Sunset Strip

Hollywood casts an unexpectedly realistic eye on aging womanhood.

Older, lined, and feeling fine: Something has does give on age stereotypes
Older, lined, and feeling fine: Something does give on age stereotypes

The middle-aged moms who dutifully endured the holiday season’s PG-13 blockbusters—boys-of-all-ages movies like Master and Commander, The Last Samurai, the final Lord of the Rings installment—were rewarded this year with their very own Middle-Aged Chick Flicks. It sounds like a dubious Christmas gift: After all, Hollywood has been notoriously merciless to women of a certain vintage or else dismissive of them. But in the dour cinematic history of female aging, Something’s Gotta Give and Calendar Girls mark a welcome swerve. Two movies that on the surface follow the romantic-comedy playbook turn out to be simultaneously, and surprisingly, subversive. Behind the cellulite jokes and the sentimental observations (a pivotal character in Calendar Girls insists that “the last phase [of life] is the most glorious”) is some oddly rejuvenating realism: There’s nothing glamorous or courageous about getting old and lined, but there’s nothing truly horrendous about it either.

That’s not a vision you’ll encounter if you rent the relevant videos of the last half-century. It was 1950 when Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve put the female coming-of-middle-age saga on the cinematic map. These two movies laid out the classic alternatives for growing older. In Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, who goes slowly mad—aging female Option No. 1—as she realizes that her great film career is over now that she’s in her 40s. In All About Eve, Bette Davis’ Margo Channing is eclipsed in her Broadway career by a scheming younger woman, Ann Baxter’s Eve; she’s abandoned, in other words, and forced to disappear, Option No. 2. (It’s no surprise that these movies were made soon after the end of World War II, when women who’d ventured out to work were sent back in droves to the anonymity of home.) Sunk in depression on her 40th birthday, Channing bitterly denounces the brutal Hollywood cult of crease-free femininity in terms that have echoed ever since. It’s “as if I’ve taken all my clothes off,” she despairs. Of her lover, she has this to say: “Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.”

Aging women didn’t fare much better nearly two decades later. In The Graduate (1967), Mrs. Robinson (40-ish, played by 38-year-old Ann Bancroft) was portrayed as a cheerless nymphomaniac and was subsequently humiliated—driven nearly mad—when she tried to take revenge on the young Dustin Hoffman for preferring her daughter. As women gained more power at home and at work in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hollywood gave us a look at the ghastly costs of equality: a string of abandoned-women weepers, of which An Unmarried Woman (1978) is the most memorable. Jill Clayburgh’s nasty husband Michael Murphy dumps her, giving her the opportunity to fall in love with nearly flawless Alan Bates; in the process she learns that nothing matters more in life than emotional independence. That’s the feminist-era Option No. 3 for aging women, otherwise known as You’re Better Off Without Him.

Have wrinkles, will strip: Calendar Girls takes it all off
Have wrinkles, will strip: Calendar Girls take it all off

By 1996 a calcification of all three themes gave rise to The First Wives Club, an alleged comedy starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton as three middle-aged wives who extract revenge on the rich, narcissistic husbands who abandoned them. You could say it was progress that, in this movie, life for women ends at 45 instead of 40, but all three women look like hell as they snivel their way through the film. Hawn’s mouth is contorted by what looks like an overdose of collagen. Midler looks like a sexless Upper West Side yenta, and Keaton, aggressively doughy, is constantly teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. “We’re has-beens, we’re discards, we’re hanging on by a thread,” complains Midler, reducing Bette Davis’ cry of pathos to a pathetic whine. “I’d have left them, too,” my husband muttered to me, grudgingly rewinding the video. Nearly a decade later, the old options seem to have been discarded for their opposites. The aging females in Something’s Gotta Give and Calendar Girls do better than get even: 56-year-old Diane Keaton (looking so svelte this time around that I almost confused her with Jill Clayburgh) has two guys, sixtysomething Jack Nicholson and thirtysomething Keanu Reeves, fighting over her. And in Calendar Girls, the members of a decidedly mature women’s club in small-town Britain don’t endure a Bette Davis-style ordeal of eclipse: Instead, with the sharp-eyed, craggy-faced Helen Mirren in the lead, they take all their clothes off for a noble cause (raising $1 million to help leukemia victims) and become global stars. In our post-feminist era, these women even loosen their grip on the go-it-alone line. “I don’t want my bearings,” Diane Keaton’s Erica Barry declares, “I’ve had my bearings my whole damn life.”

Watching these women have it all does require the usual suspension of belief demanded by blockbuster fantasy and comedy fare. Something’s Gotta Give features blissful middle-aged sex on a rainy afternoon in an impeccably decorated mansion in the Hamptons and a subtle bit of swordplay between Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves—yes, over Diane Keaton—in a chic Paris bistro. Calendar Girls, based on a true story, nevertheless displays a selflessness that might put even Florence Nightingale to shame. Yet at the same time, both movies also manage to insert a strain of more homely, and homey, realism that gives the portrayal of middle-aged womanhood more heft.

Good though Keaton looks, her decidedly untouched face and body (as well as Nicholson’s) deliver a real jolt in the opening of Something’s Gotta Give and make the glitzy flights that follow seem less facile. Her character’s spare-me-the-bullshit confidence, born of being a woman who has endured and triumphed in the working world, goes hand in hand with a vulnerability and clarity about men (and their vulnerability) that rings true. When Keaton’s Erica catches the queasiness in Harry Sanborn’s (Nicholson’s) eyes in the midst of her post-coital planning for a Parisian trip, she knows to stop. When her young lover, Keanu Reeves, smugly asks, “How great is it for you that I’m not intimidated by your brilliance?” Keaton’s character gets the irony, even if Reeves’ doesn’t. Maturity, she reminds us, imposes a modesty that isn’t entirely unwelcome.

Something’s Gotta Give and Calendar Girls both hint at parenting issues and pay obeisance to the much vaunted quest for female independence, but the real focus here is on something more modern: the push and pull of interdependence in an era of greater gender parity. Calendar Girls features a whole gaggle of women managing marriage and provincial life contentedly enough, even one who is devastated when her husband dies. In Something’s Gotta Give, Keaton has it all, or almost: great work, a beautiful daughter, and peace with her ex. What she still hopes for, though, is someone who will sleep next to her at night and desire her at some fleeting moment during the day. It’s not a wild fantasy so much as a mundane dream in the waning years of middle age—a radical idea in its way, but maybe one whose time has come.