Modern times: Ageing on screen and off

For most of us, age is hardly our defining feature. So why do our cherished chick flicks keep flashing that worn-out message?

Early in the new remake of the 1939 film The Women, Annette Bening is accosted in the makeup department at Saks Fifth Avenue by a sample-pushing salesperson promising “a facelift in a bottle.” Responds Bening, who is 50, with an eggplant-smooth visage beautifully etched in all the right places: “This is my face. Get used to it!”

The Women, circa 2008, peddles a particularly modern go-girl, up-with-ageing ‘tude (snap!) – but also includes a pro-facelift climax (no snap). Dove products are carefully placed throughout, cashing in on the brand’s anti-brand prestige as purveyors of “real beauty” (snap!) – but then again, Dove is part of Unilever, the company that granted teenaged boys permission to objectify all women with those sexist-not-sexy Axe body spray ads (no snap, but one finger up).

As I sat watching The Women, half-enthralled and half-appalled, the film’s onslaught of mixed messages seemed to articulate a particularly “now” type of female confusion.

I have no problem with what used to be called the “women’s picture” and has become the much-derided “chick flick.” The lifestyle pornography of fashion and furniture; the easily resolved love conundrums with the complexity of a (low-fat) fortune cookie; Kate Hudson eating Häagen-Dazs – bring it on. Most in the genre are empirically awful, but a good one – recently: Definitely, Maybe; the Sex and the City movie – can offer a stylish escape hatch that’s as diverting and fantastic as, if I may generalize, an Indiana Jones film is for certain men. (Hi, honey.)

The new Women is a typical women’s movie – check out Meg Ryan’s curtains! – with only tenuous links to the original play by Clare Boothe Luce or, more famously, the Rosalind Russell film directed by George Cukor. All incarnations share a title, the names of the central characters and a total absence of men. A careerist, single magazine editor, Sylvia Fowler (Bening), props up her best friend, the unhappy socialite Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), when news breaks that Mary’s husband is having an affair with a “perfume girl” at Saks (Eva Mendes). The girl­friends who circle protectively around Mary include other pop-­culture archetypes: the perpetually pregnant earth mama (Debra Messing), for example, and the gum-cracking lesbian (Jada Pinkett Smith, with just little enough screen time to suggest tokenism).

Almost 70 years ago, Joan Crawford played the perfume-girl home wrecker who delivered the exit line “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society – outside of a kennel.”

Today’s Women has less kennel-appropriate behaviour; it’s a strangely toothless update. The sharpest, most acerbic lines aren’t as foregrounded as the decorating, and the subject, this time round, isn’t exactly female friendship, or even female rivalry. The subject is, in fact, ageing, which is almost always the subject when a film stars women over 40.

In movies, the most incredible thing that happens to a woman after 40 is her survival, as if she’s emerged unscathed from the cholera epidemic that is middle age. In the clever 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton plays a super-fit, successful playwright who still has to prove her­self worthy of flabby, misogynistic Jack Nicholson. For every The Queen or The Devil Wears Prada (Meryl Streep deserved more than 15 minutes of film-thieving), there are a half-dozen First Wives Clubs, Calendar Girls, The Banger Sisters – movies where “older woman” is the extent of a character’s description.

Meanwhile, middle-aged men get parts that never mention their birthdates: this summer, Steve Carell (45) played a secret agent enjoying the splendour of Anne Hathaway (25) in Get Smart, and Mike Myers (45) made googly eyes at Jessica Alba (27) as a hockey-loving mystic in The Love Guru. When Karen Allen returned as the romantic interest for 65-year-old Indiana Jones, it was a hallelujah moment for age-appropriate casting – except that Allen is actually nine years younger than Harrison Ford. Ah well. Crumb, I will take thee.

Allen, in fact, semi-retired from a promising acting career in the mid-’80s when the roles dwindled after her ingenue phase ended. She eventually moved to Massachusetts and started a successful knitting company while raising her son. She’s probably better off knitting: According to The New York Times, only three of last year’s top 20 films were vehicles for women, and none of those women was over 40 – Enchanted, Knocked Up (arguably, a film about boys) and Juno.

If I’m more receptive to The Women than the film deserves, it may be because I respect the struggle of Diane English, who wrote and directed it. Despite her proven track record as producer of the breakthrough TV series Murphy Brown, it took her more than a decade to get her all-female Women remake on the screen. But more thrilling is the idea of films about older women where age is irrelevant.

Where’s a There Will Be Blood for a woman? A Michael Clayton? For most of us, age is incidental, and hardly our defining feature. But The Women, for all its feminist posturing, seems to tell us that it is. In a pivotal scene, Meg Ryan has a heart-to-heart with her mother (Candice Bergen) in a plastic-surgery clinic. Bergen is post-surgery, two eyes peeping out of a wad of gauze. “There are no 60-year-old women left,” she says. “I turned around, and I was the only one.” Ryan nods resignedly, as if the outcome – scalpel, blood and a tube sock’s range of expression – is inevitable.

Meanwhile, her own onscreen transition from thwarted middle-aged wife to fabulous, ageless fashion designer is facilitated by hair extensions and a wardrobe overhaul. Off-screen, Ryan has become known for her “Joker lips,” which may or may not be caused by injections. (Her face, it must be said, is back to something slightly more travelled in The Women, and it suits her.)

While the surface is sometimes intoxicating, the centre of The Women is hollow. Watching it reminded me of the way Botox ads and the plastic-surgery industry co-opt the language of feminism with slogans like “freedom of expression” and “your body, your choice.” But all the self-determination chatter looks like mere set decoration when the women in The Women are finally valued not for what they do, but for how they look doing it. Is the depth of our success still less important than the depth of our wrinkles?

When I watched this movie – wall-to-wall with talented, often invisible actresses – a different line came to mind, one spoken by Rush Limbaugh during Hillary Clinton’s stab at the Democratic presidential nomination: “Will this country want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” Guess what? Fifty percent of the globe sees it every day, in the mirror if not at the movies. Get used to it.