“I beat Meryl!” Jennifer Lawrence cooed upon winning the best actress Golden Globe for Silver Linings Playbook. She would later win the Oscar for the same role as a nymphomaniac dance enthusiast with an adorable ability to cure the freakoid played by Bradley Cooper.
Oddly, Meryl Streep plays a similar role in Hope Springs as a mature woman who wants sex. It’s rare to see mature women exhibit sexual desire on screen. When they do it’s usually of the former type, youngster-nympho, and seen as charming instead of threatening.
In Hope Springs Streep’s character, Kay, is a threat, in subtle ways, to her smile-resistant hubby, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones, nominated for playing another frowner in Lincoln). Jones has a long history of playing stony bureaucrats (The Fugitive, No Country for Old Men, Volcano). Jones’ craggy countenance is the perfect antidote to Streep’s unguarded Kay, Arnold’s wife of 31 years. She wants to have sex with him, but he can’t handle it. He’s just not that into her.
Not because she’s an unhinged stalker or anything like that. It seems to be because he can’t quite cope with her normal audacities: aging naturally, exhibiting desire, confronting loneliness, refusing to be a sex object, etc.
The couple visit a sedate psychologist, Doctor Feld (Steve Carell) who counsels them about how to reignite the passion. By the end of the film, Jones is bending Streep over the kitchen sink in a zealous kiss. Her feet lift up and nuzzle the stove across the way. Success! Hubby’s giving her what she wants.
Hope Springs came and went without much fanfare, a late summer release with a respectable box office, obviously aimed at women. Likely the same breed imagined to shop at Coldwater Creek — the shop where Streep works in the movie. She also models the kind of outfits sold at this joint: floral prints, wrap dresses with forgivable waist lines, ruffles, wedge heels. Sensible, unharrowing chic.
Indeed, Streep bears the strange responsibility of representing mainstream women over 50 — the demographic that, despite having economic power and being in charge of at least 50 percent of everything that really matters, is still considered in movie and media land to be kinda irrelevant. It goes without saying that part of this invisibility occurs because, in general, movie and media industries require zero percent body fat and zero percent wrinkles on images of women.
Of course men like Jack Nicholson get to age on screen — and with sybaritic revelry. Nicholson seems to thrive on his paunch and crackled brow. Which is fine. Good for Nicholson. I just want it to be as indulgent and charming when women age.
Streep’s age, around 60, becomes an important part of what we see in Hope Springs. The film opens on Streep’s Kay looking at herself in the mirror. She wears a turquoise nightgown; pretty, but rational. She looks at herself, primps. We see the doubt, but also the acceptance. The bathroom light isn’t hard, but it’s not soft, either. Nothing is hiding. Here she is. A mature woman getting ready for sex.
Streep oscillates between roles where she transforms into some actable entity and traditional “leading lady” stuff. Recently, she played the cruel nun in Doubt and the elderly, end-of-her-life, Margaret Thatcher — both creatures that exist beyond or without sexual desire. Then there are the roles where she is bubbling over with sex (sultry Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County) and the array of sexy heroines who defined her in the ’70s and ’80s: icy divorcee, Sophie, that lieutenant’s woman, the chick out in Africa.
Yet lately, she’s portrayed a string of desirous mammas in Mamma Mia, It’s Complicated and Hope Springs. Each of the leading ladies in these three films, are mothers with grown children and a sexual appetite. A healthy one.
Streep has become one of the only major movie stars to represent what that looks like. In that sense, she offers a new sex symbol for the cultural imagination. She is a face for the possibility of desirous women who look older than 20. Many actresses may actually be older than 20, but they still look like the idea of 20 (Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Connelly). That is, they conform to the cultural image of youth as the most desired state. Their bodies rock, the lines on their faces, when visible, are minor. No one is giving in to a crease between the eyebrows. They look like they exercise and eat organic. They look like they actively resist aging rather than triumphantly giving into it, à la Nicholson.
That’s one way to look at it. In another sense, we have to admit that in our culture, women’s beauty is measured in relation to the rather crass question, “Would I do her?” and how it would be answered by a frat-like man-boys, whom no sane or interesting woman would want to even speak with.
Streep is important because she provides a visual antidote to this kind of one-dimensional desire. What does sexy look like for a woman? What does sexy look like for a woman in her 50s and 60s or older? What does it look like when she sees, feels and experiences sexual desire? Hope Springs, written by Vanessa Taylor, is about desiring desire.
We get a mainstream (read: vanilla) view of sex in Hope Springs. Streep’s Kay, first admits she never masturbates. In contrast to the enormous female cohort in lust with E. L. James’ 50 Shades stuff, Kay also claims to have no fantasies. When she tries to be a “sex object” and blow Arnie (Jones) in a movie theater, the plan fails. She’s just not that into it.
She longs for touch, and for an intimacy that is dubiously simple. When Arnie whines and refuses to touch her, she finally touches herself. The lights are low. She murmurs, sighs, and breathes small moans of pleasure. Streep is known for mastering accents, and here she gives Kay a whole new voice. It’s on a higher register and it’s airy, occasionally vulnerable and timid. That’s also the way she chooses to perform an orgasm. Kay touches her breast, her other hand is father down. Arnie, banished, listens from the next room. We see Streep’s character orgasm, her hand beneath the sheets.
It’s a brief, seemingly minor scene. But nonetheless it’s powerful. (Hope Springs is rated PG-13, so granted it’s understated, but I wonder if there is a cross-purposed de-sexing about it. Though it’s obvious, it’s also invisible at the same time).
This must be why, once Jones’ Arnie finally gets hip to the sitch, and makes out with Streep, she demands that he look at her. His eyes are closed. “Look at me,” she beseeches. It’s not a nag. And she’s not asking. “Look at me.” He loses his erection. He sulks and retreats. He finally comes around by the end of the film, but now we know the stakes.
You have to look at her. You have to see it. Streep’s performance calls out to everyone in our sex-obsessed culture to: Look. At. Her. She’s around 60. She feels hot. She wants Jones. She wants him to want her. And also some other complicated stuff. This is what it looks like. It kinda gives me hope to see it, to see that desire made visible in an average, mainstream entertainment. It does not show up very often.
Consider Streep’s contemporaries, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfieffer, Jessica Lange, Blythe Danner, Alfre Woodard, Cher. We hardly ever get to see them express desire. If ever?
Streep is oft-hailed as the greatest actress alive. Especially after her recent win for The Iron Lady and her reliable habit of always getting nominated. When she puts on body prosthetics and does an accent, she wins an Oscar. When she conveys a love that is rarely seen — a 60 year old woman masturbating — there’s no Oscar nod and a nubile ingénue “beats” her. Go on, Jennifer Lawrence, preen a little. Silver Linings was really good. And the academy has always loved hooker types.
But let’s not forget that something really cool is happening when Meryl Streep masturbates.
Look away at your peril.