It’s Horrible to Be an Old Woman in Hollywood, Kim Novak Edition

What Women Really Think
March 3 2014 3:02 PM

It’s Horrible to Be an Old Woman in Hollywood, Kim Novak Edition

“I’m not saying movies are the most important thing in the world,” Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres said shortly after she took the stage at the Dolby Theatre last night. “I’m not saying that—because the most important thing in the world is youth.” It was a broad joke meant to implicate the values of the entire entertainment industry. But as the ceremony wore on, the critique hit some famous faces harder than others. DeGeneres threw the first punch when she welcomed “one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I have seen in my entire life,” as the camera zoomed in on the 67-year-old actress’s face. “Just really, seriously,” DeGeneres added. “Good job, sir.”

Hollywood may value youth above all else, but as we learned last night, there’s nothing sorrier than an older woman who tries to look young. Because Minnelli’s face has been nipped, lifted, and filled, even the nice-to-a-fault DeGeneres joked that Minnelli has been reduced to an imitation of herself. (The line registered as offensive to both Minnelli and the trans community.) And 81-year-old Vertigo star Kim Novak—who was roundly mocked for turning up onstage, two decades after her last movie, exhibiting extensive plastic surgery—might as well be dead. As comedian Rob Delaney cruelly joked: “Will they have time to edit Kim Novak into the In Memoriam section?” Even Matthew McConaughey’s mother, who last night aspired only to the role of proud parent, was eviscerated for rocking a keyhole-neck gown that gave the world a peek at her cleavage, which apparently only young women are allowed to possess. Twitter commentators deemed the view “leathery,” “ancient,” “inappropriate,” and “terrifying.”

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So how ought an actress age? Throughout the evening, 67-year-old Sally Field (who appeared as a presenter) and 64-year-old Meryl Streep (nominated for August: Osage County) were compared favorably to Minnelli and Novak for daring to age “gracefully” and “naturally.” But we don’t know what Streep and Field do to maintain their looks—all we know is that they have successfully navigated Hollywood’s dual requirement to look amazing post-60 while never signaling that they’ve worked at it. That means avoiding obvious plastic surgery, but it can also mean spending your life investing in the habits, trainers, diets, creams, and treatments that add up to a “natural” look in old age. (Dodging illness and disability—Novak survived breast cancer in 2010—surely doesn’t hurt.)

Even for the young, Hollywood beauty has never been strictly natural. When Novak entered the industry in the 1950s, studio executives made her cap her teeth, bleach her hair, shrink her body with a strict diet and exercise regime, and perpetually paint her face with the help of a personal makeup artist. I wonder where she got the idea that she mattered for her looks? Hollywood made Novak a star, then abandoned her—decades ago. I hope that Canadian sportswriter Bruce Arthur understood the irony when he tweeted: “This is what Kim Novak looked like when she was young,” he said, linking to a photo of Novak in her twenties. “Our addiction to youth is kind of awful.”

Actresses have one other option for avoiding the shame and judgment that comes with the aging process: Just stay out of the spotlight for the first six decades of your life. June Squibb spent most of her career in the theater before transitioning to television and film in her 60s, where she debuted in roles like “elderly woman” and “grandma.” (As Squibb sat in the Oscars audience last night, she also appeared on HBO’s Girls, playing Hannah’s dying grandmother.) Squibb skipped the ingénue phase and launched right into desexualized matron roles, which freed her from the pressure of chasing youth, and spared audiences the discomfort of confronting the fact that Hollywood’s youthful it-girls are real people who age like everybody else. Safely marooned in the grandmother role, Squibb was heralded as a style icon last night, serving out “sparkly perfection.”

When it comes down to it, we don’t actually want Hollywood leading ladies to look their age. Better are middle-aged stars like Sandra Bullock, who is not just celebrated as gorgeous at 49, but especially gorgeous because she doesn’t “look” 49. Better still to just be 23. Jennifer Lawrence is Hollywood’s current girl crush, and she's got a bright career ahead of her—as long as she maintains her youthful looks until her deathbed, or else picks the appropriate moment to crawl into a hole to wait to die.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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