Dame Emma Thompson’s tremendous portrayal of Elinor Dashwood in Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) was my earliest memory of watching a true screen heroine. Her performance shined with refreshing candor, wit, compassion, and, oh yes, repressed emotion bottled in a longing gaze. She radiated sisterhood. A few years prior to the film’s release, Thompson gave a heartfelt Best Actress speech at the 65th Academy Awards for her equally brilliant performance in James Ivory’s “Howards End” (1992). She dedicated her award to “the heroism and courage of women,” hopeful that the recognition would inspire the creation of “more true screen heroines to represent them.” It was comforting to know that she went on to grace the screen with several more heroines. Following “Howards End,” she received Oscar nominations for her performances in Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day” (1993) and Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father” (1993). Shortly after, she was nominated twice for “Sense and Sensibility” — one for Best Actress, the other for Best Adapted Screenplay (her second Oscar win). In the years that followed, from casting magical spells and relishing in fun blockbuster roles to reciting Shakespeare and shattering hearts to pieces every December (hello, “Love Actually”), Thompson soared. With a career full of gems, including her upcoming role in “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande,” she is the prime example of a national treasure.
Given the longevity of Thompson’s career, it is a little bewildering that her last Academy Award nomination was over 25 years ago. Since then, she came closest to a nomination for John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013), which tells the story of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers and her reluctant collaborations with Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) to adapt her books into a film. Thompson plays a strong-willed Travers who reflects on her own childhood as the filmmaking process is underway. Given Thompson’s accolades for this performance, which included a National Board of Review win, plus nominations at the SAG Awards, the BAFTAs, and the Critics Choice Awards, Oscar recognition felt inevitable. Her presence during the 2013-14 awards season was a treat; a ray of sunshine beloved by her peers and very much in the conversation. Her shocking snub on Oscar morning had Meryl Streep (nominated that year for “August: Osage County”) writing her an apology email and me wondering what it would take for the Academy to acknowledge Thompson’s work again. Though the longer she has been in the industry, the more difficult it has been to find interesting roles to play.
Thompson holds a unique record in the Academy’s history books. To this day, she remains the only person to win an Oscar for acting (“Howards End”) and writing (“Sense and Sensibility”). Her genuine surprise at the wins, not quite knowing how to thank the Academy on both occasions, makes sense. Her career had begun in the world of British comedy; performing standup with the likes of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, appearing on various comedy skit programs such as “There’s Nothing to Worry About!” (1982), “Alfresco” (1983-1984), “Tutti Frutti” (1987), and writing her own BBC sketch series “Thompson” (1988). Inspired by the comedic talents of Lily Tomlin and Bea Lillie, Thompson initially pursued a career as a comedian. The Oscars seemed a faraway object perpetually out of reach, that is, until she transitioned to period pieces. Discouraged by the negative critical response to her self-titled comedy series, Thompson gravitated to film roles. She began her run with acclaimed filmmakers on period pieces — four times with Kenneth Branagh, their best work being the vastly underrated mystery “Dead Again” (1991). Then twice with Ivory (along with Sir Anthony Hopkins), followed by Jim Sheridan, Ang Lee, and Mike Nichols. The Academy always took to her most reserved performances, notably characters that felt distant from her jovial public persona.
Take the role of Margaret Schlegel in “Howards End,” on paper the most acclaimed performance of Thompson’s career with thirteen acting wins (including the National Board of Review and the BAFTA, leading up to her eventual Oscar). Thompson conveys Margaret with rich empathy and a compelling presence. Consider her cheerful doe-eyed demeanor at the beginning of the film and how much of a difference in behavior she exhibits by the film’s end, having altered to a new way of life in order to survive. Thompson’s subtlety was deservingly awarded. Her category included the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon, both of whom were 3-time Oscar nominees at the time. Plus, Thompson won on her first go; “Howards End” was her first of five Oscar nominations.
Then there is the complicated role of Elinor Dashwood, the sense in “Sense and Sensibility.” Elinor is honor and duty personified, and Thompson plays her as such throughout the film. But what she also brings to the surface are Elinor’s repressed emotions, precisely when the time calls for it. The complexity is in finding which times feel honest, and Thompson excels with ease. For instance, in the scene of Edward (played by Hugh Grant) revealing his love for Elinor, she nearly hyperventilates happy tears, overwhelmed with emotion. Thompson builds up to the moment brilliantly. She also does wonders with the screenplay, to the point where you sometimes cannot tell where she begins, and Austen ends. Thompson creates her own skeleton, an incredible balance of filtration and imagination. Not since “Sense and Sensibility” has her work been recognized at the Oscars, but of course, she continued to deliver one fabulous performance after another—some hovering on the periphery of awards chatter, most flying under the radar. In any case, she had long ago cemented herself as the consummate storyteller with a sublime sense of humor.
Richard Curtis’ holiday hit “Love Actually” (2003) was never going to receive love from the Academy. But the caliber Thompson brings to this film is astonishing. When she opens the Christmas gift from her husband (played by Alan Rickman) and discovers it is not the gift-wrapped necklace she spotted him picking up earlier, the dam breaks. He gifts her a Joni Mitchell CD instead, which she then plays in their bedroom. The scene is universally beloved, not for the sake of being a sad moment, but for how she pulls herself together to walk out of the room and face her family. Her world changed, and she has to carry on as if it has not. People can relate. In “Love Actually,” Thompson is doing what she does best; conveying a window into a character’s breaking point without showing you the whole picture.
Another heartbreaking tour de force is her performance as Vivian Bearing in Mike Nichols’ “Wit” (2001), a story of a professor reassessing her life after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The TV film, based on Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 play of the same title, received multiple Emmy nominations, including Best Actress (Thompson) and Outstanding Writing (Thompson and Nichols). Her loss for Best Actress was not a surprise considering she did share a category with Judy Davis that year. (Davis won for portraying another famous Judy in “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”). Thompson gives the sort of performance that surely would have won something somewhere, but alas, not. Her work in “Wit” is remarkably transparent and has one of the most effective uses of a performer breaking the fourth wall.
Given Thompson’s bookish candor, a real-life career in writing, and frequent appearances in titles based upon novels or plays, it was only a matter of time before Thompson herself would play an author on screen. In Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006), for example, her character Karen Eiffel unwittingly writes a story of a real person’s life. Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell) begins to hear her voice inside his head, narrating his everyday actions and revealing that he is going to die. He searches for Eiffel in the hopes of persuading her to change his fatal ending. Eiffel herself is in clinical depression; held under such a grip, she struggles to move in any sort of direction. Thompson’s performance feels like a lost gem. In a brief scene of Eiffel standing atop a building, the actor transports you to the author’s perspective of imagining how to kill Harold. Her facial expressions alone are a powerful glimpse into Eiffel’s own despair.
Leading The Way
Thompson has primarily played supporting roles from the 2000s until this past year. From the witchy Professor Sybil Trelawney in the “Harry Potter” films to the devilish Baroness in “Cruella” (2021), she knocked them out of the park but left you wistful for more. Much of this has to do with there not being nearly enough interesting characters written for older women that center on truthful experiences. Not just of motherhood and family matters, but of lives outside children. Moments of career and identity crises. Insecurities around body image. Thompson found highlights here and there; from Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey” (2008) and Niall MacCormick’s “The Song of Lunch” (2010), to Richard Eyre’s “The Children Act” (2017) and Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” (2019). Her performance as late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury in Ganatra’s film is a standout. Written by Mindy Kaling, specifically with Thompson in mind, Newbury gets a resonating arc about self-identity. After years of being out of touch with herself and the world, she reclaims her voice. Thompson’s work is a reminder not only of her exquisite talent but also of how long it has been since she was given this much interesting material to explore in a film. General lack of material is one of the plenty reasons why her latest performance in Sophie Hyde’s film “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” (2022) is a precious treat to enjoy with pleasure.
Pleasure Is A Wonderful Thing
“Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” drops exclusively on Hulu this weekend. The story is an intimate two-hander starring Thompson as Nancy Stokes, a retired schoolteacher who doesn’t know good sex, and Daryl McCormack as Leo Grande, a young sex worker she hires to gain experience. Created and written by Katy Brand, the film approaches the conversation of sex work, intimacy, and bodies through the two protagonists. In such control of her emotions as an actor, Thompson is simultaneously candid and liberated on screen. Through her character’s experiences, she meets herself along the way. Thompson’s work epitomizes why she is so beloved in the first place: her wit, charm, frankness, and seamless ability to find humor in everyday life. Her humanity is a balm to the soul; she can make you laugh and cry in the same breath.
Whether her performance makes a dent with awards or not, the wave of love and appreciation about to come Thompson’s way will be rewarding. However, it will carry an air of disappointment if “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” forgoes a theatrical release outside of film festivals. The Academy recently announced a return to its eligibility requirement for all films in contention to have a theatrical 2022 release. Unless “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” receives a limited theatrical run to qualify (as it should), the news is a shame. Unlike Mimi Cave’s “Fresh,” another Searchlight Pictures title released exclusively on Hulu in March, “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” cannot follow suit for a TV awards run as its June 17 release date is past the 2022 Emmys eligibility window. With several variables up in the air, from an unlikely theatrical run to the Best Actress competition still to come, “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” doesn’t seem a likely Oscar contender. But the film at least deserves an audience to chat amongst one another after leaving the theatre.
Beyond the brilliance of Thompson’s performance, “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” sparks conversation. Unattainable beauty standards, reclaiming sexuality, understanding sex work, confronting biases, and unhealthy attitudes towards body image, to name a few threads. Having discussed many of these issues in various interviews over the years, Thompson takes matters into her own hands in the film. Her final scene of self-acceptance is a beautiful example of her ability to transform internally. Nancy Stokes is another jewel in the actor’s crown. The character’s newfound autonomy feels inspired and courageous. It is the sort of creation that has come along in her career at a prime time, reminding audiences of her tremendous talent. Nearly 30 years after her Best Actress Oscar for “Howards End,” Dame Emma Thompson is here playing another true screen heroine.
What is your favorite Emma Thompson performance? Have you seen “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” yet? If so, what did you think? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
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