By Andrea Meyer
When the newly widowed Mrs. Henderson remarks that she’s bored to tears, her lunch guest Lady Conway suggests taking a lover. “I’m nearly 70,” Mrs. Henderson protests. “But you’re rich,” counters her cheeky friend. “The two cancel each other out.”
Unconvinced, Mrs. Henderson settles for the next best thing: a hobby. After dabbling in charity (it’s a yawn) and needlepoint (a snooze), Mrs. Henderson does what any rich, energetic, old broad (with a splash of the visionary in her) would do. She buys the out-of-use Windmill Theater and sets out to revolutionize the London stage by putting on a vaudeville in which women appear stark naked.
Stephen Frears’ deliciously snappy “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (in theaters December 9), stars Dame Judi Dench as the real-life theater maven and Bob Hoskins as Vivian Van Damm, the man she hires to run the place. Hot, nasty sparks crackle between this odd couple so much so that Van Damm initially turns the job down, until the smooth Mrs. Henderson bribes him with total creative freedom, an offer no producer can refuse even if it means having a ball-breaker in floor-length mink as a boss.
After a few rounds sparring with this stout, brassy younger man, Mrs. Henderson realizes she’s in love with him. While he’s married to another woman and their connection goes largely unacknowledged and unconsummated, the affair is invaluable. It awakens Mrs. Henderson to her sexuality, which she had taken for dead along with her husband and makes the young flesh onstage more alluring. The glowing grand dame teases the dancers about their love lives, even setting her favorite up on a date with a soldier, and in one oddly moving sequence dances suggestively in the flamboyant solitude of her room.
Mrs. Henderson is not the first cinematic woman of a certain age to feel sex sneaking up to bite her on a sagging buttock. In the extraordinary love story “Fear Eats the Soul” (1974), director Rainer Maria Fassbinder borrows heavily from Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows”(1955), in which a widow falls in love with a much younger gardener played by Rock Hudson, to the horror of her friends and family. Fassbinder updated Sirk’s story of an affair that suffers under disapproving eyes, by moving it to 1970s Munich, where a sixty-year-old charwoman first swoons at the taut, brown bod of a young Moroccan immigrant, then marries him. Fassbinder upped the ante by throwing race into an already bitter brew of age and class discrimination (an idea that was taken up again by Todd Haynes in his 2002 retelling “Far From Heaven,” in which Julianne Moore’s well-behaved housewife with a gay husband falls for a black gardener).
In Brad Anderson’s wonderfully wistfully romantic “Next Stop Wonderland,” depressed, just-dumped Erin’s (Hope Davis) existential gloom is thrown into relief by her mother (Holland Taylor), a classy, hot-blooded jetsetter who refuses to let her beloved husband’s death get in the way of her sex life. While Erin attempts to find herself, her mom runs a personal ad for her daughter and proceeds to bed one hot young thang after another in swank hotel rooms from New York to Par-ee.
It doesn’t take a dead husband to kill a sex life. As muscles shrivel and boobs sag, so the libido and lust for life can take a dive, leaving some older couples in a sexual wasteland that requires something drastic to recharge. In Ron Howard’s sci-fi heartwarmer “Cocoon” (1985), Joe (Hume Cronyn) and Alma (Jessica Tandy) still love each other but don’t do a whole lot of bonking. When aliens move pods into the swimming pool where Joe and his retirement community buddies swim, they soon realize that a dip with the pods has a rejuvenating effect. As fast as you can say “first erection in decades,” Joe’s got Alma taking the plunge, too. Unfortunately, he gets so randy he’s not only doing it with his wife, but he’s making the moves on all the other grannies in town and Alma’s wishing they could return to the days of hot cocoa, Lawrence Welk and a peck on the cheek before lights out.
The most celebrated and sexual of the cinematic over-the-hill crowd has got to be Maude, the sassy eponymous heroine of Hal Ashby’s cult black comedy “Harold and Maude” (1971), about a repressed, death-obsessed teenager (Bud Cort) who falls for an exuberant octogenarian played by Ruth Gordon. Maude has the morbid loner falling madly in love with life, by introducing him to its many delights, including those of the flesh. Needless to say, Harold’s family goes ballistic, but the boy walks away with one hell of a notch in his bedpost. Nothing like an experienced, older woman to make a guy realize that life is a beautiful thing.