Acid Tongues in Wilted Cheeks: Hollywood and the "Older" Woman

Well, she’s being teased quite a bit this season about her obsolescence, about being too old for her former job, too old to start dating again after her marriage fell apart, too old for any excitement greater than awaiting the arrival of the latest issue of Cat Fancy. The superannuated one is Gabrielle Solis, one of those supposedly Desperate Housewives. She’s a mere 31, mind you; but that’s just about a quarter to finished on the watch of a supermodel. It’s Hollywood poking fun at its obsession with youth, an obsession I never shared even while I stilled possessed it. It is pointless to shout “Grow up!” these days, since that is exactly what is feared most.

If fifty is the new thirty, does it follow that thirty is the new pre-pubescence? Perhaps that is why Gabrielle is asked to prep hideous little Miss Sunshines for a short career of runway sashaying or paired with an even more hideous Ritchie Rich of a teenager who seriously undermines her chances of landing a man. Gabrielle is not so much robbing the cradle than sinking back into it.

Men like birthday boy William Shatner (born on this day in 1931) never had it quite as tough to stay employed, even though they might experience their own aging anxieties, drowned sorrows untraceable in their bloated or botoxed visages. If Desperate Housewives can be claimed to succeed in making mature women appear desirable it is only by making them look and act less than mature. At least they are spared for a while longer from the fate of being assigned nothing more glamorous or challenging than a low budget sequel to Trog.

Joan Crawford, who did exit with that movie on her resume, made a career out of playing formidable women past forty just until she passed fifty, at which untender moment the formidable was twisted into the berserk. According to Hollywood, the line between fierce and frantic is as thin as a wrinkle behind a layer of gauze; and even in the make-believe of radio, where no gauze is required to assist those incapable of suspending their disbelief at the sight of crow’s feet, Crawford was asked to walk and cross it.

In “Three Lethal Words”, a tongue in less-than-rosy cheek Suspense thriller that aired on this day, 22 March, back in 1951, Crawford is heard as Jane Winters (read: well past spring or about to enter the second childhood of a Jane Withers), a woman who confesses to being, gasp, 43! You know the old gal has a problem (according to Hollywood logic, that is) when she also confesses to having been “ill” and walks into a film studio with a bottle of nitric acid in her pocket.

“It’s amazingly powerful,” she tells her former colleague, now head of the studio’s story department, to whom she is trying to pitch a story of a woman not unlike herself. As it turns out, that is an understatement, considering that the parallels are melodramatically overstated by Ms. Winters choice of character: Sally Summers, a screenwriter who tries to make herself believe that “43 isn’t very old,” but who is constantly reminded of her relative antiquity by her marriage to an actor 19 years her junior, especially when that young man leaves her after being told to send his wife Mother’s Day cards and is teased about not only having seen Sunset Boulevard, but “living it”!

“Three Lethal Words” throws acid into the wrinkle-free face of Hollywood; but the woman who gets to do the throwing is not looking any better for having dreamed up the deed.

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