Fountain of Youth

Fountain of Youth

Film Review by Molly Haskell

Of course, exceptionally good-looking and/or successful men, the Alpha males of the tribe, have always enjoyed a wide latitude in mating privileges and trophy wives.
Every once in a while women flock to a movie, and Hollywood, “shocked” to discover there’s a female audience out there, resolves to make more movies for this potentially profitable market. The latest eye-opener in this regard was Titanic, whose huge popularity with panting girls — tied to the matinee idol status of star Leonardo DiCaprio has supposedly inspired Hollywood execs to ratchet up production of movies with “chick” appeal. According to one report, Fox greenlighted a number of women’s projects because Titanic’s numbers raised the studio’s confidence in the vastness of the women’s market.

What this usually means is that one or two “women’s” films dribble out, and that’s the last we hear about it. I’ve been around long enough to watch this little ritual occur with cyclical regularity — say, about every seven years. A few years ago, it was Little Women. Then Waiting to Exhale. Before that, Thelma & Louise. In the ’70s, it was Julia and The Turning Point, and Private Benjamin in 1980. These films all disproved the axiom that only a big-star male on the marquee could guarantee a film’s commercial success, but did that really change anything? Hardly. Apparently it takes more than irrefutable evidence to penetrate the bottom-line thinking hooked to a reliable roster of bankable male stars. Now the women in those ’70s pictures — Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, Shirley MacLaine and Ann Bancroft, Goldie Hawn — are either long gone from the screen or lucky to get the occasional crumb (Hawn’s middle-aged Power Surge, The First Wives Club, is the exception). But the guys their age are going strong.

Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, both past 60, still have the clout — or chutzpah — to produce and direct pictures with themselves as romantic heroes, but in the Hollywood solar system, maybe clout is just another name for sex appeal. In Bulworth, his alternately bold and pandering political film, Beatty plays a weary senator turned manic truth-teller who, in a liberating Walpurgisnacht, descends into the violent, jive-ass world of South Central Los Angeles to embrace miscegenation, dope, and gangsta rap, while denouncing the corporate plutocracry that now runs American politics. Meanwhile, in the more conventionally beautiful, soap opera-ish The Horse Whisperer, Redford plays a cowboy mystically attuned to the equine psyche, whose services are sought by a high-powered New York editor (Kristin Scott-Thomas) when her teenage daughter and horse are traumatized by an accident.

Beatty and Redford take the offensive, disarming critics who might hint they’re a little long of tooth by saying it first, so to speak. Beatty, refusing the filters and soft lighting that characterized his lover-boy image in Love Affair, defiantly shows himself at his worst: slackjawed, hung-over, unshaven and depressed, in an unforgiving morning light. He even has his inamorata, the 20-something Halle Berry, tell him he looks 60. (He’s 61 and looks it; she’s 30 and looks 22.) Redford (also 61), whose fair complexion has been showing signs of overexposure to the Western sun, gives himself the outsider role, losing “the girl” (38) to her husband, Sam Neill. In other words, the two men slyly play a double game, deprecating their star appeal while exploiting it for all it’s worth. After all, despite his rueful age-awareness, Beatty does get the beauty almost young enough to be his granddaughter. And Sam Neill, who was every thinking woman’s pin-up as the squire to Judy Davis’s writer in My Brilliant Career, is a steadfast wimp here, the man to whom Thomas must return, in her daughter’s interest, though she leaves her heart on the Montana range.

Sandra Bullock stars as Birdee in Hope Floats. As a newly-single mother starting life all over again, she comforts daughter Bernice, right, and is swept off her feet (below) by Justin, played by Harry Connick, Jr.
Lyle Lovett and Martin Donovan star (above) in The Opposite of Sex , a film about a gay couple, his half-sister and his wanna-be wife.
Two sisters (Samantha Morton as Iris, and Claire Rushbrook as Rose) vie for their mother’s love in Carine Adler’s film Under the Skin.

Okay, so Beatty and Redford are world-class seducers and, whatever their defects, still easy on the eyes. Film is a visual medium, and, for all the advances of feminism, men are still perceived as acquiring allure with age, while women, judged more on appearance than experience, lose the advantage of sheer radiant youth. But this is getting ridiculous!

Stars in their fifties like Harrison Ford, Nick Nolte, and Michael Douglas are paired with increasingly younger women, in their thirties or even their twenties. Though fairly common in “real” life, the older woman-younger man relationship rarely appears on screen. Remember The Graduate‘s horrified attitude when “older woman” Anne Bancroft (she was 36 in real life) had a letch for young Dustin Hoffman (who was actually 30). The reverse is now routine: Michael Douglas, the Gordon Gekko-like bond salesman and would-be wife-slayer of A Perfect Murder is 53; Gwyneth Paltrow, his heiress wife, 25. Stranded in the desert together in 6 Days 7 Nights, Harrison Ford is 56, Anne Heche, 29.

These May-December pairings might have to do with straight commercial calculation, i.e. casting the widest generational net for audience appeal. But it seems more likely a reflection of the age anxiety and collective narcissism of the male power structure. As baby-boomer movie executives advance into middle age and beyond, reaching for the Rogaine and Viagra, they need to buttress their fantasies of staying young forever with the stars who’ve aged with them, contemporaries whose allure, and potency at the box office, is proof of their own. This is further certified by pairing them not with women of their own age and luster, but with a kind of James Bond harem of interchangeable starlet types who haven’t yet developed personalities of their own.

Of course, exceptionally good-looking and/or successful men, the Alpha males of the tribe, have always enjoyed a wide latitude in mating privileges and trophy wives. Hollywood is no stranger to the spectacle of men remaining magically ageless as the women they started out with fall by the wayside, having lost that dewy desirability deemed essential to female sex appeal. Cary Grant and Fred Astaire are prime examples of male stars so charismatic and irreplaceable that they could play leading men well into their fifties and sixties, while partnering successive generations of women: in the ’30s, Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn; Rita Hayworth and Ingrid Bergman in the ’40s; Audrey Hepburn in the ’50s, and so on. But generally youth went with youth, age with age. An endless supply of fresh faces waited in the wings, under studio contract, to replace the reigning stars, male and female, who were forced to convert to character parts or retool their images. (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford stand out as women who survived in the ruthlessly competitive studio system by sheer determination and by virtually inventing a sub-genre of mature women’s films.)

Now, with most movies being made for kids, and with Hollywood happiest when addressing expensive brainless movies to the adolescent audience around the world, a strange kind of calcification has taken place. Where once there were actors and actresses under contract and screenwriters penning witty dialogue for an endlessly changing variety of types, now the same stars appear in film after film, their presence a presumed guarantee of box office returns in movies whose only innovation is increasing the decibel level or upping the ante on electronic gimmickry and mayhem.

Actually, one of the reasons for the staying power of Beatty and Redford is their appeal to those of us “of a certain age” — i.e. not bowled over by Leonardo DiCaprio — who can insert ourselves into the fantasy world they represent. Young women, at least the ones I’ve talked to, wonder what on earth we see in these old guys, while those of us who vividly remember Shampoo and The Way We Were, Bonnie and Clyde and The Candidate, Splendor in the Grass and Downhill Racer, know what their appeal is all about, bring fond memories to bear on their present roles, and see in their resiliency the justification of our own sense of continued vitality.

Definitions and expectations of age-appropriate behavior have changed radically for both sexes. Like men, women are younger longer, and what used to be the twilight years for both sexes are now a time for working on groundstrokes, rethinking one’s life, starting a new career, taking on a lover or changing sexual orientation. But this sense of expanded female vitality, of our enjoying sensual and intellectual life every bit as much as men, is one that movies do little to reinforce. Not only that: the irony is that the double standard of aging seems far more cruel today than in that “benighted” pre-feminist era when male studio moguls ruled the roost. Now, women executives — producers, writers, directors — are a robust presence in Hollywood, yet movies don’t reflect a heightened consciousness vis-a-vis women, and the panting after bankable male stars in big-budget projects is more flagrant than ever.

For an idea of just how preposterously machismo these fantasies are, try a little role reversal in some recent movies. Imagine the following:

A tired-of-it-all woman politician at the end of a campaign race (Christine Whitman? Nancy Kassebaum?) who takes up with an African-American stud and be-bops around spouting rap lyrics.

A woman rancher, no longer young (think Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar), who is pestered by a hot-shot young editor to perform therapy on his daughter and her horse, and winds up smitten.

Or how about a female Godzilla, who tramples all those phallic spires of the metropolitan (urban) landscape (man-scape).

Okay, point proved.

But in today’s segregated and niche-oriented marketplace, there seems to be nothing between Action and Emotion, between Godzilla and Hope Floats. Actually, these two films are equally mechanical, vehicles made by the numbers, rather than sustained or nuanced dramas of character. Hope Floats, a Fox movie made before Titanic, was produced by Lynda Obst (and three female producers) and stars Sandra Bullock as an ex-prom queen from Texas who returns home to Mom (Gena Rowlands) to regroup after being shattered by her husband’s adultery. In one of those anomalies of the film industry, the director of Hope Floats is none other than Forest Whitaker, the beefy and talented black actor (The Crying Game) who, having directed Waiting to Exhale, the rousing black women’s revenge melodrama, seems to be making a career of women’s films.

The first scene has a kind of crude, if funny, savagery that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the picture: Bullock’s Birdee Pruitt arrives blindfolded on the set of a nationally televised daytime talk show supposedly to get a makeover, and finds herself seated beside her best friend (Rosanna Arquette) and her husband (Michael Pare), who reveal they’ve been having a year-long affair and are in love. It’s hard to imagine the brassy Arquette as Bullock’s best friend, much less a rival; nor do we believe Bullock as a bimbo type, snubbed by the women of Chicago for being an ex-beauty queen. There’s a good idea here: a woman who has been rewarded throughout life for her beauty, whose ego has been the reflected admiration (and envy) in other peoples’ eyes, suddenly bereft of that approval. Who is she if she’s not the town beauty? But Bullock is too solid and likable a performer; she radiates an inner confidence that’s at war with her supposed vacuousness. In the film’s best scene she goes to an employment agency now run by a sleek woman who was once the class joke, made to feel especially snubbed by the once-dazzling Birdee. “Polka Dot” gets her revenge by keeping Birdee waiting 40 minutes, but when she realizes how unfit her former nemesis is for any employment, her anger evaporates.

There’s more feeling here of how time works differently on each of us, than in the featured mother-daughter relationship. The nutty mother (an amateur taxidermist, she keeps stuffed animals in the front yard) is right out of Southern-eccentric central casting. Rowlands is one of those high-octane ’70s stars who has survived, by playing character parts that spin off the exuberantly neurotic dame she played for her late husband, John Cassavetes, in the series of edgily improvisational films they made together. (Side note: Sharon Stone is playing the Gena Rowlands part in a remake of Gloria. But the character here feels ersatz — a prop, like the two male spear-carriers, who are there to set up the star turn for Sandra Bullock.)

At the other end of the spectrum is the low-rent, anti-gloss British film Under the Skin, a first feature by Carine Adler. Astonishing newcomer Samantha Morton stars as Iris, a 19-year-old who, on the sudden death of her mother, whips herself into a frenzy of self-destructive behavior, losing her job, shafting her boyfriend, sleeping with strangers, and trying to seduce her brother-in-law. Iris and her much older married sister are both devastated by the death of their mother, and by unresolved rivalries between them, but they go about mourning in very different ways. It’s a juicy subject, but Adler never provides any context for Iris’s lunacies or enables us to understand how they spring from the mother’s death. For all its jagged edges and unexplained lurches, this British film is no less a star vehicle than Hope Floats; both are showcases for actresses whose progress through various disconnected emotional states is simply a given. The difference is that Samantha Morton allows herself to be thoroughly disagreeable, while never being less than compelling. Sandra Bullock, the very definition of star lovability, couldn’t be repellent if she tried.

And in between these two icons of sweet and bitter is Christina Ricci as a peroxided teen tramp emerging from some Southern swamp to narrate The Opposite of Sex, a witty ensemble movie from indie writer-director Don Roos. Ricci, who was the incarnation of bad-seed malice in The Addams Family, then the smoldering kid in The Ice Storm, is one of the most original of the new female tough-girl talents (Drew Barrymore and Lili Taylor are slightly older versions). After her father dies, Dedee Truitt migrates to South Bend, Indiana, and lands on the doorstep of her gay stepbrother, a noble softie of a teacher (Martin Donovan), whose lover has died of AIDS. She immediately waylays his new lover, gets pregnant, and engages in hilarious verbal hatefests with Lisa Kudrow as the dead man’s spinsterish teacher-sister. Kudrow drips with sour grapes in her gem of a part as a prude who thinks a good back rub beats sex any day of the week. What could have been another coy rondelay of bisexual innuendo is instead one of the year’s funniest and freshest films, a symphonic meditation, delivered with razor-sharp timing, on the unending bafflements of love and sex.

Film critic Molly Haskell is author of Holding My Own in No Man’s Land (Oxford University Press) and From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (University of Chicago Press).