Today, actresses like Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Helen Mirren, and Emma Thompson who are older than 50 continue to work in movies and television even earning Oscars and Emmys. But in the Golden Age of Old Hollywood, an actress was washed up after turning 35 years old. Bette Davis’ role in All About Eve focused on an aging actress’ attempt to continue her career after she can no longer play ingenue roles.
Pam Munter, author of Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood talks about the time when Hollywood studio moguls tried to end the careers of actresses like Kathryn Hepburn and Bette Davis. who aged out of the profession they love.
It’s hard to imagine that when Hollywood gave birth to its most famous industry, there were no mass media. People got their news from local newspapers. And if they wanted to know about the lives of their favorite actors, they read movie magazines. They couldn’t possibly know that what passed for truth was concocted by publicists.
After the consolidation of smaller film companies in the 1920s, “Hollywood” was a monopoly, controlled by five men heading the five major studios. Out here in the dark, we knew nothing, really, other than what was fed to us by the publicity mill. All the stars looked glamorous and happy, eagerly poised to shine in their next blockbuster.
We didn’t know what it took for them—especially the women—to get there.
Hollywood’s Infamous Casting Couch
The casting couch is not new, in spite of the revelations about and subsequent conviction of Harvey Weinstein. From Hollywood’s very beginnings, it has been a quid pro quo for young women who entertain any possibility of graduating from the back room to the front of the camera. It was a given, an expectation, considered paying one’s dues. The significant difference today is its lack of acceptance as a tolerable norm. However, predation isn’t the sole ignominy hanging over the industry.
What happens to women who age out of the profession they love? No longer seen as ‘f***able,’ as the studio heads would say, they are no longer hirable, either. Many of the storied women in Hollywood’s history spent their entire lives – often from early childhood – working long hours. Some were rewarded for their ambition and perseverance with fame. Their lives were organized around a singular goal, achieving recognition if not fame itself. Then…it was over.
We cannot possibly know what went on in the minds of these women, how they processed the loss of identity and passion. For most of them, there was no Plan B. We can only speculate how they might have sought to reclaim their fame while coping with the soul-killing existential loss. For that, we must turn to fiction.
Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood
How did Doris Day feel when she was told her dead husband had stolen millions of dollars from her, leaving her in debt with the IRS, and committing her to a television series without her knowledge?
Silent screen star and early movie mogul Mary Pickford’s illustrious career had long since ended by the early 1930s, but she remained in the rambling, iconic Pickfair mansion until her death decades later.
Does Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond come to mind? And the legendary Ethel Barrymore, the scion from an acting family whose theatrical roots could be traced back generations, acted almost to the end, if only in smaller parts. How did she feel about appearing as a supporting player in Young at Heart with an impatient Frank Sinatra, as she struggled with both mobility and memory?
These stories contain a kernel of truth, but it’s only through fiction that we can begin to fully understand and empathize with these achieving women who gave so much of themselves to a career and to us. More unsettling than the vacuum created by the loss of fame is the reality that money did not insulate them from the struggle.
Fictionalizing stories of the famous serves a deeper purpose: It reminds us that fame is not enough, that it’s not forever, and that it should not define who we are as women. In reading stories like those in Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood, we can empathize. We have an urge to reach out, to make it better, to steer them in a different direction.
Can we learn from the lives and mistakes of others? Of course. They were products of a flawed system, to be sure. They paid their dues, no question.
Today, men still head up the studios, but more women are writing screenplays, directing films and producing them. We have become aware of the power of women sharing information and supporting one other. Will there be more roles for women of a certain age?
In contrast to days of yore, now it’s up to us.