I was scrolling through the Emmy nominations last week, when a familiar name caught my eye: Tracey Ullman. She of the rubber face and the spot-on accents. Remembering the British comic’s hilarious work from the late 80s—so many characters, so many guffaws—I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about the series, which is called simply “Tracey Ullman’s Show.”
To be precise: I hadn’t heard anything about the six-episode season, a BBC import that premiered on HBO last fall. Maybe I’d been too engrossed in the political farce playing out on the national stage. Or maybe Ullman’s show hadn’t pinged my radar because middle-aged women really are invisible in Hollywood.
Either way, I tuned in that evening. Several episodes later I realized why I couldn’t turn it off, even though it was late and I needed to get to bed. Yes, Ullman’s ear for celebrity impersonations is as uncanny as ever. And, yes, her song and dance numbers are still first rate—as are, it first appears, her 57-year-old breasts, which she bares in several episodes.
Blasting Through Hollywood’s Gray Ceiling
And now we’re getting to my point. Ullman is a woman of a certain age, and so are all the people she portrays. “I’m getting older so the characters I impersonate are older,” she explained matter-of-factly in an interview I read. But Ullman knows exactly what she’s doing: By showcasing a parade of amusing (sometimes uproarious) midlife and beyond women, her bodacious show blasts through Hollywood’s gray ceiling.
She had me at Angela Merkel. In Ullman’s imagination, the proper German chancellor looks in the mirror and sees barely tamed sensual magnetism. She worries obsessively over her poofy hair, because, as she frets to her assistant, “It’s all sex bomb, sex bomb, sex bomb,” adding, “George Soros was panting over me at Davos.”
Likewise, Ullman transforms Dame Judi Dench into a naughty scofflaw whose antics include shoplifting, pirating a movie, and throwing half a dozen rolls of toilet paper in the pristine toilet at a tony London hotel. When she’s caught, as she inevitably is, she skates free by stating imperiously: “I’m Dame Judi Dench. I’m a national treasure.”
The Joy of Decomposing
But one particular bit gets to the heart of why Ullman’s show is so slyly revolutionary—and deeply satisfying. She’s an actress waiting to audition for a primetime BBC drama, and she’s chatting with two women in their 20s. The three are vying for roles as crime victims, all of whom get murdered (while they’re naked, natch), and none of whom utters an actual line.
One particular bit gets to the heart of why Ullman’s show is so slyly revolutionary—and deeply satisfying.
Ullman, however, the seasoned elder-statesman, is reading for a character who gets killed five times and who gets to—wait for it—decompose. “I’m so jealous!” says one of the younger girls. Ullman’s response: “Well, I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you, and if you work really hard one day you’ll get to be killed five times, you’ll get to bleed profusely, and, if you’re really, really lucky, you might get to decompose.”
Femme Funny is Hot
She’s making us laugh and calling out a bitter truth: Hollywood is a grim place for women. Last year, 29 percent of the 100 top-grossing domestic films featured women protagonists, a historical high, according to a study by researchers at San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
And although femme funny is hot right now, thanks to a handful of terrifically talented women like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Sarah Silverman, Melissa McCarthy, and the brilliant Amys (Schumer and Poehler), even they are struggling to chip away at the rock-hard edifice of male dominance. As Fey told Town & Country last year while promoting Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, “If you were to really look at it, the boys are still getting more money for a lot of garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work for less.”
Maybe Ullman’s show hadn’t pinged my radar last fall because middle-aged women really are invisible in Hollywood.
If a vagina is a demerit in comedy, once you have crow’s feet or a muffin-top even the most gifted women find themselves fighting to play Mrs. Claus, as three midlife comedians (Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) explain to Amy Schumer in Last F**kable Day, a wildly popular Inside Amy Schumer sketch. “In every actress’s life the media decides when you finally reach the point where you’re not believably fuckable anymore,” Louis-Dreyfus sagely points out to the wide-eyed Schumer. “Believe me, no one was more surprised than me that they let me stay fuckable throughout my 40s, and the fact that it continued into my 50s was like, thanks, but I thought that US Weekly made some sort of clerical error.”
Those Bare Breasts
Ullman is aware of the bias—and flouting it. By the time I was finished bingeing all six episodes at 1 a.m, I had seen her play a deliciously mischievous Camilla Parker Bowles; a gray-haired, bespectacled woman taking the bus to “work”—visiting aging clients for sex (in one bit she rides a motorized chair up the banister to a man’s bedroom); an American tourist, who, along with her husband, finds everything about London charming, including a hair they discover on their hotel mattress (“Oh, Hal, come and look! It’s a British pubic hair!”); and Sally Preston, a fictitious feminist politician who goes topless under her open blue blazer – which leads to this flustered exchange with a Mrs. Markham, one of her older female constituents:
Mrs. M: You’re not wearing a top!
Preston: I don’t wear tops.
Mrs. M: Because of a rash?
Preston: No, because of politics.
Mrs. M: Oh, they won’t let you wear tops in politics now?
Preston: My personal politics don’t allow me to cover my breasts.
So much about the show is authentic—and thrillingly new.
Turns out, the breasts Ullman gleefully bares are actually prosthetic. I wish she’d been comfortable showing the real thing. Wouldn’t it be great if a 50-something comic had the brass to expose her own imperfect body? Still, it’s easy to forgive her modesty, since so much about the show is authentic—and thrillingly new.
In an interview with IndieWire, Ullman said a German waiter thanked her for her Merkel impersonation—and for making a German person funny. “They’ve never seen it before!” Ullman said. Here’s what I’ve never seen: A midlife comedian who embraces where she is in life—and who, by doing so, helps us chuckle at the idea that aging makes us anything less than fully, wonderfully, absurdly ourselves.
(A new season of “Tracey Ullman’s Show” premiered on the BBC in the U.K. in January. I hope that means she’ll be back on HBO this fall—with proper fanfare.)
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