Emma Thompson stars in the new (and very favorably reviewed) Saving Mr. Banks, in which she plays Mary Poppins’ protective author P.L. Travers. And thank God, because she nails the damn role. In fact, Thompson is so consistent onscreen and such a legend of cinema that it’s hard to believe we’ve only been watching her for 25 years. Hell, unless you saw Henry V, you were almost certainly introduced to her in the ’90s. For a legend, she’s moved quickly.
And today, I suggest another layer to her legacy: Gay Icon. Here are five reasons the marvelous double Oscar-winner should be sanctified in the name of gay adoration.
1. Every gay man has a favorite Emma Thompson role.
As was the case with Julianne Moore, I cannot think of a gay movie fan who doesn’t love Emma Thompson. There are so many justifiable choices for her best role: She won an Oscar for living up to E.M. Forster’s fabulous novel in Howards End, but she also slaaaays in the fun and Hitchcockian Dead Again, the wonderful The Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father, and I adore her in lighter, more contemporary fare like Love Actually and Stranger Than Fiction. Oh, and that TV movie of Wit? I will NEVER forget that performance. Our lives end in a comma, people — not a period.
But I think my favorite Thompson performance is an early one — her quaint, daffy work as the Duchess D’Antanin in Impromptu, who welcomes esteemed guests Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) and George Sand (Judy Davis, who is absolutely firebombing you with bad-ass, sneering impishness here) into her salon to feel sophisticated. She is so woozy and loopy, the role stands out from the more self-possessed characters she usually plays. But she is nonetheless charismatic and very alive, and it just goes to show that Emma Thompson is a master at drawing us into period pieces with her timeless presence and grace.
2. As far as I know, she’s the only woman to make out with Meryl Streep in mid-air.
I don’t know about you, but it seems pretty insane that HBO’s instant classic miniseries Angels In America is a decade old. I still remember studying Patrick Wilson’s cheekbones for the first time and wondering if he’d installed corundum in them, ran them through a Crayola sharpener, or what. The series, based on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer winning work, gives us terrific performances from Mary-Louise Parker, Al Pacino, and Ben Shenkman as the duuuubious Louis Ironson, but you simply can’t reflect on the series without remembering Thompson’s ethereal work as The Angel America (plus Nurse Emily and a homeless woman) and Meryl Streep as Mormon mother Hannah Pitt (as well as Ethel Rosenberg and a very bearded rabbi). One of the miniseries’ most fantastical images involves the celestial appearance of Thompson, and a very bewitched and startled Hannah Pitt. Their energies combine and make for probably the best airborne kiss between two Oscar-winning females that I’ve ever seen. (There are a couple scenes in Cloudburst that come close though.)
3. She costarred in perhaps the greatest Ellen episode. In fact, it may be the greatest sitcom guest appearance ever. And it’s gay!
Why this isn’t required viewing in graduate-level courses on sitcom perfection, I’ll never know. On Ellen, Ellen DeGeneres’s fab ’90s sitcom, Thompson guest-starred as a version of herself concealing two big secrets: 1) She’s a lesbian; 2) She fabricated her British background entirely. The former secret doesn’t seem to bother her as much, but she’s deathly afraid of letting everyone know she’s an average jane from Ohio. What ensues is a truly hilarious episode featuring a comically dead-on Thompson. She is killing here, and her efforts didn’t go unnoticed: She picked up the guest actress Emmy for her role. “I learned the accent from the Julie Andrews movies, all right?”
Two other things: 1) Ellen was a great sitcom actress. Never forget. 2) Sean Penn’s big reveal at the end of the episode? Equally thrilling!
4. She’s as self-possessed as her characters.
Man, Emma Thompson is sure good for a quote.
Take her note about atheism, which is splintering, yet diplomatic: “I’m an atheist. I suppose you can call me a sort of libertarian anarchist. I regard religion with fear and suspicion. It’s not enough to say that I don’t believe in God. I actually regard the system as distressing: I am offended by some of the things said in the Bible and the Qur’an and I refute them.”
Hell, she agreed — to an extent — with Madonna after she broke up with Guy Ritchie and snapped that British men are “emotionally retarded.” Well, sort of. “I felt very badly for British men when she said that,” Thompson said. “I thought, ’Well, it’s not across the board, but it is true that an awful lot of them are a bit kind of closed down.’ I blame the class system, which resulted in two centuries of the most appalling parenting you could possibly imagine, with children being sent away to school at a very young age, which is a very odd habit when you think about it.”
Recently she’s discussed the rumored rift between herself and Helena Bonham Carter, and apparently they long ago made up. “You can’t hold on to anything like that. I just think … pfft. It’s pointless. I haven’t got the energy for it. Helena and I made our peace years and years ago.” She compared Carter to herself, agreeing that they’re both “slightly mad and a bit fashion-challenged,” and adding, “Perhaps that’s why Ken loved us both. She’s a wonderful woman, Helena.”
Guilelessness! The adult thing to do! Lawf hahr.
5. Finally, and most assuredly: the best award show speech ever.
It’s reported that Thompson fell into a deep depression at the end of her first marriage to Kenneth Branagh, and she recovered by penning the big screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The lively version ended up earning Thompson her second Oscar, but before that, she won the Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Globe might be the lesser honor, but it yielded the — and I’m not exaggerating here — greatest award show speech of all time. Thompson seizes the occasion, proves her Jane Austen mettle is serious, and delights with one of the drollest, coolest, and most enchanting speeches ever. Flawless.
I’m sorry, but what else do you want? The woman is a fabulous actress who is also a fabulous celebrity. This is how Gay Iconography is done.