Here are two scenes from recent movies, both circling around the question of age.
First there’s Tom Cruise, shirtless and seemingly ageless at 59, playing dogfight football in Top Gun: Maverick (now in theatres).
And then there’s Emma Thompson, shirtless — and bottomless! — staring in a mirror and looking all of her 62 years in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (currently streaming on Prime Video).
One scene triumphantly vanquishes age; the other tenderly embraces it. The first is undeniably impressive, but the second feels absolutely radical.
These are, of course, two very different examples. Maverick is a big-budget, big-screen spectacle, while Leo Grande is a talky indie two-hander set in a hotel room.
Tom Cruise is a movie star, and the whole point of the movie star is to be unchanging. Stars bring the force field of their fame to their on-screen characters, gilding them with their own iconic charisma. That’s mostly what Cruise has been doing, with grinning, cocky, confident physicality, for almost four decades.
Thompson, on the other hand, is an actor, and actors are applauded for disappearing into roles. Thompson can channel Merchant Ivory repression in Remains of the Day, go broadly comic in Nanny McPhee, and project ruthless power in the dystopian drama Years and Years. She is also a British actor, a subset of thespians known for regular-people teeth and the kind of soft stomachs that would be taboo in Hollywood.
But maybe the crucial difference here is gender. Cruise is a now 60-year-old action-man, and in this new Top Gun flick he’s revisiting a role that helped make his career in the 1986 original, as adrenaline-addicted, rule-busting test pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell.
This time out, Maverick keeps getting told he’s old and obsolete. "The future is coming. And you’re not in it," one character says. "Your kind is headed for extinction," says another. But, of course, the underlying gist of the story is that the world — and the movies! — still need him. When it comes to competency, potency and all-round America-saving abilities, Maverick’s age is not an issue.
Same goes for Cruise, whose appearance at a shirtless beach football game seems calculated to underline his imperviousness to time. ("Is he aging backwards?" some commentators have asked. Does he have a Dorian Gray-type portrait in the attic?)
Another way Cruise stays young is through his female co-stars. When Kelly McGillis, who played Cruise’s romantic interest in the original Top Gun, was asked whether her character would be coming back, she joked: "Oh my God, no…. I mean, I’m old and I’m fat."
McGillis’s erasure — she looks just fine, by the way — suggests the way women over 50, at least the non-Helen Mirren ones, tend to disappear at the movies.
In Leo Grande, Thompson works to make them reappear — and how. This sex-positive comedy-drama takes cinematic expectations about women and age and blows them up, not by minimizing the effects of time but by revealing them, with uncommon honesty and warmth.
Thompson plays Nancy, a buttoned-up widow who has never had good sex. She hires a sex worker, the ridiculously good-looking Leo (Daryl McCormack), to try to figure out what she’s been missing.
At the beginning of the film, we see her changing out of her sensible shoes into a slightly less sensible pair. We watch as she looks at her reflection with doubtful self-appraisal, frowning slightly, then perhaps frowning at the frown lines.
Nancy is determined to "get it over with," as she says, rather unpromisingly, to Leo when he asks what she wants to do. She stumbles over the notion of pleasure. But gradually, awkwardly, frankly and sometimes hilariously, Nancy gets comfortable in her own skin.
Near the end of film, she disrobes and looks in the mirror once again. Nancy sees, and we see, an ordinary, size-12 sort of 60-something woman. Naked, vulnerable, human, Thompson resets the iconography of the changing female body in mainstream film. In an interview with the New York Times, she has called this scene the most difficult thing she’s ever done.
Cruise is an evergreen action star who famously performs his own stunts. As he gets older, he continues to hang off the sides of planes and climb the world’s tallest buildings and race motorcycles off cliffs. That’s difficult, dangerous work.
But in terms of risk, Thompson and her revolutionary nude scene may have got him beat.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.