It only lasts 20 seconds, but it’s more than enough time. The shot of a nude woman looking at herself in a rectangular mirror shocked a society unaccustomed to seeing itself reflected, without euphemisms, on the big screen. She doesn’t move. She doesn’t speak. She sheds her bathrobe and examines herself serenely: the breasts less tight, the gradual cellulitis, the rounding abdomen, hanging skin. At 62 years old, Emma Thompson, the protagonist, appears without aesthetic retouching or filters, trying to accept herself amidst the judgment of a body far from those of the cinema canon. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” the actress admits. The scene comes at the end of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, one of the surprises of the year on the indie circuit. After its success at festivals, it now reaches our screens. The British production brings to life a retired professor who, after her husband’s death, hires a young sex worker in order to discover her own body and the sexual wholeness that she lacked in her marriage. The tragicomedy has, intentionally or not, spurred a controversial debate about why mature nudity is still a taboo in fiction.
“Women have been brainwashed all our lives. That’s the fact of it,” said Thompson, a double Oscar winner, in the film’s press conference at the last Berlin festival. The video of her plea soon went viral, referring to the physical demands that society places on women and the widespread “brainwashing” that it entails: everything that surrounds us reminds us how imperfect we are and how everything is wrong. Everything is wrong, and we need to look like this.” The entertainment press has not hesitated to describe Emma Thompson as “brave” and deem her a candidate to lead the imminent awards season.
It may feel bleak, but it shouldn’t be too surprising that the nude of a woman over 60 continues to make headlines in 2022. Female aging is deeply stigmatized in entertainment, and the film industry deliberately ignores actresses as they age. According to a study by the Actors Guild of the United States, in 2019, actresses over 40 only represented 25.4% of speaking roles. Dozens of stars have denounced that when they reached that age they lost jobs due to “being too old,” or they were directly offered roles of the protagonist’s grandmother. In the case of the mature nude, the repulsion has reached the point of creating a subgenre of horror, hagsploitation, which turns the old woman’s body into a terrifying and grotesque monster, decrepit and the epitome of death. The motif was born with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In recent years, it has experienced an upswing, with examples such as M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, Ti West’s X and Pac Plaza’s The Grandmother. Even Julie, the star of the acclaimed The Worst Person in the World, stars in a psychedelic journey in which she sees herself in the naked body of an older woman to denounce the social pressure endured by young women in their twenties without a family or a job.
While the film industry has historically hypersexualized the figures of its most attractive actresses, unretouched bodies over 40, imperfect according to traditional beauty standards, have rarely been shown as sexually desirable. Last year, Kate Winslet made headlines around the world for the mere fact that she refused to have her love handles removed during a sex scene in the series Mare of Easttown and demanded that her crows feet appear on her promotional posters. Emma Thompson herself, who for decades lost nude roles because of not being thin enough, encourages the rebellion against the self-imposed beauty canons: “If you want the world to change, and you want the iconography of the female body to change, then you better be part of the change.”
For some actresses, though, aging was an impetus to show their bodies naked on the big screen for the first time. That was the case of Diane Keaton, who appeared without clothes at the age of 57 in the comedy Something’s Gotta Give. “Your idea about your body changes completely as you get older. Now, I just see it as a body. It’s not like this precious commodity that I have to hide,” she told Entertainment Weekly. Kathy Bates did it at 53 in About Schmidt, Charlotte Rampling at 62 in The List, Helen Mirren at 58 in Calendar Girls. Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) and Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) they also appeared nude over 50. Before Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Anne Reid, at 68, already shocked British society by having intimate relations with a Daniel Craig half her age in the 2003 film The Mother. Reid has recounted how, the night before the scene was to be shot, she got drunk in her apartment before undressing in front of the mirror, collapsing under the pressure of “showing this” on camera. “I sort of managed to pull myself together but it was scary,” concluded the actress, who ended up reaping a long string of awards and nominations. Almost two decades later, the commotion repeats with Emma Thompson.