Bette Davis was 42 – three years younger than Renée Zellweger, whose recent makeover shocked the media world – when she played the aging stage actress Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic “All About Eve.” Katharine Hepburn was 44, a year younger than Zellweger, when she played the role of the emaciated spinster missionary in John Huston’s “The African Queen” in 1951. And Gloria Swanson was 51, six years older than Zellweger, when she played Norma Desmond, the reclusive, faded silent movie star in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).
Imagine the way these four actresses look – Davis, Hepburn, Swanson and Zellweger – alongside one another. Will the day come soon when the first three, in their most iconic roles, seem to represent a mature femininity to filmgoers that no longer exists?
The case of Zellweger, who was so captivating in “Jerry Maguire” (1996), Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy-drama that made her a star, is of course an extreme example. It is not just about the alleged plastic surgery and other treatments, things that have destroyed the face of many a starlet – witness the charm that disappeared from the face of Meg Ryan years ago, or the expressionless china-doll features of Nicole Kidman as just two examples as aging actresses attempt to retain a youthful look in a bid to preserve their careers. In this case, however, it is an example of rebirth in a completely different image, as if Zellweger was a character in a terrifying sci-fi fantasy.
Zellweger’s case is extreme also because, despite her further successes and a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 2003 for her role in Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain,” her career has still twisted uncomfortably between success and failure. She morphed into a film identity that has not yet managed to recreate the sympathy and support of her role in Crowe’s film. Indeed, a kind of harshness has trickled down into her, a feeling of calculated artificialness, even while she once again tried to capture our hearts in the two “Bridget Jones” films (in 2001 and 2004, respectively).
Add to this her evasive image from the beginning. It seems that in every role Zellweger played, she reconstructed her image anew, until her essence slipped away from us. She performed well in the film version of the musical “Chicago” (2002), in which her hardness and artificiality matched that of her character. But in most of her films, she was grayed out. Her disappearance from the screen for the last four or so years went almost unnoticed.
I do not intend to discuss here the question of a woman’s right to her own face and body; and also not what this phenomenon says about women in contemporary cinema, which was never so bad as in the past few decades – actually, since the rise of feminism. And I also will not address the fact that this is not limited only to actresses.
Instead, I will relate to the disappearance of the natural aging and maturity of female stars as represented by Davis, Hepburn, and many other stars of the past – Barbara Stanwyck left her gray hair the way it was even before she was 50, and it did not damage her career. In my opinion, without feminine aging and maturity, the cinema itself would not mature, something which is clear in today’s contemporary American films.
Mature, enlightened and sophisticated
Female stars of the past did not hide their age and sometimes even used it, such as in “All About Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard.” They were not deterred even from playing roles in which they fell in love with younger men, without becoming what are sexistly called cougars today. Jane Wyman was 38 when, in 1955, she played the widow who fell in love with the landscape designer who was younger than her (played by Rock Hudson), in Douglas Sirk’s masterpiece “All That Heaven Allows,” despite the disapproval of her family and conservative social circle. Joan Crawford was 50 when she played a woman falling in love with a younger man, Cliff Robertson, in Robert Aldrich’s 1956 thriller “Autumn Leaves.”
The chasm between those times and today is painfully clear, and the results are especially crucial for romantic comedy. The romantic comedies of the past – those starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and others – dealt with mature, enlightened and sophisticated women and men – and resulted in mature, enlightened and sophisticated films. Given the present reality of the pursuit of youth, these qualities are no longer possible.
And even when Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson came together to create “Something’s Gotta Give” in 2003; and Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin starred together in “It’s Complicated” – both directed by Nancy Meyers and both attempting to make romantic comedies about mature people – the result is childish because the period is childish, regressive and distorted.
Maybe it is my age talking, but I miss the cinematic feminine maturity of the past. Beautiful maturity, experienced and impressive. Yes, today in Hollywood there are actresses who have survived by playing their age, such as Susan Sarandon (68) and Meryl Streep (65), as well as the respected British actresses Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren – but they operate in their own niches. (I respect also the 56-year-old Annette Bening, and it is wonderful to see her on the screen in her maturity.) But could Italian actress Anna Magnani become a Hollywood star today as she did back in 1955, when she won an Oscar for “The Rose Tattoo,” at the age of 47? Could Bette Davis have survived, along with all the mature-looking women of her generation?
True, many of the female stars of the past were forced ultimately to play grotesque and even monstrous characters, such as Davis and Crawford in Aldrich’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1962 – possibly the film that heralded the end of respectable and impressive mature femininity in U.S. cinema. But before that, their aging and maturity was eternalized on the screen, and I worry about the day that the presentation of such female aging and maturity will be considered strange, anachronistic, possibly even grotesque and even monstrous.
In the meantime we are left with Renée Zellweger, whose horrifying metamorphosis has heralded the future – and maybe one day she will be remembered for that. (I don’t think the change will resurrect her floundering career.) Maybe one day holograms will preserve the eternal youth of actors and fill their places (Ari Folman’s “The Congress” touched on this possibility earlier this year). Meanwhile, Zellweger went as far as possible in the direction today’s culture is pointing, as far as women are concerned. She erased herself and recreated herself anew. Terrifying. Sad.