The Collagen Games

Have you ever assumed movie characters to be father and daughter, only to realize they’re lovers? This happened to me, at least for the first time, when I saw the theatrical poster for Sleepy Hollow (1999). In it, Christina Ricci looks younger than her 19 years, and Johnny Depp older than his 36. This led to quite the surprise actually watching the movie, and that’s when I started to understand how Hollywood stamps women with some pretty ridiculous expiration dates.

I can’t even say this is only a problem in obvious spaces like the James Bond franchise; it’s baked into each and every genre of film. Perpetual female youth is so embedded in the entertainment industry that minors are commonly cast and even scouted as the young partners of older men. Just one example is Keira Knightley, 17 when filming Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2001). Five films later, Knightley is approaching her 40s and clearly getting phased out in favor of younger flesh.

In Entrapment (1999), Catherine Zeta-Jones is almost 40 years younger than romantic leading man Sean Connery. Some call it action/adventure, but it’s actually the director’s cut of a Cialis commercial.

Milla Jovovich with Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element (1997). Scarlet Johansson with Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003).Natalie Portman with Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta (2005). The list is always getting longer, because casting directors tell us that men age like fine wine and women age like hot yogurt.

So that’s the bad. And while there’s nothing wrong with partners being noticeably different in age, Hollywood is too one-sided to claim the whole “love is blind” banner.

But here’s the good! If you’re craving a speculative movie that features an older actress in the badass headliner role she deserves, I’ve got some picks. None of these deal much with romance, but do reinforce this crazy idea that aging is a fact, actresses exist after wrinkles, and we’re damn lucky to have them.

1. The Manor (2021)

Plot: Barbara Hershey plays a widow who, after suffering a mild stroke, doesn’t want to burden her family and decides to move to a retirement home. Unbeknownst to her, but quickly…knownst…her new home has a dark side teeming with suspicious characters and a supernatural mystery.

What I Loved: The family dynamic and dialogue are hyper realistic. Too many movies portray grandmothers as pearl-clutching-cardigan-clad-baking-machines. But Hershey’s character is quick-witted and active. She’s casually foul-mouthed without it feeling forced or played for laughs. She’s not ready for a Golden Girls haircut, or someone to monitor her vitamins. She encounters every situation with such true to life reactions as “holy shit” and “no fucking way.” Her character refuses to follow your assumptions, right through to the end credits.

2. Relic (2020)

Plot: Robyn Nevin stars as a grandmother whose increasingly erratic behavior is attributed to dementia. Her middle-aged daughter and young-adult granddaughter round out the major characters, presenting a mystery to solve that is monstrous, tender, and will probably make you cry.

What I Loved: The practical effects are gorgeous to look at, and the muted atmosphere works well to drive home the narrative of maiden-mother-crone inevitability. Writer/director Natalie Erika James really impresses with her camerawork, and knows how to make something as vast as the unknown feel claustrophobic.

3. The Butterfly Room (2012)

Plot: Although this only toes the line as a fantasy film, the story is so ridiculous that my brain boxes it into that neighborhood anyways. Barbara Steele plays a butterfly-obsessed, lonely woman. Her life is upended after she strikes up an unexpected friendship with a young girl. The child is not so naïve as she appears and a worthy match for Steele’s character, who is of course hiding some sinister secrets of her own.

What I Loved: I could watch Barbara Steele make facial expressions all day. Her deep-set gaze and severe eyebrows are just TOPS. The character she portrays in the film is conniving and manipulative, but I found myself rooting for her anyways. She’s proof that an actress doesn’t have to be large or tall or muscular to be physically imposing. As a bonus that sets it apart from other films in this list, Steele’s character could have been a woman of any age and still made sense for the plot.

4. The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

Plot: An elderly woman, thought to have Alzheimer’s, allows a group of film students to document her at home and in the hospital while she undergoes experimental treatments.  As strange outbursts start to escalate and her behavior changes, the students realize how much danger they’ve actually wandered into.

What I Loved: The first half of the movie. Honestly, I felt the plot twists could have been better. However, Jill Larson is fantastic in this. She spent over 20 years as a major character in All My Children, and those soap opera chops have clearly helped her perfect the art of the stare-down. As Deborah Logan, Larson spends a lot of time whiplashed between outrage and confusion. I’m sure her time in TV drama helped this portrayal feel as engaging as it does.

This movie has two scenes of nudity with an elderly female character, and that felt so defiant to me when I saw this. She’s shown as a person – a living, breathing animal that has breasts. I watched this feature with a guy, and his brain seemed to completely short circuit at the visual. He told me he felt embarrassed, like “watching something I’m not supposed to see.”

But breasts, just like the women they’re attached to, exist regardless of your feelings. They exist whether or not they’re youthful, and whether or not they’re sexualized.

It’s too early to know if 2022 will be a good year in film, but I absolutely want to see more middle aged and elderly characters, wholly embraced as protagonists.

One hopeful on my horizon is the reboot of Urban Legend, and 99% of that excitement comes from the promised return of Loretta Devine. She was hands down the best part of the first two films, and I’m super excited for her to come back and kick butt in the reboot. If the developers have any sense at all, they’ll put her on the cover this time!

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