Old Is the New Sexy

The Daily Beast's Susan Cheever talks to Last Chance Harvey's Emma Thompson about sexuality, her biological clock, and why being in love is like being dead.

12.03.08 6:03 AM ET

When Dustin Hoffman first makes Emma Thompson laugh in the romantic comedy Last Chance Harvey, it’s as sweet and passionate as any Romeo and Juliet moment…except for one thing. Hoffman (Harvey), 71, and Thompson (Kate), 49, are old enough to be Juliet’s grandparents.

Stuck in an airport bar—he’s missed his plane, she’s missed her life—they connect like the last two people on earth: fearlessly, freely, flirtatiously. They’re too tired to pretend. Hunched over her sad glass of single-girl Chablis, she’s alluring to him in her aging state, if only because she doesn’t have much to lose.

There’s a freedom to even the loneliest old age that can be more romantic than the driven, find-me-a-life-partner focus of the young.

So…is old the new sexy? This was my first question to Emma Thompson when we sat down to chat for The Daily Beast. “I think it’s very sexy because of course you know so much more when you’re older,” she says. “There’s a myth that young people go around saying ‘La la la! These are the best days of my life.’ I think that’s bollocks. I think young high-achievers are particularly miserable. We’ve been told that it’s all somehow over at 30.”

Thompson told me she took on the role of Kate in part to help expand our definition of erotic. “We’re very childish and primitive in our sexual relations with one another,” she explains. “I think we’re very underdeveloped. [I hope] this stretches people’s imaginations a little bit or invites them into not the usual paths, not the usual emotional paths.”

Last Chance is the tale of two of self-pities—Harvey’s daughter has asked her stepfather to replace him at her wedding; Kate is on her way to spinsterhood and caring for a hysterical mother—and it shows that there’s a freedom to even the loneliest old age that can be more romantic than the driven, find-me-a-life-partner focus of the young.

If the movie is to be believed, 40-something has suddenly become the most attractive age a woman can be.

The theory is this: Women in their 20s are looking for a financial help to allow them to afford a comfortable life, and women in their 30s are searching for someone to impregnate them before it’s too late. Only a woman in her late 40s can actually, at last, be interested in what turns her on. And she can be funny about it, too—especially if, like Thompson’s Kate Walker, she’s just been on a blind date that forcefully reminds her of the heedlessness and connection of the young. Especially if the part of the aging old bat is played by Thompson, an actress so irreverent that she keeps her two Oscars in the bathroom, and who brings wit and force to a role that many actresses might have turned down.

Perhaps Thompson took the part because she knows the mathematics of aging and biology firsthand. Married to fellow actor and director Kenneth Branagh at 30 and part of a famous, golden couple, she found herself running out of time. “When I started to suspect that I couldn’t have children,” she says, “my first marriage was already in trouble. I couldn’t start thinking about it until I was 35; and that was already pretty late. So the result of that meant I had my first child when I was 40.” (She and her second husband, actor Greg Wise, had their daughter in 1999, four years after her divorce from Branagh.)

She continues: “Blokes can have various false starts and start over again.” She describes a male friend who at 52 is about to have his first child. “That is open to them and that makes a difference in your mental state. In you’re 30s [as a woman] you’re thinking, whatever relationship you get into, is that going to be the one, or what’s the point in having it? Men have much longer,” she says. “Women have to make these decisions earlier on.”

Thompson hopes the movie might suggest that there are abundant new possibilities for love and eroticism, particularly for women getting older. “I hope it widens the palette,” she says. “I’d like audiences to walk away and think, ‘Okay I think I’ll do that,’ whatever it is they’re thinking about that’s exciting. I want to give them the energy of hope.”

If any movie is going to give older people hope about falling in love (or glamorize romance past 50), Last Chance Harvey just may be the one to do it. Thompson and Hoffman both look gorgeous in it. They are old in a new way. In a potent reversal of Sleeping Beauty, it is the aging Kate who awakens the 20 years older Harvey, a jingle writer who has always wished he was a jazz musician. Their romance takes place against the background of a 20-something marriage (of Harvey’s daughter), but the dewy young people take a back seat to the old coots—the lonely, washed-up father of the bride, the elegant old woman who was once his wife, her doting, wealthy new husband, and Thompson as the closeted spinster who is unable to connect with a man as her friends and mother are eager for her to connect. The youth are mere extras, while the mature actors are the stars.

Thompson says her favorite scene in the movie is a late-night encounter between Harvey and his happily remarried ex, played by Kathy Baker. He asks why his ex married him. “Because you were a lot of fun,” she says. When he asks if her new husband is a lot of fun, she smiles seraphically. “He thinks I’m fun,” she says.

“In just those few lines,” Thompson says, “they manage to convey the length and breadth of their relationship and why it broke down.”

Poignant moments like these, Thompson says, show that though romance and sex are possibly at any age, they will always come with emotional fallout. “It’s possible to fall in love at any age, but when you’re older you know what kind of tears it can end in,” she says. “Being in love is being in love, it’s one of those absolute states. It’s like being dead. You know you can’t just sort of be slightly in love; you’re in love, and that’s how it is.”

Susan Cheever is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including American Bloomsbury, My Name is Bill, Note Found in a Bottle, As Good as I Could Be, Home Before Dark, and Treetops. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a director of the Corporation of Yaddo, and a member of the Author’s Guild. Cheever teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars and at the New School.