Last year I asked veteran photographer Douglas Kirkland, who photographed Marilyn Monroe for Look magazine the year before she died in 1961, what it is about her that still beguiles us today. His answer was frank: “If she had stayed with us and grown old we might not hold her as high as we do. We’ve never known her as an old individual.”
His words unsettled me in ways I couldn’t quite lock down at the time, until this week when I was reminded of them once again. They were staring back at me in the ‘new faces’ of Saint Laurent and Céline. Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell: the antithesis of ‘new’ defiantly present in older age. Their honesty cuts through the camera lens: a construction that usually marginalises older women with a couple of clicks and few apologies. Ageism and sexism are never too far apart, especially in the media, as feminism knows all too well. No three women remind us of this more powerfully this week than Joan and Joni….and Marilyn.
Marilyn Monroe once prophetically told photographer Bruno Bernard: “I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I’ve made. Sometimes I think it would be easier to avoid old age, to die young, but then you’d never complete your life, would you? You’d never wholly know you.”
If Monroe had lived she’d be celebrating her 89th birthday this year: nine years Joan Didion’s senior, 17 years Joni Mitchell’s. Instead she lives on in youth – a deeply unsettled youth – but one we venerate all the same. If dissatisfaction is a condition we pity in older age, for those who are young it’s something we apply with whimsy. In a world that idolises the eternally ageless – the youthful dead, if you will – we are less inclined to value the lifelines that marble the face of a woman. We tend to turn away from the woman who looks at us and says: I’ve completed my life. I know me.
Which is what makes this week’s two fashion campaigns so marked. It also reveals the cracks. In the week when we were encouraged to look into the eyes of two iconic women in their seventies and eighties and celebrate their beauty, it was also the week when Russell Crowe told older women to “act their age” claiming film industry gender inequality is “bullshit”.
“To be honest, I think you’ll find that the woman who is saying that [the roles have dried up] is the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue, and can’t understand why she’s not being cast as the 21 year old”, Russell Crowe claimed this week. A slap in the face of countless gender statistic reports which state that out of the 29% of speaking parts given to women in film, the majority we see and hear on screen are in their 20s and 30s.
The gruff sounds of a 50-year-old man only echoes the past. To further understand our ageist gender lines we have to go way back to the commercialisation of synchronised cinema sound in the 1920s. In doing so I stumbled across the lifelines of an aged face, all but forgotten. The first director of narrative film was a woman in 1896 yet her name has been wilfully forgotten. Alice Guy-Blaché’s 24-year career is the longest of any cinema pioneer. 1,000 films later the only landmark dedicated to her accomplishments can be found in New Jersey where she died aged 94. Forgotten now, forgotten then: her last film was directed aged 47. Her latter 47 years: motherhood and obscurity.
If it seems like we’ve come full circle, then perhaps we have. This morning a Joni Mitchell quote I read stuck in my mind, much like Douglas Kirkland’s did last year: “I learned a woman is never an old woman.” This week I’m learning that too. As I look at myself closely in the mirror I vow courage to remain loyal to the face I’ve made. I brush out my silver streaked hair. A pang of reality. I make a continued promise to myself not to dye it. Well, not yet…