How is anyone in Hollywood supposed to age gracefully in a culture so terrified of getting older?
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From the moment Kim Novak walked onstage last night, social media was atwitter about her face. I was taken aback, too. During the commercial break, I googled, “Kim Novak + stroke.” I learned Novak had cancer years ago, but there wasn’t any sort of skin cancer. So, as I am wont to do when I feel uncomfortable, my mind immediately began spinning snark: Novak’s cheekbones were giving me Vertigo, this Novak certainly was no Picnic—and then I began to feel sick, and ashamed. Millions of people—in their living rooms around the country, and in the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles—were gawking at Novak, making jokes at her expense, and I wished I could shut off all our TVs and send the culture to bed without supper. We did this.
I was aware that my reaction to her plastic surgery was the result of what I perceive to be the depth of her anxiety about maintaining the mask of youth—the level of vulnerability she was displaying made me personally uncomfortable. Not only because it is a window into Novak’s psyche (her own private chamber of demons), but it also forced me to think about my own desire to not look older than I feel. If that makes me vain, then I am vain. I do not welcome the day when I look in the mirror and see a woman with a face I don’t recognize. Who doesn’t look as young as I feel.
I would wager that more than half the male and female performers onstage last night have given in to the tyranny of the knife and laser. Why are we surprised? The cult of youth demands flesh and blood.
Hollywood isn’t called “the dream machine” for nothing. The majority of the American viewing audience demands that “our stars” present an idealized version of themselves. Fantasyland: Where everyone is skinnier, prettier, younger, braver, richer, more athletic—although it’s worth noting that being smarter clearly isn’t valued nearly as highly as the others.
And the pressure is obviously much worse for women. Women who dare show their age are derided and punished for defaulting on that promise to stay forever young, and thus, forever desirable. Hollywood shrugs its Bowflexed shoulders. What can they do? Sex sells and right now it’s not sexy to look much past the age of your first menses. If women were horses, Hollywood would ship them to the glue factory. It’s appalling.
Still, you need only look at the faces of those men you’d imagine immune to the pressure to look the age of their paperboy, to see that it exists for them too. Look at Jim Carrey, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, John Travolta, even George Clooney confessed to having a little done around the eyes, to see that this is not so.
There are women we applaud because they say they haven’t had any work done—i.e., Meryl Streep, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jodie Foster—as though not having Botox or a brow lift is an indicator of virtue and not good genetics. Are Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Halle Berry any less beautiful for having had work done? The Europeans have a much healthier view of aging, and it’s reflected in the faces of their celebrities, some of whom have also had work done, like Catherine Deneuve, whose had her face lifted, and maybe more. But she is no less gorgeous. And you can’t tell me Sophia Loren, who has also had work done, does not remain a knockout
What constitutes work? Is a post-baby breast-lift work? Is super micro-dermabrasion work? A tuck after a Caesarean-section delivery?
I thought it was fantastic when Helen Mirren announced after winning her Oscar a few years back that she was going to get a face and neck lift. No shame in that. Why should she be judged? Would she have been cast in Red, were that not the case? No clue. All I know is she looks slammin’.
It would be wonderful to believe that if celebrities stopped altering their faces to make them appear younger it would really have an impact on the rest of our nation. (The female body is a different subject for me.)
I do find the prospect of a day when it will become de rigueur for people to have plastic surgery troubling. That a nation will, instead of accepting wrinkles and lines and the wobbly bits that have previously given us “character,” see plastic surgery as part of the natural order of life. (You will recall that it wasn’t so long ago that many considered it a rite of passage for young Jewish women to get a nose job.) That we will turn into a nation of people who appear to have just tumbled off an assembly line. There is Julia Roberts’s nose, Ryan Gosling’s chin, Angelina Jolie’s mouth. (It recalls a particularly unsettling episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” in which young men and women must choose a model body to live out the rest of their years when they come of age—or find themselves committed to a psych ward until they see the errors of their ways.)
It’s sad to imagine that one day our faces will no longer reflect how we lived but only the nation that we are from.
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