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The Brilliance of Emma Thompson

‘Late Night’ is a reminder of the actress’s ability to balance comedy and drama, and an even bigger reminder that she’s been doing this for decades

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Emma Thompson’s face upon winning an Oscar in 1993 is one of total incredulity. Awarded Best Actress for her performance as Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, Thompson had just beat out Catherine Deneuve, Mary McDonnell, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon. Thompson is 33—arguably middle-aged by Hollywood’s discriminatory standards—but her reaction here is that of an ingénue. And, in retrospect, Thompson was. In subsequent decades, she would go on to occupy what we might call increasingly “mature” roles—a career arc that has more recently earned her a distinction of what Tom+Lorenzo affectionately calls “everybody’s wacky British aunt.” But in 1993, Emma Thompson is still largely playing the part of romantic heroine; it would be yet another year before her infamous divorce from Kenneth Branagh.

The Oscars telecast crystallizes this cusp in Thompson’s career perfectly, capturing her youthful euphoria. The camera hangs onto her look of stunned amazement—eyes wide and lips widening as they repeatedly mouth, “Oh my god.” She clasps a hand over her face. Even the music is suspenseful. On stage, in her sequined, mermaid-colored jumpsuit, Thompson delivers a speech representative of what has come to be known as her signature Realness. If Jennifer Lawrence’s tripping on the stairs to collect her 2013 Best Actress Academy Award was a peak in celebrity authenticity, then let’s just say that Thompson got there a decade earlier. Walking to the podium, Thompson continuously adjusts her shoulder straps. Upon arrival, she exhales a “good grief.”

Thompson’s acceptance speech itself is spotted with ums and gasps. She appears genuinely—and not simply performatively—breathless. She concludes with a gesture of true earnestness: “And um, finally, I would like, if I may, to dedicate this Oscar, um, to the heroism and the courage of women and to hope that it inspires the creation of more true screen heroines to represent them. Thank you so much.” While most award speeches spotlight the person being awarded, Thompson’s generously turns outward. She knows she has the power to stand for something, and that something might just be change. It’s not meant to be cheesy, and it’s definitely not insincere.

You might hardly believe this woman, who seems so exuberantly expressive, is the same one who’s also receiving an award for her portrayal of a reserved Edwardian German English intellectual. Thompson’s career, however, has come to be known for exactly this kind of contradiction. The relationship between Thompson’s public persona and her more restrained characters is defined by this movement between passion and control, feeling and detachment, comedy and seriousness—a balancing act that finds its most recent expression in the workplace dramedy Late Night.

Whether playing a repressed heroine in a British period piece or a doppelgänger for Hillary Clinton, almost all of Thompson’s performances revolve around this tension between emotion and intellect. Part of this is perhaps because, while Thompson became famous for her dramatic roles, she got her start in comedy. If you’re American, you probably first noticed Thompson through her performance in Howards End or one of her collaborations with then-husband Branagh. But if you’re British, you more likely encountered Thompson through her comedic roles. Although born into a thespian family, Thompson did not intend to pursue acting until university at Cambridge when, while completing an English degree, she joined the Footlights Dramatic Club. The famous theater troupe has produced some of the biggest names in British comedy, from Monty Python to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. But Thompson—a contemporary of Fry and Laurie—was notably a woman.

As a woman, Thompson’s first pass at comedy was received with mixed results. She appeared on British sketch shows such as There’s Nothing to Worry About! (1982) and Alfresco (1983-84), though always as secondary to her leading male costars. And although Thompson finally landed her own show in 1988, the BBC sketch comedy series titled simply Thompson ran for only six episodes. It was canceled due to poor ratings and reviews that accused it for being apparently “man-hating.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Thompson’s film debut, The Tall Guy (1989)—again, in the genre of comedy—was also poorly received.

Thompson’s breakthrough came, instead, as a result of what she calls “serious acting.” It started with the 1987 TV miniseries Fortunes of War, where she first met future husband Branagh. It then continued in the form of many collaborations with said husband: from the Shakespeare adaptations Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993) to the fantastic 1991 Hitchcockian homage Dead Again. In addition, Thompson also began to put out period pieces at a rate that might have seemed like spamming if the quality of her work hadn’t been so high. The early 1990s was a golden age of Emma Thompson As Serious Historical British Character. There was her performance of the repressed British housekeeper in The Remains of the Day (nominated for an Oscar), the indefatigable lawyer in In the Name of the Father (nominated for an Oscar), the poignant “sensible” Dashwood sister in Sense and Sensibility (nominated for an Oscar), and the eponymous character in Carrington (not nominated for an Oscar, but definitely should have been).

Thompson’s final scene in that last film, in which she (spoiler) dies by suicide, might be the best encapsulation of her capacity to imbue pathos with humor. Leaning over a rifle, Thompson’s Carrington reaches down to pull the trigger, only to discover that the safety is still on. In response, Thompson laughs. That laugh—a slight chuckle before she, you know, kills herself because life without Lytton Strachey is unbearable—tells you everything.

These earlier dramatic roles frequently featured Thompson as a kind of tragic heroine—a persona that would gain real-life texture after her divorce from Branagh in 1995. While the reason behind their separation (Branagh’s affair with Helena Bonham Carter) became public knowledge only much later, Thompson’s experience of the breakup found almost immediate creative expression in her writing the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility. Her published diaries during its filming register Thompson’s exhaustion and grief in the aftermath of her divorce. Many years later, Thompson would draw on her experience of the dissolution of her first marriage during the famous crying scene in Love Actually. You know the one.

At the time of her divorce, Thompson’s career had still largely revolved around working off or against men. But Sense and Sensibility marked a distinctly new phase in her creative career, in which she began to write not only for women, but about relationships between women as well. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the real love story in Sense and Sensibility is between the two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

If success is indeed the best revenge, then Thompson certainly got hers with Sense and Sensibility, which won Best Screenplay at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. (She also met her future husband, the very not-ugly Greg Wise, on set.) Not only did the screenplay garner Thompson her second Oscar, but it also made her the only person ever to have won Oscars for both acting and writing. It’s an important fact of Thompson’s creative production—the marriage of performing and writing—that would continue throughout her career. Thompson’s CV is dotted not just with instances of screenwriting (Nanny McPhee, Effie Gray, Bridget Jones’s Baby), but also performances as writers (Stranger Than Fiction, Saving Mr. Banks). Maybe that English degree was useful, after all?

Thompson’s memorable acceptance speech for Best Screenplay at the Globes, in which she addresses the audience as though in the voice of Jane Austen, most clearly showcases these excessive talents. Not only that, but it’s also a reminder of why Mirage producer Lindsay Doran asked Thompson to write the screenplay in the first place: Emma Thompson is really, really funny. The speech concludes with Thompson voicing what she imagines Austen would think of Thompson: “P.S. Managed to avoid the hoyden Emily Thompkinson, who has purloined my creation and added things of her own. Nefarious Creature!” Prior to this point in the speech, Thompson acknowledged her indebtedness to “the genius of Jane Austen.” Though, of course, in the case of Sense and Sensibility, the genius of Jane Austen is also the genius of Emma Thompson.

The latter half of the 1990s finally saw Thompson’s arrival on the American scene, initially through her collaborations with Mike Nichols in films such as Primary Colors (1998), the HBO made-for-TV film Wit (2001), and Angels in America (2003). In Nichols’s films, you see Thompson loosening up, both in her reengagement with comedy, but also in her more radically experimental and deeply embodied fourth-wall-breaking performance of Vivian Bearing in Wit. These more exploratory U.S. films act as a bridge between early British period piece Emma Thompson and the second phase of Thompson’s British roles.

Starting with Love Actually (2003), the second half of Thompson’s career is characterized by performances where she plays either some version of Your British Aunt (see Nanny McPhee, Brideshead Revisited, Harry Potter, An Education, Men in Black, Effie Gray, The Meyerowitz Stories) or the Endearing Middle-Aged Woman Who Seeks To Find Love Again (Love Actually, Last Chance Harvey, The Song of Lunch, The Love Punch). An exception might be The Children Act (2017), which makes Thompson both dramatic career-woman lead and romantic love interest (a novel concept for female characters, I know, I know).

While these roles increasingly occupy that vexed terrain known as “character acting,” they’re also increasingly spaces where Thompson gets to fuck around. For starters, just consider the kind of hairdos that are suddenly possible to you when you’re no longer playing the conventional romantic heroine.

Men in Black: International
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Consider also the warty makeup of Nanny McPhee (apparently one of Thompson’s favorite roles). Or the alcohol-using, hippie fourth wife she plays in Meyerowitz Stories. Wacky Aunt Behavior, indeed.

Having turned 60 last April, Thompson’s most recent starring role in the new film Late Night might be viewed as a kind of late-career comeback. This is, at least, how her character’s plot is framed: Katherine Newbury is a seasoned and revered talk-show host who nonetheless needs to update her public image in order to stay on the air. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, Late Night was written by, produced by, and costars Mindy Kaling, who claims that she wrote Katherine Newbury with Emma Thompson in mind. Similar to Thompson, Newbury is a 50-something aging female British performer in a world that is increasingly millennial, meme-centric, and possibly passing her by. Except unlike Thompson, Newbury is notably less generous to other women: Her writers’ room contains only white men, and the arc of the film follows her uneasy acceptance of Molly Patel (played by Kaling) under her wing.

As with most comebacks (if Late Night is in fact that), Thompson’s performance as Katherine is also a return to form. As Kaling has noted in interviews, she wanted to write Thompson’s character as funny, given the actress’s origins in comedy. And it totally works: Thompson is eminently plausible as a long-established talk-show host in the film. Watching her performance in Late Night, it’s hard to imagine who else could successfully pull off the character. Who else carries such an undeniable sheen of established charismatic celebrity? Meryl Streep, maybe? You have to already be an institution unto yourself to make Katherine Newbury believable.

By contrast, Kaling has written herself as Katherine’s protégé—a comedy rookie whose entrance into the world of late night is foregrounded as torturously arduous. In order for Molly to get even an interview at Katherine’s show, she has to win an essay contest at the place she currently works (a chemical plant), which allows her a meeting with any executive in the company (including at Katherine’s Late Night Show, which is owned by the parent company of the chemical plant). It’s a pretty good joke. Hired initially because of the sheer fact of her being a woman, Molly eventually breaks through to Katherine, forcing her to reevaluate her adherence to a more traditional Dick Cavett–y model of interviewing intellectuals, such as biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. In clinging to her old ways—a model she refers to as “excellence without compromise”—Katherine also downplays any signs of change, both in terms of the broader world and her own personal life.

What Molly shows Katherine, though, is that to stay relevant, she needs to actually be herself. “It’s when you really come alive as a performer,” Molly tells her. When Katherine shows the passion beneath the seriousness, the wit beneath the intellect, the woman behind the persona, her ratings immediately go up. Ironically, Being More Herself is something Emma Thompson has never seemed to struggle with. It’s a sly move on the part of the film that, while offering an alternate universe in which women get to be famous talk-show hosts, nonetheless takes its model of female celebrity from an actress who already exists in our world. What makes Emma Thompson unique are the ways she has managed to turn aspects of her personal life into art—the ways she has turned herself around the axes of relatability.

Investitures At Buckingham Palace
Emma Thompson leaves Buckingham Palace after receiving damehood
Photo by Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Whereas Late Night draws a model of celebrity for Katherine Newbury from the actress who portrays her, the role of Newbury also provides Emma Thompson a channel for being, well, more Emma Thompson–like. There’s also a palpable sense, as Thompson gets older, that she’s also starting to have more fun. Recall Thompson at the 2014 Golden Globes, in which she delivered the Award for Best Screenplay with her Louboutins in one hand and a martini glass in the other, before chucking the heels behind her. The days of wearing high heels are all in the past now. And, indeed, a quick backward glance upon her illustrious career suggests that Thompson probably doesn’t really have much left to prove. Like Katherine’s character in Late Night, Emma Thompson is a certified dame. But probably unlike Katherine, Thompson received her damehood from Prince William in Stella McCartney sneakers. What else is there left for Thompson but to have fun; and in having fun, to be excellent?

What is ironic, of course, about Thompson’s lead performance in Late Night is that, no matter how excellent, it will not likely earn her any Oscars. When it comes to the Academy, the prejudices against women are compounded by the prejudices against comedy. Though this is, perhaps, just as well. After all, the best way to enforce change is often from the margins. What’s more, Late Night suggests that Thompson is not the only one who knows this. The truest sign that some change, however incremental, has occurred, is that Thompson is no longer the writer working to test the boundaries of show business—Kaling is, a mid-2000s success story who herself has opened doors for a new generation of women writers. In that way, Late Night is the fulfillment of the wish Thompson made on that Oscars stage 26 years ago. Thanks in part to a real-life heroine, the “creation of more true screen heroines” came true.