actor Pamela Aldon, on FX is also worth a watch as she skillfully and hilariously portrays the daily challenges of being a single mom who is working to support her family while helping to care for her elderly mother. Honest and quirky, Better Things is an unfiltered glimpse of the real lives of middle-aged mothers; menopause, divorce, sex, body image, difficult parent relationships – nothing is off-limits.