I’ll admit it: I’ve been traumatized. Every time I turn around, another of my beloved actors has had “work.” Last time I watched the Academy Awards, more than two years ago now, Antonio Banderas was slapping Melanie Griffith on the butt and saying, “I like her sexy.” Sexy, fine. But at fifty, did she have to look twenty-five? The woman’s face was nearly unrecognizable; her lips looked like they’d been stung by a nest of bees.
Everyone is having “work” nowadays. Even stars I never thought would stoop to it, like Michael Douglas, Meg Ryan, or Anthony Hopkins. While I'm not certain about Hopkins, the last time I saw him, he looked like a wax replica of himself. And we won’t even talk about Joan Rivers, who has morphed into a deranged twelve-year-old. One by one, our stars are being Jokerized, like the grinning citizens poisoned by Jack Nicholson in Batman.
I would like to believe that we, the viewing public, are not entirely responsible for our actors’ need to remain young, that we are not shallow narcissists, incapable of watching our favorite stars age. Instead, I believe that some people might have a lot to gain by convincing us that we are. Dr. Arnold Klein, one of Beverly Hills’ most celebrated dermatologists — known for creating the kind of swollen-lipped mouth that looks like an altogether different female body part — has gone on record as saying, “If we had movie houses filled with actors and actresses who were ugly, no one would come to the movies.”
Those surgeons who partake of a $9.5 billion industry have a great deal riding on that remark. But is it really true? Would we all walk away from the movies in disgust? Personally, I liked the wrinkles around Anthony Hopkins’ piercing eyes. I liked Meg Ryan’s laugh lines. These aging beauties looked real. Yes, Meg Ryan was adorable in the 1980s. She had an inimitable ingénue charm. But do we always and forever need her to possess that inimitable charm? Must our beloved actors, once successfully packaged, remain like so many frozen peas in the back of our psychic freezers?
One might argue that actors have always been vain, and that audiences have always loved youth. Female actors in particular have had a rough time in Hollywood. Back in the old days, all but the top female stars would be forced into retirement once they lost their sex appeal. Indeed, the “has been” actress — that pathetic, abandoned creature chain-smoking in the dark and picking up young boys in seedy bars — became a cliché, institutionalized in such Hollywood classics as Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve.
But there were exceptions, actresses who, whether through wisdom or sheer disregard, gave us the profound honor of seeing their life spans on celluloid. Bette Davis did not remain a society girl with a brain tumor (Dark Victory) her whole life. Ingrid Bergman moved from her role as the stunning spy in Notorious to the crafty old biddy in Murder on the Orient Express. Katharine Hepburn did not stay a coltish jock to Spencer Tracy’s burly coach in Pat and Mike. No, she evolved to become the compassionate, finely-wrinkled mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
How are our stars ever going to become compassionate, finely-wrinkled mothers (and fathers) if their faces look like mockeries of youth? The plastic surgeons’ knives are not only cutting out our stars’ valuable patina of the past, but altering their faces for future roles as well.
Maybe moviegoers should start a movement — to boycott films whose actors have had “work.” As consumers of this unsavory product, our strike could get the message back to Hollywood that we no more want Jokerized actors than we want irradiated fruit. Most of all, our protest will say that we can handle aging, both in ourselves and in our actors.
Although, frankly, I’m not so sure anymore. A few months ago, I had a crisis of confidence on this very subject. I turned on the television to find a documentary on Bette Davis. The film contained some clips of her shortly before her death: she looked… well, mummified. Her face was drawn, leathery, and wrinkled, with mere blotches of color for eyes and mouth.
I shrank back in horror, not so much from her as from my own reaction to her. Had real human beings begun to look alien to me?
My horror at the old Bette Davis reminded me all too closely of a certain scene in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia, Brave New World. In one famous scene from the novel, two citizens visit an Indian reservation in New Mexico, one of the last surviving out-backs of “natural” humans. The woman is horrified by the sight of an old Native American:
His face was profoundly wrinkled and black, like a mask of obsidian. The toothless mouth had fallen in. At the corners of the lips, and on each side of the chin, a few long bristles gleamed almost white against the dark skin. The long unbraided hair hung down in gray wisps round his face. His body was bent and emaciated to the bone, almost fleshless….
She whispers to her companion, "What's the matter with him?"
“He's old, that's all," [the man answers]. “Now they don’t allow people to look like that. We preserve them from diseases. We keep their internal secretions artificially balanced at a youthful equilibrium…Youth almost unimpaired till sixty, and then, crack! the end."
More than seventy years ago, Huxley predicted a society of infantalized adults kept complacent by sexual promiscuity and conditioned consumerism. It’s 2007 as I write this, and let’s make no mistake — we are there, inside that ageless world Huxley imagined. The only difference is that now it’s youth unimpaired until ninety — and then, crack!
Americans have always had a passionately vicarious relationship with their stars, and to see ours grow older brings its share of pain. But there is something very beautiful, too, about an aging face. Clint Eastwood is far more attractive now than he was as that smooth-faced Ken Doll of the 1960s. His face says he’s lived. It has acquired both compassion and irony: that ability to see beneath the surface of things. It glows with the nobility of survivorship.
I would like to think that Americans can accept themselves as noble survivors rather than perpetual children, incapable of reflection or memory. Truth is beauty, said the poet John Keats, not youth.
But maybe that’s just a saggy relic of the 20th century speaking.