The Wrong Side of 40

Last week, highly-regarded film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote about Renée Zellweger’s appearance, and how he thought she’d lost her essential self through plastic surgery. He hardly mentioned her magnificent range, vulnerability, or the legendary kindness that shines through her acting. Instead he chose to focus on the idea that, “In the case of Renée Zellweger, it may look to a great many people like something more than an elaborate makeup job has taken place, but we can’t say for sure.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be said at all.

I’m using “actress” in this piece for gender clarity even though I’m not a big fan of the word. To me, it implies a diminutive, lesser quality to a woman’s abilities compared to ”actor.” “Actress” seems to be more appropriate to an ingenue, which might be a tad insulting to an revered, seasoned woman like Dame Judi Dench.

Most of the time as an actress—especially while I’m working—I feel blessed to be in this profession. But my job is also tough for many reasons, and getting older is one of them. I am on the “wrong” side of forty, actually very close to Zellweger’s age.

Do I have lines around my eyes when I smile? Yes I do. Are my lips as full as they were when I was in high school? No they’re not. Is my body the same since I’ve had two big, healthy, happy boys. It isn’t. I live in Los Angeles where if you haven’t had your face and body “enhanced,” you begin to feel inadequate. I struggle all the time with these kinds of doubts.

I booked a job after I lost the baby weight from my first child. The head of the costume department called me up for my sizes and I proudly gave him my new weight, which was the lowest it had been since high school. I may have even been too thin. He replied, “Oh, so you’re normal sized. Good. That makes things easier for me.”  I had practically starved myself for five weeks, but in film and TV this was considered “normal.”

I was really, really hungry while filming this 

I was really, really hungry while filming this 

And last year my agent submitted me for a pilot in which the lead character was an obese woman. Every scene was her either having a hard time getting a dress over her head, getting winded or talking about how fat she was. I tried to explain to him that even by L.A. standards I wasn’t a good fit for the role. He consoled me by saying that if I did well in the room they might consider altering the character for me.

I laughed this particular incident off because it was absurd, but being scrutinized constantly for my looks takes a toll. It’s hard for me to focus on a job I was hired to do when I’m worrying about how to stand so my tummy won’t bulge and my legs will look slimmer. It can even be self-destructive.

I feel like I look fine, yet I’m still ashamed to say how old I am. I don’t lie, but I avoid the subject because if I reveal my age, I’m worried I’ll be cast as a grandma (and not a young one). I should be proud. I’m comfortable in my skin, but because my profession takes place within an industry where youth is a calling card, it’s a challenge to stay grounded and honest. I’m afraid that if I admit my real age, I‘ll be judged not based on my abilities but by shallow perceptions of what unimaginative people think a forty-odd-year-old person should look and act like.

Maturity should be celebrated. Ideally, aging would benefit an artist professionally and personally. I’ve had more time to read, travel and meet people. I hope I’ve become wiser and more compassionate as a result. I understand human behavior more so that now when I’m playing different characters I don’t have to work as hard in my acting,  like I did when I was younger, covering for my lack of knowledge.

If Renée Zellweger has had work done, it’s her own business. She has the right to do whatever she wants to herself. And perhaps part of the reason she may have wanted to change her appearance is because she’s been under intense scrutiny for her looks since she first appeared on screen.

When Jerry Maguire  came out, I remember reading, ad nauseum, how unlikely a choice Zellweger was to play a Tom Cruise love interest, because of “her fetching ordinariness,” as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. Her performance was breathtakingly sweet and painfully honest. Yet the big story was her “ordinariness.”

She doesn't look "ordinary" to me. Her sweetness and sincerity is luminous.

She doesn't look "ordinary" to me. Her sweetness and sincerity is luminous.

Looks can be an important tool for an actor. It’s undeniable. But it’s also unreasonable and dispiriting how often actresses get slammed (and even blamed) for their looks in a way male actors simply do not. Actresses’ lucky or “unlucky” genetics are tied to their self-worth and many times are prized more than their skill as artists.

Hollywood traffics in youth, so actresses tend to have a shorter shelf-life than their male counterparts. Harrison Ford is seventy-three and he’s still an action hero. I’m convinced Hollywood thinks actresses over fifty shouldn’t even have sex. Our earning potential decreases significantly because this business sees us as less desirable and marketable than men as we age. It’s no wonder some of us feel we have to take subtle or drastic measures to insure working as long and profitably as possible.

Post-Jerry Maguire, Renée Zellweger did something particularly daring for an actress. Something I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do: she gained thirty pounds to make her character believable in Bridget Jones's Diary. It was essential for the part: Bridget’s self-deprecation about her weight, her humor in battling through her awkwardness, her sense of being an outcast, a “singleton” in a sea of “smug marrieds” we're all features of her enormous charm. When she drunkenly lip-synced “All By Myself” after a breakup, alone in her tiny flat, I cried. And when she reunited with Colin Firth, who said he liked her just the way she was, I don’t think I was the only one who wanted to give Zellweger both a standing ovation and a hug.  

Bridget Jones's Diary

Bridget Jones's Diary

Gwen Inhat, of the A.V. Club states it beautifully:

“But this imperfect heroine resonated with readers who also occasionally nestled beneath that low bar, taking two-and-a-half hours to pull together a simple outfit for the office, or frittering away an entire day supposedly spent working at home by looking at vacation brochures (followed by: “1:00 p.m.: Lunchtime! Finally a bit of a break.”) In a world where many chick-lit heroines and rom-com stars were often passed off as some sort of adorable type-A superwomen (like Jennifer Lopez’s super-organized Wedding Planner or Sophie Kinsella’s uber-ambitious Undomestic Goddess), the smoking, drinking, swearing Bridget Jones was funny, likable, and most of all, relatable. Many singletons of a similar ilk chose Bridget (or Fielding, more like) as their own personal heroine.”

It’s sad that I have to say it’s “brave” when an actress gains weight for a role. Did anyone in the Press criticize Robert DeNiro when he put on weight to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull?  The gossip magazines breathlessly tallied every pound Zellweger gained or lost. It was a national fixation. She’s too fat. She’s too skinny. She has chipmunk cheeks! On and on and on. I’ll admit I was complicit in this ugly fascination too, which makes me feel ashamed. But at least I’m not a professional critic.

Google search for "Renée Zellweger weight gain"

Google search for "Renée Zellweger weight gain"

How do you think this scrutiny makes an actress feel? Especially one possessing such openness and sensitivity? How did she block out all this toxicity? I’m guessing that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t. It’s insidious and powerful. An actress can’t help but judge herself, to question her worth and to worry about her professional viability in the future. I have a hard time with my own efforts to be selectively sensitive. If Zellweger did have plastic surgery or fillers, she was probably trying to make herself feel better. To stave off the criticism and make her career last longer. To be proactive.

Whether he meant it or not, Gleiberman’s article was mean-spirited.  He mused her changed appearance would affect his enjoyment of her performance, all from the Bridget Jones's Baby’s trailer. He’s a film critic, not a pageant judge. I hope Renée Zellweger didn’t read his piece, but I’m guessing she’s at least heard the gist of it. When I read it I couldn’t help but think about myself: if I became famous, would I be placed under the same cruel microscope?

When a respected, influential film critic starts reviewing an actress’ looks instead of the movie she's in, he becomes no better than an tabloid gossip columnist. It’s demeaning to his profession. I think Renée Zellweger and his readers both deserve better.

Bridget Jones's Baby

Bridget Jones's Baby



Amy Pascal and Jezebel

I haven’t been able to let go of my disgust after reading Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s poisonous Jezebel takedown of Amy Pascal.  The continually-unfolding Sony hacking scandal revealed Pascal’s highly intimate Amazon purchases in addition to emails about her diet, all gleefully and ghoulishly recounted in Vargas-Cooper’s piece.  On one hand, I’m angry with myself for consuming that toxicity and directing any more attention to it.  On the other hand, I’m still shaken that a woman could do that kind of hatchet job on another woman.  It seems like a double betrayal; one of privacy and one of humanity. 

We may differ in our opinions about Amy Pascal.  I personally hold no animosity toward her, but then again, I’m white.  By all accounts she was a champion of projects that had artistic merit, was genuinely friendly to actors, creatives and executives and was one of the few women in Hollywood holding a position of prominence and power, which is no small feat.  We need more people like her in this business, I assure you. 

She did say some indelicate things.  That may be too mild a descriptor.  Okay, some of what she expressed in what she thought were private conversations was uncomfortably close to racism.  However, I noticed that Scott Rudin, the person with whom she was communicating, didn’t get half as much flack for his portion of their conversations, which were equally if not more inflammatory.  Maybe it’s because he has a reputation for brashness.  That’s possible.  My hunch, though is that it’s because he is a man, and men who are powerful are kind of expected to talk that way.  Most of us love Glengarry Glen Ross.  I certainly do. 

As progressive as we like to think we are, women who are bold and decisive and strong are still perceived as threats.  Not just in the Entertainment Business.  Everywhere.  Hillary Clinton certainly knows this.  You don’t even have to be in a position of power.  I have less than 2000 followers on Twitter and I’ve been called a cunt for a political opinion I posted.  You probably don’t know me, but I’m one of the least assertive people in the Greater Los Angeles Area.  Despite this, I’d obviously struck a nerve:  How dare she express an opinion?  Don’t women know that they are nothing more than a face, a body and a vagina, preferably hairless?  To be honest, it didn’t shock me as much you’d think.  This was the evaluation of a knuckle-dragger, someone who forgot that he actually came out into the world via the epithet he was using for me.  Blocking people on Twitter is really easy. 

The most shocking aspect of the Jezebel article for me was it was written by a woman.  How could she do this?  I assume Vargas-Cooper intended this to be a humor piece, but it read as if she was the chapter head of the Mean Girls’ Society of America (MGSofA).  I don’t want to go into the specifics of Amy Pascal’s purchases, but I can’t imagine the humiliation of having them displayed in print for anyone and everyone to see.  For me, it would be exactly like a recurring nightmare where you are in a crowd of people, you are suddenly completely naked and you’re desperately trying to cover up.  It's inconceivable a woman wouldn’t know what damage this kind of information could do to the woman she was writing about.

Yesterday, I was searching my mind trying to think what could have motivated Cooper-Vargas to write this trash.  I understand it’s an ugly side of human nature that we love to put certain people up on pedestals only to topple them over when we feel they’ve gotten too high.  But I think there is something else at play that as a woman I find quite disturbing: whether it’s cultural or instinctual, women are taught to distrust and sometimes even despise one another. 

It starts early.  I have seen it in my children’s classrooms.  And I realize I’m speaking in generalities, but when there is conflict between boys, they tend to knock each other down, cry and then get right back up and start to play again.  However, between girls, it’s more complicated.  They exclude and they whisper and they try to hurt.  Unchecked, this kind of behavior can become even more toxic in High School.  I went to an all-girl school.  Believe me, I know.      

I see the same kind of behavior at play in Cooper-Vargas’ post.  It’s as if she is expressing the very feeling that women can’t tolerate when certain men express it:  “Lady, you can’t have it all.  You can be powerful or you can be attractive, but you can’t be both.  If you try, then I will mock you and tear you down until you’re no longer a Superwoman, but a sad, grasping female who’s just longing to be pretty for a man."  It’s not only disgusting, it’s heartbreaking.  And it's sexist.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hack writer, like Vargas-Cooper or one who has more prestige, but who is equally hacky, like Maureen Dowd.  What business do they have knocking a powerful woman’s femininity?  Don’t they see this hurts us all?  I’ve heard way too many women on social media talk a good game about supporting other women (which usually involves a degree of sycophancy), but then tearing down other women they consider beneath them with intensely petty comments usually based on looks.  This really needs to be examined, harshly, if need be. 

Yes, it’s incredibly hard for women to have it all.  Sometimes it seems impossible and many times it is.  We are asked to balance so many vital aspects of our lives and then try to make it look easy and pretty.  What we need to do is to tap into the other profoundly beautiful aspects of our gender, like compassion, humor, intuition, nurturing and understanding.  And strength.  We should support each other, be happy for our successes and be gentler with each others’ flaws and failings.  Why should women make it harder on each other by perpetuating this destructive, and really self-destructive, behavior?  It makes us look bad because it is bad.    

Jezebel is supposed to be a blog directed at women’s interests.  With that in mind, Jezebel, what do you think is in women’s best interests?  There is a great similarity to that despicable guy calling me a what he did because I refused to conform to what he thought was feminine and you publishing a piece mocking a powerful woman for buying products to use on the same anatomical part.  That guy and you are sharing the same epithet.  How sad.