“Picasso had his blue period, and this is my bitch period.” So said Charlize Theron at the Wondercon convention earlier this year on her recent run of roles, first as a boyfriend-snatching hot mess in last year’s Young Adult, and now the evil stepmom in Snow White and the Huntsman. Critics have agreed that Theron steals the show as the embittered Queen Ravenna, clinging by her extendable fingernails to a patriarchal kingdom in which women can only acquire power through their looks, until someone younger, fairer, and with a bigger vampire-franchise fan-base comes along. Any resemblance to actual feudal hierarchies, living or dead, is entirely accidental. Hollywood, as well know, harbors a deep respect for the glories of the mature woman, utterly disdaining of the lollipopped Lolitas that befog the rest of the culture’s spectacles.
As Goldie Hawn famously put it in The First Wives Club, "there are only three ages for women: Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy." To which we can now add: playing queen beeeyutch to a young tween poppet in a revisionist fairytale, as Julia Roberts did in Mirror Mirror earlier this year, Theron does in Snow White and The Huntsmen, Angelina Jolie will soon do in Maleficent, a do-over for Sleeping Beauty’s evil queen villainess, to be shortly joined by Rachel Weisz’s Wicked Witch Of The East in Oz The Great And Powerful. “Not since Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia DeHavilland and other multi-Oscared legends collectively turned to horror films in order to regain box-office clout in the early 60′s have we seen so many Oscar-winning actresses decide bad is good for a career,” noted Deadline Hollywood recently, although with one important difference. When Bette Davis and Joan Crawford entered their b-movie bonkers period — in films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1964) Strait Jacket (1964), Berserk (1967) — both actresses were in their late fifties and sixties. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, is 45. Weisz is 42. Jolie and Theron are both 36, if you please. When Bette Davis looked into the mirror in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? her face looked like an over-floured pancake fighting a losing battle with the wrong end of a vacuum cleaner. When Charleze Theron peers into her mirror in Snow White and the Huntsman, she sees the looks like, well, Charleze Theron — platinum Goddess, Dior bombshell, all-round Hollywood honey.
That Hollywood operates as a barely disguised youth cult is not news. “In this sweet Elysium, the years are counted for two decades and when 20 is reached, one automatically drifts into an indefinite period known as ‘the twenties,’ One stays, unless possessed of tremendous courage, for 30 or 40 years, or until further face-lifting becomes impractical.” So wrote Dorothy Spensely in Motion Picture Classic in 1930, when the cult of youth — embodied by Fitzgerald’s Daisy Miller, Clara Bow, flappers — was in it’s dizzy, Charleston-dancing prime. As Hollywood came of age, so did its stars. The average age of Oscar-winning actresses rose steadily from 33 in the 1930s, to 36 in the 1940s, to 37 in the 1950s, to 40 in the 1960s, to the ripe old age of 41 in the 1970s, when audiences flocked to see Glenda Jackson, Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton and Ellen Burstyn, maybe the last generation of actresses to make it in Hollywood and buy themselves a legal drink to celebrate.
We live in the post-Paltrow era. In 1998, Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar for her role in Shakespeare in Love and then went into semi-retirement in England, at the tender age of 26, setting the career template for the winners that followed: Charleze Theron (28, Monster) Reese Witherspoon (29, Walk the Line) and most recently Natalie Portman (29, Black Swan). And those are Oscar wins, not nominations, the ends of careers, not their beginnings. Look at the incept dates of today’s stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal (15), Michelle Williams (14), Natalie Portman (13), Kirsten Dunst (12), Kristen Stewart (12), Scarlett Johanssen (10), Chloe Grace Moretz (8), Dakota Fanning (7), and Elle Fanning (2 years and 11 months), and you realize that they may be the first generation for whom the term “child star” has no meaning. As opposed to what exactly?
Basically, the Tween revolution — a distant murmur when Nickelodeon and the All-New Mickey Mouse Club first started in the late eighties and nineties, and achieving full Robespierrean fervor with the first Twilight movie in 2006 — has shifted everything forward a decade. Actresses careers used to be like the life-span of butterflies. Now they are like mayflies. Sandra Bullock was 30 when she appeared in Speed and 45 when she won an Oscar last year for The Blind Side. These days, her career would go something like this. Starting in her early teens, she plays a vampire in a movie her mom won’t let her watch. Consolidating her teenage fan-base, she does a high-school comedy or maybe a horror movie of the more self-aware sort. She is thus positioned perfectly, as she enters her twenties, to play the girlfriend of a superhero, or a kick-ass princess in a revisionist fairytale. She gets great reviews. Time for the coup de grace: a drug addict, the long-suffering wife of a drug addict, or a crazed ballerina in which she gets to graffiti-can her princess image and win an Oscar at 29. After which time, it’s either have babies or go work for HBO.
“We live in a Christian land,” noted Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted in his 1847 essay ‘Crisis in the Life of an Actress’, but the “cannibalistic lust for human sacrifice has by now means gone out of fashion. The same intense vulgarity which had never ceased beating the great drum of triviality in her praise and honoring her fondly on the cymbals, this same vulgarity has now become bored with the idolised artist. It wants to be ride of her, wants her out of its sight; she can thank God that it does not want her put to death."
Sounds like a pitch for a movie. Anyone for The Hunger Games: Hollywood Edition?