Arts: Women on the verge

Advice to actresses in Hollywood: don't age. But as Michelle Pfeiffer turns 40, are female stars the only casualties of film's obsession with youthful beauty?

I know, I know, the cloudbanks of bad news are grey enough - one or other of the two leading parties is going to win the coming election, Nick Faldo didn't make the cut at the Masters, and Bill Clinton begins to realise that maybe he did know, even if he can't for the life of him remember knowing. There is more. And if it comes as a shock, still, I think there was always some warning, some premonition, in the pent-up wistfulness of the very lovely lady, something that made her scarce smiles all the more poignant, smoky and uncertain. On 29 April, Michelle Pfeiffer will be 40.

Such things cannot be denied or prevented - though there are surely some who would rather they were not mentioned. Not that Michelle Pfeiffer is losing her looks. Indeed, I would sooner gaze upon the face in Up Close and Personal than the younger but more ravaged gangster's wife she offered in Scarface, in 1983. That was not her debut (that came in a TV movie, The Solitary Man, four years earlier), but it was her breakthrough. And it is a better role, and a far better film, than most of the things she has had to do lately. Would you believe that Hollywood does take a greater interest in the new, wide-eyed, foxy babes that keep coming along than it does in the established stars, those who are pushing 40 (yet standing back, too, as if 40 were a rushing train).

Let me stress this: there's nothing wrong in Michelle Pfeiffer being 40, or Vanessa Redgrave passing 60, or Sylvia Sidney expecting to make 87 later this year. Sidney was very funny and visually "perfect" as the Grandma in Mars Attacks! - and no sillier than anyone else in the picture. Vanessa Redgrave was a reason for seeing Mission: Impossible, and she has a fine one-scene role in the forthcoming Smilla's Sense of Snow. Redgrave still looks and sounds, and thinks and feels, like one of the great actresses in the world - and if she is older, she is more experienced, more versed in the feelings she aspires to, more interesting. On the whole, older people are more valuable, more worthwhile, than the young. But that's an implicit warning about the things we call movies.

I'm sure Michelle Pfeiffer knows much more now than she knew in 1983, and certain that her ways of delivering that knowledge in a drama or a movie have become refined. She has so much more to offer now, so much more than Up Close and Personal, Dangerous Minds or One Fine Day can imagine. You could see signs of it in The Age of Innocence - that Pfeiffer was ready to play something truly searching and demanding, something that employed both her beauty and its fatalism. We may see that if she manages to play artist Georgia O'Keefe. Imagine her in The Three Sisters. But Hollywood is not doing Chekhov this year. There was a stage production done in America recently, and it starred three actresses who have not quite made it in movies, by which I mean the band wagon has passed them by - Jeanne Tripplehorn, Lili Taylor and Amy Irving. Do you remember Amy Irving? She was a terrific, lovely newcomer in Carrie, The Fury, Honeysuckle Rose, and Yentl. She was married to Steven Spielberg, and then her career faded away. But she gave one of the best performances I saw last year, in a film called Carried Away, and she will be 44 in September.

I will admit that in Carried Away she looked 44, or even a little older, for she plays a rural Texas schoolteacher, not anyone within reach of or mentally susceptible to all the ways cosmetics and surgery can be kind (for a moment) to 44. That sort of fidelity to ordinary life is one reason why Carried Away hasn't been seen much, and why it's unlikely to win big new parts for Ms Irving. Everything she knows now - and that's palpable in Carried Away in every movement and glance - is more, apparently, than "we" require or desire in our movie women.

What has Hollywood decided that "we" want? Well, it's a poison mixture of youth, lean freshness, carnal attitude and uncompromising hunger for "it"- stardom. Vanity Fair magazine has given us a cold-blooded, but salacious gallery of contestants in its April, "Oscar" issues of 1995 and 1997. Two years ago, posed in their underwear or revealing dresses, it had a fold-out cover that paraded Jennifer Jason Leigh, Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman, Patricia Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julianne Moore, Angela Bassett and Sandra Bullock. This year, the cast was all different, and the dolls were in evening dress: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Claire Danes, Renee Zellweger, Minnie Driver, Alison Elliott, Jade Pinkett, Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron and Fairuza Balk (these are all real people).

There's no need to knock any of those 16, but I hope they sense the grim logic of the process. Two years from now, in the way of things, there will be eight new hopefuls. By then, I'd guess, Hollywood the box-office machine will have bestowed the kiss of obscurity on, at least, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Fiorentino and Patricia Arquette. That's not the same as condemnation (it may be the route to playing Chekhov). Jason Leigh is clearly so brilliant an actress that she's nearly nuts with it: if she could show us a little less every time in the way of originality, she might yet claim the rank of "great actress" - which in America is seldom a recoverable condition.

Those slick fold-out covers are so heartless and so wilfully ignorant. The 16 contenders together, I'll suggest, do not come close to matching the talent - or the promise! - that exists in another line-up: Pfeiffer; Debra Winger (42 this year); Anjelica Huston (45); Meryl Streep (46); Jessica Lange (48); Diane Keaton (51); Goldie Hawn (52). And why not make it eight with Jane Fonda (60, this December)? For the truth is that we have been enjoying a remarkable generation of actresses - and we might enjoy them longer and more fully if the picture business showed a little more interest in, say, the experiences and sensibility of the kind of women its bosses are married to. Or were. For the pattern I'm discussing is observable in private life, too, where at a certain age and level of power, tycoons, geniuses and industry leaders unload wives of their own age for babies who would not be out of place on the Vanity Fair covers.

That constitutional amendment of reality received a terrific rebuke last year in the box-office success of The First Wives Club, not a great film maybe, but one of those statements that begged to be made. It's the story of three ex-wives who refuse to be shelved, and fight back. They are Keaton, Hawn and Bette Midler (52 this year). Midler's solo films seldom do well - you can say it's because she's not middle-American attractive (ie, she's plump and Jewish), but it also has to do with her intelligence, her sassy, aggressive edge, and the urge to be something more prickly than a passive actress. Diane Keaton has started to direct; she has adopted a baby - she is unmarried; and she seems happy to take what comes along. But she has it in her to be an actress (The Godfather films, Looking for Mr Goodbar, Reds), as opposed to the obliging female presence in fluff like Father of the Bride. As for Goldie Hawn, the word "phenomenon" has to be used. Goldie stays in shape - consider that she is already the age that Gloria Swanson was when she played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. She is a very successful producer, a fine comedienne and ... sexy! Moreover, in The First Wives Club (where she plays an actress of a certain age, driven to collagen treatments) she has the great epigraphic line for this essay. There are three stages in the life of the Hollywood actress: "Babe, district attorney - and Driving Miss Daisy."

You can bet that Meryl Streep would see the joke in that. Only yesterday, it seems, Streep was widely regarded as the great actress in movies. From the late 1970s on, starting with The Deer Hunter, she has had 10 Academy Award nominations. Some people have found her chilly, or so assured an actress that you could see the mind working. I think that's unfair, and a reaction to how rarely she was interested in being "sexy". Look at The Deer Hunter again, or at Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Ironweed, or A Cry in the Dark and there is no question that Streep towers over most of her contemporaries.

But in recent years, the actress who was often very vocal at the unfairness in the way women stars are paid so much less than men, has been struggling. The Bridges of Madison County made it clear she had lost nothing - she was in every sense a mature woman (though that left Clint Eastwood seeming a little callow). But that was an exceptional role (in an awful movie). In the effort to stay in work, Streep has been driven to some odd decisions and several commercial failures - the very strained comedy of She-Devil and Death Becomes Her, the strenuous adventuring of The River Wild, and the crushed-parent role in Before and After. She also took on that lofty disaster, the adaptation of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. She was very good - as was Diane Keaton - in Marvin's Room, but that was a small film and nearly a character part.

As Streep approaches 50, we must all wonder where her roles are coming from. The invocation of Driving Miss Daisy is very pointed. Its star, Jessica Tandy, was young once. She did several movies in her thirties, and she was the original Blanche DuBois on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire. Then came decades in which she did very little - apart from her mother in Hitchcock's The Birds before movies gave her back her licence as a genuine "old lady". By the time she did Driving Miss Daisy, winning an Oscar, she was 82. Would Streep wait for that, go crazy, or take up the theatre, and knitting?

Jessica Lange has been playing Blanche DuBois lately - often a distress signal. Most viewers are startled at how steadily Lange has improved as an actress, and they're doubly impressed at how often she works without the benefit of make-up - think of her lawyer in The Music Box, the raped wife in Rob Roy, or the role in Blue Sky that won her an Oscar only after the film had been kept on the shelf for three years. The business guessed that no one wanted to see a faded sexpot and life force who was on the edge of mental disturbance. Even after her Oscar, the public avoided Blue Sky. But it was an amazing performance, and later this year Lange is to be Balzac's Cousin Bette. There are big roles available, but so few of them, and there is so little patience with the deliberate exploration of difficulty, middle age and a sense of failure - standard experiences for the bulk of the world.

Debra Winger and Anjelica Huston have never quite secured a reputation as actresses to rival Streep or Lange. But think of Huston's Mae Rose in Prizzi's Honor, her bleached blonde mother in The Grifters, aghast at what she must do to survive, or her role in The Dead. Still, as an actress, Anjelica Huston at 40 had to bow to caricature and heavy make- up as Morticia Addams. She had a small, very powerful role in The Crossing Guard (a big failure), and she has begun to be a director. As for Winger, there seem to be few plans. The forlorn Forget Paris only encouraged the business to forget her. She was never the easiest of people to work with, and she seldom made hits. But consider the woman who did Urban Cowboy, Everybody Wins, The Sheltering Sky, A Dangerous Woman, and Shadowlands, and ask yourself whether we can do without her.

Jane Fonda's example hangs over this generation. Among many other things, Fonda has been a very good actress (think of They Shoot Horses Don't They?, Klute, Coming Home, The Morning After). But in the late 1980s, when she was 50, Fonda was asked to do a screen test for The Music Box (in the role eventually filled by Lange). She took offence, or fright; or she saw the writing on the wall. She had her new marriage to Ted Turner; she had her causes and the fitness videos. So she retired - and she has stuck by that decision for close to 10 years now. Seen in public, she looks glamorous still. Plainly, she has not forgotten how to act. At 60, her father was in his prime. Maybe she is waiting to be an old lady?

The comparison of Jane and Henry Fonda is very telling. This year will see the 60th birthdays of some of our best-known actors - Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman. There are others not far behind: Al Pacino will be 57; De Niro will be 54. Sly Stallone, who still seems bursting to save the world (or destroy it) will be 51. Harrison Ford is 55. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who maybe is not to be measured in human years) will be 50! There's another gang, older still, but capable of fronting a movie and romancing their own daughters: Paul Newman is 72; Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood are 67.

That list includes most of the potent box-office attractions of our time - I mean people who may command up to $20m a picture plus part of the gross take. That's no small consideration. Actresses have argued for years that their fees are held down so as to subsidise the money that goes to the men. Demi Moore's $12m for Striptease is still the highest fee a woman has earned. With a few exceptions, the lead actresses in a movie earn between $1m and $6m a picture. It's not just elderly voyeurism and sexual opportunism that keeps casting new, young women opposite our seasoned men. It's the urge to balance budgets. A Meryl Streep owes it to herself to ask for a lot for any film. But there's a kid who will do the role for a fraction of that. And wouldn't "we" rather watch the kid anyway?

And so we find an equation in pictures in which it is taken for granted that a woman is sexually attracted to a man who might be her father. In Up Close and Personal, for example, Pfeiffer played with Robert Redford. In other films, she has given away anything from 15 to 25 years to leads like Pacino, Nicholson and Connery. In Blood and Wine, the Nicholson character romanced Jennifer Lopez. Harrison Ford won Julia Ormond in Sabrina. Stallone, on screen and off, favours the rejuvenating diet of babes. Clint Eastwood has a new much younger wife at home, while on screen he has wooed Rene Russo and Streep (20 years his junior). Warren Beatty acts with, and is married to, Annette Bening (who will be 39 this year). Woody Allen is 62, and Soon-Yi ... isn't.

In life, such partnerships may be happy and fruitful. But their regularity in our movies, or our fantasies, is suspicious, and it sorely gives warning to the notion that women's status has advanced so much. Instead, it may alert us to how young, or juvenile, the mind of many movies remains. Every age has its dangers, and its advantages. A real art form, and even a decent adult means of entertainment, ought to be able to deal with that more equitably. Meanwhile, our greetings to Michelle Pfeiffer, along with protestations of eternal loyalty - and crossed fingers. !

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