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What Feud Teaches us About Aging

Posted on 21 March 2017

Bette Davis Joan Crawford Baby Jane Set Photo

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

My latest obsession is Feud on FX.  This docudrama from the producer of American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy, examines the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford while they were filming the movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange masterfully portray the challenges Bette and Joan faced with ageism, sexism and misogyny. 

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane 1962

I was too young to see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in movie theaters.  But because I had a mother who sometimes inappropriately let me watch movies I was much too young to see, I did watch it on tv when I was about 9.  I was terrified.

Baby Jane Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

I'm sure that I missed a lot of the nuances in the film at my young age, but I was specifically horrified by Bette Davis.  Her scary makeup, her giant bug eyes, and her crazy smile gave me shivers.  

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Bette Davis Singing

I didn't know any other Bette Davis.  In my little mind, I thought that this crazy woman was surely over 80 years old and one of the most horrifying women I'd ever seen on television.  She was literally Baby Jane Hudson to my 9 year old brain.

Joan Crawford Bette Davis Baby Jane Beach Scene

It wasn't until I was much older, when I watched more black and white movies and became enamored with all things old Hollywood that I discovered the other Bette, and the other Joan.

Joan Crawford 1930s

Joan Crawford in Gilbert Adrian Dress in I Live My Life 1935

Bette Davis 1930s

Bette Davis in the 1930's

These much more glamorous versions of Bette and Joan seemed very far removed from the women I saw onscreen at the age of 9. The younger Joan and Bette represented everything beautiful and romantic about the 1930's and 40's. Their confidence, the dramatic make-up and the deco gowns they wore, made them the epitome of glamour.

Sadie McKee 1934 Joan Crawford Adrian Dress

Joan Crawford in Sadie McKee 1934 in a Gilbert Adrian Gown

Bette Davis Glamour

Bette Davis

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's talent and broad appeal helped make the major Hollywood studios the successful industries they became, but as these stars aged, they became irrelevant to the Hollywood power players. The studios were moving towards bombshell blondes and younger starlets. Bette Davis was only 42 when she filmed All About Eve, her "comeback" role about an aging actress being replaced by a younger, newer version.  Just for some context, Angelina Jolie, Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett and Drew Barrymore are all in their 40's.

Bette Davis Stylish outfit

Joan Crawford Gilbert Adrian Outfit

Even though they were feeling as if their careers were over and they might not ever work again, Joan Crawford was 58 (approximately) and Bette Davis was only 54 when they filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  Joan Crawford was still feeling the need to wear "falsies" and tighten her neck before scenes.  The talent that both of these remarkable actresses was overlooked because they no longer fit the description of what Hollywood defined as the ideal of beauty.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Baby Jane

"I get up at seven for the make-up, Rita Hayworth at six, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at five. I don’t want to know the time when I’ll have to come to the studio even earlier."

Grace Kelly

Bette Davis Lipstick

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange are also stars that have aged in the public eye.  In contrast, however, Susan Sarandon is 70 years old and Jessica Lange is 67 - much older than the 50+ year old characters they portray in Feud. It's hard to imagine denying roles to these women because of their ages.  It's hard to watch, at times, the struggle they face with their fading star power and realization that the world has moved past them.

Susan Sarandon Bette Davis

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in Feud

Jessica Lange Joan Crawford

Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in Feud

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in Feud

Susan Sarandon as Bette and Joan Crawford as Joan in Feud

Bette Davis Jack Warner and Joan Crawford

 Bette Davis, Jack Warner and Joan Crawford

I am really fascinated by the issue of ageism.  It seems to be a problem that only gets worse with the culture of youth we are so focused on today. No one ever feels old on the inside, it's the outside world that makes us all feel more invisible the older we get. 

Jessica Lange younger age

Jessica Lange

Susan Sarandon young age

Susan Sarandon

But has anything really changed? Yes, we live a little longer.  And, perhaps there are more roles available to female actresses over the age of 50 than there were in the 1960's. And yes, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange look much younger today than their younger characters did when they filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  But do they feel any less pressure to look a certain way than Bette and Joan?

Susan and Jessica Bette and Joan Feud

Modern beauty products and techniques have helped us all maintain the illusion of youth for a bit longer.  I see more and more women in their 30's getting botox and even some as young as 20 are getting injections. Has our ability to delay the appearance of aging made us even more focused on it?  I understand it though, our beauty standard has changed so much that aging, especially in Hollywood, isn't really an option.

If a female star decides to forego any type of help and ages naturally, will she still be offered award worthy roles in Hollywood? And what do we say when we see her on the Late Show or at an award ceremony? Do we admire the fact that she is aging gracefully or do we shake our heads at how old she looks? 

Bette Davis in Patrick Kelly

This is the way that I remember Bette Davis; so chic in her Patrick Kelly dress at the age of 79.  Her skin very wrinkled, a cigarette in her hands, her voice a little raspier, and her frame much thinner.  But, she still commanded the room with her sharp wit and no nonsense personality.  The role of baby Jane Hudson gave her the opportunity to reject all that was glamorous and truly show her true talent.  We would call that a brave performance today, and indeed, it was.

Sarandon and Lange haven't shied away from brave roles and their talent is undeniable, I can't think of any two better actresses to play Bette and Joan.  But somehow, I don't think much has changed in the world in terms of our love affair with beauty and youth.  I think the pressure to stay beautiful has just become more pronounced as the procedures and techniques become more available.

Bette Davis Eyes

I'd like to think that I can be brave, like Bette.  I hope that my appearance isn't the definition or sum of my life's meaning. But I will admit, it will be hard to embrace aging in a culture that abhors anything older than the newest, shiniest face on Instagram.  A world that used to honor and respect older human beings now discards them with an almost arrogant disdain.

Bette Davis Older Hat

Her once legendary eyes might have grown a bit dimmer toward the end of her life, but I hope that the world will get to a place where they see beyond wrinkles, a few extra pounds and gray hair. I hope they will see the beauty, life experience and wisdom that lives behind the aging eyes we all will someday have.  Until then, we should all remember something that a wise Bette Davis once said,

"Old age is no place for sissies."

Bette Davis

 

 

 

 

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2 comments

  • Marc Leslie Kagan: April 13, 2018

    Your post was right on target on how Hollywood today is so focused on youth that only a small amount of the public actually goes to see movies anymore. Stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had their own distinctive qualities which set them apart so that lead both ladies enjoyed an almost 50-year career span. Joan Crawford’s first film was in 1924 and her last was in 1970 while Bette Davis screen debut was in 1931 and her last was in 1989. I can’t imagine anybody today having a career that spans so many years, actors today are lucky to have a span of ten years tops. Movies today probably will not have the influence that films made during Hollywood’s Golden Era enjoy today or fifty years from now. With some many remakes (did we really need a remake of Death Wish? or even a stupid remake of a film from 1987 Overboard) this proves that Hollywood has not had an original idea in a very long time. What with sequels, prequels and remakes its all so very disheartening. We would base films on plays, novels, and short stories today we base movies on video games, comic books and old television shows. In classic film there was dialogue, a plot, a theme and characters onscreen that you could empathize with. Today its all about violence, explosions, car chases, not very positive or life enhancing to say the least. Also during Hollywood’s Golden Era there were some many different genres of film: Westerns, Mysteries, Film Noir, Tear-Jerkers, Comedy, Musicals, Melodrama, Woman’s pictures, Horror, Sci Fi, War movies, Today is Sci Fi, Horror, Animation (because its cheap to make that’s why there are so many of them and they all look alike with the same design). As you say in your post nobody wants to look older so everybody in Hollywood is, “sliced and diced.” Nobody is distinctive anymore everybody looks like everybody else. It all Homogenized. It is a sad commentary on what was considered good entertainment. In today’s Hollywood if the film does not open with a huge box-office then the movie is considered a failure this alone shows how morally bankrupt Hollywood is. Yes, there were many problems back in the day but they still turned out so really good films like: The Grapes Of Wrath (1941, 20th Century-Fox) or Sunset Boulevard (1950, Paramount Pictures) and in the same year All About Eve (20th Century-Fox).

  • Tim: October 12, 2017

    Nice essay on aging as a woman.
    As an older man at 68 I have found myself admiring the wrinkles and gray hair of what I call ‘age appropriate’ women. These are ladies who know how to rock their confidence in themselves with perhaps a shock of blue in the gray or even yoga pants and always with spirit and personality. I can’t be alone in my admiration.
    I now see this as another benefit that we boomers can pass on to future generations. Of course men have had it easier then and now but spirited women have always been out there and now they can show it with throughout their lives and not only in their youth.

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