It’s perhaps true to say that in post-Weinstein-era Hollywood — the home of an industry that was ever ruthless toward women as they grew older — female stars are more vocal than ever in expressing their right to just be their age and be treated with the respect that life and experience should rightly command.
Words KARL PLEWKA
Photography MARIANNA SANVITO
But things were not always so, particularly in the 1950s. Take Billy Wilder’s classic film noir Sunset Boulevard, that portrayed Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, the faded silent movie star living on the border of reality and insanity. The brutal fact was Swanson was only 51 and had not worked for 9 years before the cameras rolled. Her ‘art imitating life’ role as Desmond, whose dreams of a comeback are subverted as she becomes increasingly delusional, was skewered by many feminist critics who argued that such a female archetype was degrading and that Swanson’s character (i.e. sad, alone, living in a crumbling mansion of broken dreams and with only a monkey for company) was steeped in the misogyny of the male studio heads, upon whom the movie’s green light depended.
Swanson’s performance however was so nuanced and laced with wicked irony that her character inadvertently helped to change Hollywood’s default setting to how it considered an ‘older’ actor’s value and thus a new generation of audiences – who, until then, were hard-wired to viewing female actresses as either ‘ingénue’ or ‘leading romantic lady’ – began to understand a new type of woman: a woman who wasn’t going to be wearing any mask other than her own.
Another example of how Hollywood once viewed its actresses as, ‘any woman under 30 who is not employed in a brothel’ occurred just one year later, when Vivien Leigh was cast as the ageing femme fatale Blanche DuBois in the 1951 movie of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Here a woman spirals into mental illness as she begins drinking heavily and eventually loses all contact with (again) reality, but the harsh truth was the actress playing her was a mere 38 years old.
Age inappropriate casting, however, was still going strong in the 1960s; a prime example being Mike Nichols’ 1967 black comedy The Graduate which bestowed the role of ‘sexually predatory “older” woman’ on the poor Anne Bancroft – an ancient 35 at the time. No one appeared to bat an eyelid when she growled at her college boy prey, played by a 29-year-old Dustin Hoffman, “Benjamin, I am twice your age.” However blind casting might have been, in those days it’s hard to imagine how a six year age gap meant that Hoffman’s character would be perceived as in the embryonic stages of his prime whilst Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson was left grasping for bottles of HRT! How would this go down today when so much chagrin is poured out by female actors about the lack of leading roles for women? And whilst the Hollywood machine has been jerking itself off for decades – the biggest wanker being Weinstein – it has finally climaxed over itself, and now (hopefully) begins a new chapter in which female beauty will be celebrated for its, dare I say it, diversity, rather than exclusive assignations with youth, unrealistic body types and a near-prepubescent obsession with fecundity.
Someone who has eschewed the idea of vanity, narcissism and the fear of getting old whilst celebrating the beauty of ageing in her work – both in film and on these pages – is Morag Ross: a BAFTA award-winning film make-up artist who has forged long term collaborations with actresses such as Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. Here, for Beauty Papers, she has created looks that show different forms of ageing on a model who is 66. Ross tells Beauty Papers, “I was so excited to do a shoot about ageing, not anti-ageing, which is where so much of the focus seems to be, and to portray a woman in her sixties in all her honesty.”
Does Ross’ motivation behind the beauty of these images indicate a shift in attitudes towards ageing in the film industry? “I think”, Ross explains, “the pressure now is different. We are in a place in society where celebrities, from A-list actors to reality stars, have become a preoccupation for so much of the population that people are constantly in the public eye.”
Indeed, because of their increased exposure, in all forms of media (magazines, HD, etc.), one would assume today’s Hollywood stars are more paranoid about ageing. However, Ross has a novel take on this: “I think if you’re in front of a camera all the time, you’re always going to feel the pressure around it to some level. I think that’s only natural. I think HD is very cruel – it’s really harsh – but film can provide such a beautiful imagery and it’s got grain in it so it’s much more forgiving. It’s weird because HD actually records more than the brain computes; it records more than we see with our eyes and it’s very difficult on the face because you see more than the eye sees. It’s quite shocking sometimes but I think vanity is quite a legitimate quality to have. It’s normal to feel pressure and want to look good in front of a camera, especially if you do it for a living. I think in terms of film – as opposed to print, editorial or beauty – and often film make-up is not about beauty anyway. It’s about character, about telling a story, rather than something that’s considered beautiful in an editorial world, or the fashion world.
One imagines that, despite Ross’ accolades, both her experience and her calm demeanour might help in difficult situations, but when questioned as to how much a lack of vanity on the actors part is required until things can potentially go wrong, she explains, “Actually I think it’s very much a process. I think it’s daunting and I think it’s a considerable part of my work to be nurturing, and to go slowly. We do make-up tests and it’s very much an organic process. It’s a collaboration. Somebody said to me once, ‘The make up is yours, but the face is mine.’ We meet somewhere in the middle and where you feel that it works. I think it’s about gaining trust. Whatever you do as a make-up artist, the person in front of you has to feel that the hands that are working with them are going to bring about a really good result. I think great actors really do leave their vanity at the door. I think it’s really about the performance. It’s about vulnerability. Actually, I think vulnerability makes a huge impact in a world where we don’t see it, where there is so much lack of reality.”
But actors today, just like those swiftly jettisoned leading ladies of the 1950s must have been, are fragile beings – what of the emotional experience that must evolve from being aged for the screen? Ross comments, “I find most of the satisfaction in the actual experience of trying to get it right and believable. It’s very interesting to see the change in body language that the actor will use when they see themselves as an older person. They often say, ‘Oh my god, I look like my mother!’ It’s funny but it’s true. Generally that means it’s been successful. It works on a lot of different levels because they start to move their bodies differently. I think it all helps as part of the process in making films.”
Age affects us all. It’s an amazing thing to accept it with grace and to stand up and say, "Listen, I have a lot more to offer you than a younger person, because look at me. I have actually lived through all of that and I’m standing here. My face and my body proves it."
Emotions aside, in an age where youth is still considered above all our most desired attributes, one would hope that Hollywood and the film industry in general, might lead the way in changing its attitudes not only towards women and sexuality, but also to embracing the idea that all ages need to be considered beautiful. Ross is sanguine in her response to this, “I think things are definitely turning around and women are feeling more empowered. I think it’s up to the individual in how they want to look physically, and what image they want to project. That’s why I like the image [here] where she’s wearing a headband because it’s a bit sort of, ‘Fuck you! I’m 66 and I can look this way if I want.’ It’s absolutely a choice. I think ageing is a huge hurdle as it affects us on so many different levels; physically, emotionally, mentally. I think for women, huge things start happening when they get into their 50s – big changes, menopause, everything. Your whole outlook on life is kind of flipped slightly. I think it’s very empowering though, to own it. I love Louise Bourgeois’ face. I love Georgia O’Keeffe’s face. I love the way Patti Smith looks. I hope that I have the strength to carry on and do that for myself. I want to see what I look like as an older person, a real one.”
But such empowered female icons are unlikely to be spotted outside a Harley Street medical aesthetics doctor’s, so does Ross agree that with what people have been doing to their faces in recent times, the irony is, in fact, they don’t look any younger? “They look different. It’s a look. I think, to be specific, there’s a moment in your early 40s that you can probably look ‘younger’ for about 5-7 years, but it’s all about gravity. Age affects us all. It’s an amazing thing to accept it with grace and to stand up and say, ‘Listen, I have a lot more to offer you than a younger person, because look at me. I have actually lived through all of that and I’m standing here. My face and my body proves it.'”
The big question this piece seems to provoke is, do we think we will ever reach a point in our culture where the aesthetic of maturity is considered as attractive or aspirational as that of youth? Ross concludes, “I’m not sure if we will in general. I think we are on certain levels, like older people being included in campaigns, because we are living in a society which is endeavouring to be inclusive. Older generations are part of that inclusion. People are always looking for new ideas and new images and saying, ‘WOW it’s refreshing.’ In a paradoxical way, it is refreshing because you’re not just seeing the same genre, I suppose. It’s a very positive thing. Even the fact that Beauty Papers wanted to do this story shows there’s obviously a change in what we want to project, what images we want to make and what we include.”
Age is indeed a subject one hopes our cultural psyche will continue to view with an increasing positivity, because, let’s face it, no one actually gets younger. And as for Gloria Swanson’s turn as Norma Desmond, the classic ‘femme d’un certain age’, it’s perhaps true to say she was actually ahead of her time when she declared, in that iconic celluloid moment, ‘All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.’ She’s just lucky it wasn’t in HD.