No industry unashamedly celebrates youth over age quite like show business.
The University of Lausanne, Switzerland, held a special workshop in 2014 exploring the old age phenomenon that Hollywood Stars, and film actresses/actors in general, encounter when they reach a certain age that put pressure on parameters structuring our conception of becoming old.
The study was interesting in its innovative approach to survey for the first time, at University level, the various ways that renowned actors and actresses shape the gender ideals (female, male or other) that they aspire to embody, in relations to the horizon of their career. In this context, where the figure of the actress or actor will be considered as much from the perspective of the characters they play but also from the outside “stories” which contribute to shaping one’s image: the question to ask is the nature of the relationship that is formed between the gender and the age parameters (between sexism and ageism), while being particularly attentive to the visual and sound practices mobilized to deal with this relationship.
Confronting these questions provided an opportunity to shed light on both what age does to stars, based on their gender identification, and what stars bring to conceptions of age, i.e. express the propensity of the discourse of film and television productions to influence, legitimize, question or disrupt social standards in this area.
One interesting example which escaped the rules (considering that it happened in the 60s when this concept was far from being a reality), is the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, when two very famous Hollywood actresses in their sixties fought to get parts of two sisters in a psychological thriller directed by Robert Aldrich in 1962. The plot concerns an aging former actress who holds her paraplegic ex-movie star sister captive in an old Hollywood mansion. First you have to deal with the hatred that the two stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, have harboured for years. Fiction or reality, that’s the magic of movies!
This film led to the “born again” careers of the two aging actresses (Bette Davis was 54 and looked much older, one cannot even say how old was Joan Crawford as she kept her birth year a secret). There were few roles at that time for them (Bette Davis went to the extent to put an ad in the paper as she was looking for a job!). Somehow they were the pioneers in a very unfair world: critics mention in their paper “if it sometimes looks like a poisonous senior citizen show…” or “…it looks like a field-day for its actors”.
In today’s world this type of comments would be considered as unfair, disrespectful, if not racist towards the profession. Another good example of the “unfairness of aging in Hollywood” is Sunset Boulevard, made in 1949, where Gloria Swanson, a former silent-film star is dreaming of making a successful return to the screen.
The previous two examples not only illustrate how it was, but lead us to how it has evolved (not without a zest of bitter feeling) to our time when a star as Catherine Deneuve (who is 78) works with young directors, giving them a chance to use her name as a shining light on the beginning of their career. It would be too easy to conclude on this statement. But let’s face it: to age is a natural process, cinema is a projection of reality, and they both meet in our imagination as a tool to be used to shape the cruel world we live in.
Special thanks to Université Bordeaux Montaigne, in collaboration with University of Lausanne and University Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3.