Age Spots and Spotlights: Celebrity, Ageing and Performance

An interesting research symposium “Age Spots and Spotlights: Celebrity, Ageing and Performance”.

I was so pleased to have been invited (on the strength of my blog) by one of the organisers Dr. Deborah Jermyn.  Before going to the event I asked my close email contacts : can you name any celebrity who can be described as ‘old’?  This was the response: Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers, Joan Collins, Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Germaine Greer, Mother Theresa, Barbara Castle, Yvonne Arnaud, Esther Rantzen, Claire Rayner, Jeanne Moreau, Katherine Hepburn, Yitzak Rabin’s widow (sic),  Jane Fonda, Tony Benn, Michael Douglas, Hugh Hefner, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Miriam Margoyles, Sheila Hancock, Julie Walters, Helen Mirren.   Two remarks were interesting: “there are lots of  old women who are admired and respected but since they are not doing anything ‘newsworthy’ they do not get the attention they deserve” and  ‘the terms celebrity and substance seem incompatible’.

I will express my very personal feelings about the day. (a podcast will be available on the  above site for people who are interested in the proceedings).  I was confused by the use of the term ‘celebrity’ and ‘celebrity culture studies’. To me celebrity culture is an essentially ‘young’ phenomenon, based on  television reality shows, certain genres of music, football stars, talent shows, Facebook and YouTube etc… This world is of no interest to me and my study of ageing and ageism, specially in the field of the representation of  the old  woman in films and ageism as experienced in day-to-day life.   The word ‘performance’ intrigued me. Was it meant to include only professional performers? obviously not, since war correspondents and a film and opera director were the subject of two of the  papers. But they are men.

The day was stimulating for me and led me to pose quite a few questions.

1 –  Anne Widdicombe and a flash of celebrity.   It would be so interesting to explore why Anne Widdicombe (63), described as “clean-living Tory matriarch a devout Roman Catholic who barely drinks and lives alone” (Telegraph)  benefited from a brief celebrity flash when she appeared on the Strictly Come Dancing show. Felicity Kendal (64) however who appeared in the same show and who is a year older than Ann did not make any headlines.

2 – Voice and ageing: it occurred to me that in the films we considered in our Older Women in British films 1997-2006 (see resources) we did not mention voice. It is a characteristic that I have also completely ignored while analysing films myself. Is there such a thing as  the ageing of the voice as mentioned in the paper about the Trip?

3 – The difference  between  famous actor and celebrity  which was made  was very instructive. Brigitte Bardot was a celebrity, not much of an actor, whereas Elizabeth Taylor was actor and celebrity. Are our old actors: Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Sheila Hancock, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters celebrities ?  Is Delia Smith a celebrity? Germaine Greer? Margaret Thatcher? The Queen?  Are they ‘performers’?

4 – Old woman’s mask It was noted that Brigitte Bardot is still using face make up and the style of her hair was mentioned in the keynote talk. On the website of the symposium two photos of BB  are contrasted. The photo of BB in her 70s?  is less than flattering whereas there are online photos of  BB at 50 60 70  where she looks pleasant, imposing .  Why this choice? What is the mask of the older woman?  From the Queen of Spades to Gianni’s mother in the highly praised MidAugust Lunch, we are offered images of old women’s faces with a lot of make up. What do they signify?

5 – Ageing and cosmetic surgery was an important topic at the symposium.   The women celebrities mentioned in the second part of the Symposium   ‘Ageing and the Female Celebrity’  were all actors. For actors ageing starts early – even before the menopause. Are the problems of the ageing actor centred on the body  relevant to the ageing woman?

Members of the audience raised the following issues:

– the bulk of the papers were concerned with the ageing woman as Body

–  a woman ‘in my sixties’    pointed out that ageing is different in a woman in her late forties or 50s and a still older woman whose friends have started to die

–  Whereas the old man is shown to have sexual desire, the old woman is not supposed to have any sexual feelings…

Finally whenever I mention the ‘old woman in films’ to women of my daughters’  age  ( 40 – 50) I am quoted   Something’s Gotta Give as a wonderful, funny example. I know that taste in comedies differ radically but hearing again the speech by the sister of the Diane Keaton  character proffer her speech about the difference of the experience of ageing in men and women,  I had a sudden insight into why I so disliked this film and Potiche (see previous post). In both films feminist attitudes are expressed as if they are newfound truths. They are in your face statements that lack depth, subtlety or wit. Diane Keaton and Catherine Deneuve’s characters  may be the image that  younger women aspire to grow into but my goodness they do not, to my mind, provide fantasy or role models.  It is as if the women’s liberation movement never existed.   The dialogue, narrative, characters are so one-dimensional and predictable that as a woman who joined the Older Feminist Network 20 years ago, I found both films banal, and boring.

If celebrity culture is defined as a culture of the young I am wondering if it is the right tool to explore issues of the double jeopardy of age and gender.  Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor (both celebrities when young) , Nicole Kidman, Diane Keaton,  cosmetic surgery, airbrushing, digital manipulation of the image, gossip blogs.  Does this approach in its blindness to old age in all its diversity reinforce our ageism or does it challenge it?

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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3 Responses to Age Spots and Spotlights: Celebrity, Ageing and Performance

  1. Daniela says:

    Interesting questions. Just some of my opinions related to the questions you posed.
    1. Anne Widdecombe only reached the headlines because of her absolutely awful dancing skills, it had nothing to do with her age, Felicity was a good dancer; this year older dancers Lulu and Anita Dobson are both 62 and good dancers, but the dancer that achieved the most attention was Nancy Del Ollio (50) who was really bad; those who are really bad dancers always get the attention, it is not age related.
    2. Voice does change with age.
    3. Celebrity seems to be a contemporary concept, relating to those that live their lives in the public eye. Famous Actors can be Celebrities but so can a whole range of others that are known ONLY for their choice to live their lives in the public eye; ie Jordan. The Queen is not a Celebrity, she is just the Queen, her private life is still remarkably private. I think Older Actors can be Celebritys depending on how much they choose to market themselves.
    Find it difficult to answer the rest of the questions, I don’t think the issue is as much ageism as a media imposed idea of what is acceptable to every age, covering both genders. I think that the older one gets the more confident one becomes aboutoneself. One comes to the conclusion that outside appearance is not as important as how you feel on the inside, and so manipulation by the media is not so important. Unfortunately I think the young are victims of media portrayal of what is acceptable and the fact that the older woman and people in general in the celebrity world are more or less invisible, is a positive thing. Having said this, I think Hollywood is a different kettle of fish.

  2. Dear Rina, a note just to say many thanks again for attending and also for the reflective review of the day you’ve posted above. There is still so much to be said on all the points you’ve raised here, the symposium will hopefully just be the start of an ongoing project for us – we can send news of any updates as they happen. For now though, your readers might also be interested to see that the event generated two items of national press coverage (interestingly, for very different readerships) – in the Guardian’s Comment and Debate pages – – and also in Janet Street Porter’s Daily Mail column - I too would be very interested to see more on the Widdicombe v Kendall dichotomy! Best, Deborah and Janet

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