Jolie/Laide is a series that seeks the beautiful and the ugly in unexpected places.
Continue to present yourself as a woman of loveliness and dignity, a woman who feels good and knows she’s looking her best. —Angela Lansbury, The Gentlewoman, Autumn/Winter 2012
When I was a little girl, I had no reason not to follow my parents’ edict to respect my elders, especially when it came to my female elders. My mother was stunning. I’d watch, mesmerized, while she applied her makeup, spritzed her Chloe perfume, and put on her latest Valentino or Ungaro ensemble before an evening out with my father. I thought her mother, my grandmother, was the epitome of elegance in her Upper East Side tweed uniform. Flipping through my mother’s latest issue of Vogue, I saw a photo of Sophia Loren in glasses. “This woman looks like mom when she wears her glasses,” I announced. “I do not look like Sophia Loren, but I thank you for the compliment,” my mom said.
At the time—the eighties—Sophia was in her early fifties. The mask of fright she now wears, courtesy of an aggressive plastic surgery regimen, had not yet been donned. During that period, I also saw pictures of Audrey Hepburn, who was ten years Loren’s senior, and I thought she, too, was beautiful. Of plastic surgery, she once said, “I think it’s a marvelous thing, done in small doses, very expertly, so that no one notices.”
In those photos, Hepburn and Loren seemed to play the role of the approachable patrician; to “grow old gracefully,” a phrase that Oil of Olay would soon borrow for an ad campaign in which women who appeared to be in their late thirties declared they did not intend to do something so silly, but would, instead, “fight it”—growing old—every step of the way. Maybe that was when the fight against aging began in earnest; when we gave beauty an expiration date that would encroach further into youth over the ensuing decades.
Actresses of a “certain age”—turning forty was career suicide—were boxed out of the box office. At first, they disappeared from the screen entirely. When they returned it was to play the mothers of women old enough to be their younger sisters, and they did so significantly altered.
Sadly, the precedent provided by Loren and Hepburn was supplanted by Botox and lip plumpers, people injecting bum fat into their other cheeks. This new breed of mature woman looked alien, generic, one shiny creature indistinguishable from the next; at their worst, they resembled leonine gargoyles.
These women were supposed to show their younger counterparts how to behave, how to age with dignity and, yes, grace. Instead, they had let us down, and, even worse, were trying to look like the people they should have been setting examples for. The result: twenty-something women hooked on Restalyne and the rise of the cougar, sex-crazed women pursuing men young enough to be their sons.
On the other end of the spectrum, just as depressing, we’ve seen an uptick in the eccentric grandmother, the kooky matron. Today’s Demi Moore is tomorrow’s Baby Jane Hudson; twenty-nine years after playing Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft took on the role of the archetypal loony old bat, Miss Havisham. The eternally jilted bride, I’ve noticed, has been cast younger and younger, and she’s played these days with a subtle, disquieting hint of licentiousness; I give you Charlotte Rampling, Gillian Anderson, and Helena Bonham Carter.
Over all of these women there looms a shadow of decadence: the decay of the body, the corruption of morality, the disintegration of reason. With age, they seem to suggest, come vanity and folly.
I’d begun to despair of ever having role models. And then Penny Martin—the editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman, that “fabulous biannual magazine for modern women of style and purpose”—put the timeless, tasteful, and outspoken eighty-six-year-old Dame Angela Lansbury on the cover of the 2012 Autumn/Winter issue. Yes, the most famous portrayer of Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett—something of a cougar herself, and most certainly unhinged—was the cover girl of the publication for the thinking chic woman. “She was on my list when I went for the job interview and I feel it was important for a number of reasons,” Martin said of the decision. “To have a woman of her age on the cover of a magazine when it’s not an ‘Age Issue,’ it clearly spoke to a lot of people.” Lansbury did not look like an alien, or a withering hag. She was every inch the dignified octogenarian: she was unfussy and glamorous. Smartly clad in a (peachy rose-colored) silk shirt with a strand of (red) beads around her neck, and a streak of lipstick to match, there Dame Angela was in black and white; her signature (since 1966) “boyish golden crop” gone silver-white, she wore the trademark glasses of her photographer, Terry Richardson—he of the creepy predilection for young models—of all people. Hers is a stylishness based in pragmatism—she shops, we’re told, at Gap and Uniqlo for her daily uniform of “shirts and trousers.”
Although her presence on that cover could be taken as an ironic statement, the irony was not at the expense of its subject. She speaks openly about how her looks didn’t measure up to the movie industry’s standard of beauty—“All I could do as an actress was give the illusion of being a much more beautiful woman than I am … I don’t think my appearance was ever in any way responsible for my success as an actress.” She is equally, if not more, candid on the subject of sex as she challenges the “sexual invisibility” associated with women over fifty. Lansbury’s theory is that instead of being preyed upon or ensnared by older women, younger men are naturally drawn to the more senior option.
During the years when younger women are hoping to find the man who’s going to marry them and give them a family, they’re unsure of their own sexuality and their ability to attract and to hold a man … The hopes and expectations they bring become a burden, and men feel the weight of it. Whereas I think women who have settled those questions in their own minds don’t present such an enigma to a young man. Because they are what they are.
Angela is what she is, no pretense or vanity. That’s why Martin’s dedicating an issue of the magazine to the actress had an impact. It’s not just that this women is old; she’s real—not an airbrushed character.
Soon after, Jackie Onassis’s sister—Lee Radziwill, age seventy-nine, a princess of Poland, Andy Warhol’s best friend, Truman Capote’s swan—appeared on the front of the February 2013 issue of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. It marked a cultural transition away from one Kennedy-related trope—Grey Gardens—to another—the regal dowager.
From there, a crop of memoirs followed: from Diane Keaton and Angelica Huston, from Patti Smith, from the fashion legend Grace Coddington. Joan Rivers and Elaine Stritch are the subjects of new documentaries. Last year, at eighty, Cicely Tyson won a Tony Award for her turn as Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, while the relatively unknown eighty-four-year-old actress June Squibb was nominated for an Oscar. Lena Dunham cast Squibb in Girls along with Louise Lasser, who, up until that turn, was best known for her roles in the Woody Allen films of the late sixties and early seventies.
Biddies are trending, that much is clear. And this particular strain has a few defining traits: She is not a conventional beauty, and has, despite that fact—and sometimes because of it—carved out a successful career in the limelight. She has not been overzealous in her visit to the plastic surgeon (except Joan, whose aggressive program has become integral to her schtick) and she hasn’t attempted to hide her age from her audience. Like Lansbury, she is what she is and works hard, “every day,” as Brubach wrote of the Dame.
Keaton, for one, continues to sign on for film roles and, next week, has a second book out. In Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, the actress challenges her industry’s cookie-cutter definition of and obsession with beauty, freely cops to her own related insecurities, and, ultimately, celebrates her flaws (and defends her love of turtlenecks):
I tell myself I’m free to do whatever the hell I want with my body. Why not? I may be a caricature of my former self; I’m still wearing wide-belted plaid coats, horn-rimmed glasses, and turtlenecks in the summertime. So what? Nobody cares but me. I don’t see anything wrong with face-lifts or Botox or fillers. They just erase the hidden battle scars. I intend to wear mine, sort of.
Keaton speaks for “a group of sixty-five and older show business folk,” but she also identifies with a larger contingent. “I’m a post-World War II demographic,” she writes. “I’m one of the seventy-six million American children born between 1946 and 1964.” That’s quite a large market share, even if we’re only talking about the women in it. Based on today’s extended average human life expectancy, at sixty-eight, even the oldest of boomers have got a lot of livin’ to do.
Two decades ahead of Keaton, Lansbury proves there’s life in the old girl yet. She likes to remind us that older women are sexually visible; the fact that she’s still appearing on the stage and screen reminds us that they are professionally visible, too. Women over sixty-five have acquired a pop cultural relevance they haven’t always had, because they’ve been able to contribute more in the workplace and take on higher profile jobs. They’re also living longer, which means they can continue to accomplish more over an extended period of time; sometimes, they don’t have a choice. For many, retirement is a luxury—or else, a resignation to mortality.
Look at the woman who put a controversially pretty face on the feminist movement. At eighty, most of what Gloria Steinem does, according to New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who interviewed the activist right before her birthday last month, “involves moving the movement forward. Speech to meeting to panel to fund-raiser.” As Collins points out, “very few women have aged as publicly” as Steinem has. Most of those who have don’t choose to do so without a nip or tuck. All Gloria’s done is dye her hair, which, Nora Ephron posited in her 2005 essay “On Maintenance,” is not only “the most powerful weapon older women have against youth culture,” but also “actually succeeds at stopping the clock … makes women far more open to drastic procedures (like face-lifts).”
Coincidentally, when Ephron put that theory forward, she used Gloria Steinem’s now famous response to turning forty—“This is what forty looks like”—as a segue. Steinem, who has not succumbed to “drastic procedures,” has now become a poster woman for what eighty looks like. And, as Collins writes, “Actually, she doesn’t look terrible at all. She looks great. She looks exactly the way you would want to imagine Gloria Steinem looking at 80.”
I think she looks great, too, and I’m not alone. Steinem looks exactly the way I’d want to imagine Audrey Hepburn to look at eighty-five, which she would be on May 4, had she lived; she looks the way I’d want to imagine Diane Keaton to look when she’s in her eighties, and she looks the way I already know Angela Lansbury looks at eighty-eight. Steinem looks like a vibrant, confident—and stylish—elder stateswoman, 2014 edition.
For whatever moment they’re enjoying in the cultural spotlight, I’m thankful, because they’re active and actively aging; they’re putting the cougars and Havishams to shame. They provide women younger than they are with something to look forward to—and something to live up to.
Charlotte Druckman is a journalist and editor whose food writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Bon Appetit. She is also the author of Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen.