The contemporary preoccupation with youth, especially in Hollywood, is not a new phenomenon. The 1950s was by far the most oppressive decade for American women. They were expected to know their domestic roles, and they also had to conform to new and unrealistic standards of beauty. Old models were replaced by younger and bustier ones. How else could Cary Grant, for all his greatness, be allowed to play a dashing romantic lead over the course of four decades? During the 1950s, female characters were predominantly sexpots (Marilyn Monroe) or innocents (Audrey Hepburn). What they had in common, though, was youth.
So, where did middle-aged women fit into this new world order? This paper examines the plight of the middle-aged woman on film in the 1950s by analyzing five middle-aged roles by older actresses: Lana Turner as Connie MacKenzie in Peyton Place (1957), Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson in Summertime (1955), Jane Wyman as Cary Scott in All That Heaven Allows (1955), Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950). They were positively over-the-hill by Hollywood standards, but these actresses were hardly old. They were mature and fabulous. When they played these roles, Turner was only 36, Hepburn was 48, Wyman was 41, Davis was 42, and Swanson was 53. The characters are widely varied, but they still have a lot in common, like fear and loneliness. They also shed much-needed light on the status of middle-aged women by reflecting and criticizing the youth-obsessed societies of the 1950s and today. The characters are distinct products of the 1950s, but the qualities and problems they represent for women are timeless. Careful examinations of the characters are combined with discussions of femininity, biographical information about the actresses, and social-historical research for contextualization.
As a middle-aged woman and mother, Connie faces the harsh reality of what happens when her child grows up and needs her less. “Pregnancy – motherhood – could present itself as the answer to questions about one’s identity” (Harvey 96). Without that, many women in the 1950s felt helpless or worthless, and today’s society still assumes motherhood is the final destination for most women. When Connie’s overprotectiveness pushes Allison away, it makes her realize how empty her life is outside of her daughter. In a dynamic scene in Connie’s kitchen at night, Michael prods her and tries to make her accept her innate sexuality. Connie backs up against the kitchen sink, her posture defensive and accusatory. He fires, “It isn’t sex you’re afraid of. You can say yes or no to that. It’s love. That’s what you can’t handle.” Connie retorts, her voice growing more strained and angry, pushing his arms away from her violently, “And that’s what you’re offering me, with your hands all over me?” As the scene concludes, Connie answers Michael’s declaration of love by meeting his gaze and stating defiantly, “I have my standards…and my pride.” For her at this point, respectability means more than happiness.
At the beginning of Summertime, Jane Hudson arrives alone in Venice full of excitement. She is feisty and independent, much like the actress playing her. Jane jokes around constantly in an attempt to conceal her loneliness. After relating the story of a woman she met on the boat on her way to Europe, the woman in charge of her hotel, Signora Fiorini (Isa Miranda), questions the woman’s motives. Jane thoughtfully replies, “Beats me. I guess to find what she’d been missing all her life.” Hepburn reveals Jane’s deep longing for purpose and meaning by delicately trailing off, pausing, and looking away wistfully before recovering with a quip. Jane consciously refers to her age: “Nobody’s older than me.” Signora Fiorini assures her, “I am, and in Italy, age is an asset.” Jane rolls her eyes and laughs self-deprecatingly, countering, “Well, if it is, I’m loaded.” She pretends to be comfortable with her age and her lack of a relationship, but she obviously suffers from society’s neglect. “Older women’s main problem may be one of invisibility” (Canetto 197). As Jane sadly drifts around Venice alone, this seems to be the case.
Once she vows to enjoy her time with Renato, Jane appears calm, content, and almost giddy, which Hepburn communicates as adeptly as previous scenes of tortured melancholy. Finally, she decides she must leave Venice. She becomes choked up as she utters, with a pained smile, “It’s the happiest time I’ve had in my whole life.” Jane understands the implausibility of their situation and matures by accepting reality. She somberly sums up, wiping away furtive tears, “You know, all my life, I’ve stayed at parties too long because I didn’t know when to go. Now, with you, I’ve grown up. I think I do know when to.” Andrew Britton, in Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist, offers a bleak interpretation of the film: “Summertime asserts not only that the heroine’s life is worthless without men, but also that, through some subtle flaw of her own (the flaw involved, presumably, in having become a middle-aged spinster), a life with men is impossible anyway” (220). While the film certainly reflects a distinctly 1950s view of women needing male validation, the final shot of Jane on the train leaving Venice shows a wiser, more confident, and more liberated woman. Hepburn’s face, a mixture of pride, sadness, and contentment, encapsulates Jane’s journey as an older woman.
Immediately following the devastating and despicable reactions of her children, Cary and Ron attend a disastrous cocktail party. People nastily whisper about the age difference, but Jo-Ann (Leigh Snowden) actually says something to her face: “Course I guess it is more unusual when someone your age gets married.” Wyman makes Cary incredibly sympathetic, and Cary is such a kind, sweet, tolerant person that it seems inconceivable that anyone would be so vicious to her. She gets carried away by a society that expects too much of her. She gives up Ron, and her reward is Sara’s reassurance that “everyone will welcome you back to the fold.” After Ron gets seriously injured, she finally commits to him. She shamefully admits, “I feel like such a coward. I was so frightened I listened to other people. I let others make my decisions.” The two tenderly reunite at the end. But whether or not this is a happy ending is debatable. She is living with Ron on his terms. And the constant framing and reflection of Cary throughout the film, trapped in windows, the television set, and the piano, represents her prison. Cary crouches next to Ron at the end against the backdrop of a huge window, perhaps just a new prison, reiterated by the image of the innocent and unsuspecting deer romping in the snow outside. Regardless, Cary evolves as a person throughout the film and boldly accepts her status as a middle-aged woman.
In the history of film, there are few performances as iconic as Bette Davis in All About Eve. As Margo Channing, Davis totally commands the screen. When the film was released in 1950, Davis was 42 and kicking. Margo is a temperamental diva, not unlike Davis, who is very worried about growing older. Certainly, Davis could relate to that concern. Rather than making Margo a caricature, Davis infuses her with humanity by drawing on personal experiences. “Davis brought to the role of Margo Channing all her seasoned discipline and charisma, as well as the wisdom she had accumulated about matters of the heart. Like Margo, Davis had had her full share of disillusionment, in love, in career, with people, and with life in general” (Quirk, Fasten 333). As Davis grew older, she adapted and embraced the role of middle-aged woman, which is why she maintained such a long career when so many others failed.
As Eve entrenches herself in Margo’s life, Margo grows increasingly suspicious, which turns into uncontrollable jealousy when it comes to Bill. Margo fears that Bill will leave her for Eve because she is younger. When Bill compliments Eve, Margo launches a tantrum, “So you’ve pointed out so often. So many qualities so often – her loyalty, efficiency, devotion, warmth, and affection, and so young. So young and so fair.” Davis plays this scene brilliantly, seething as Bill attacks her, tapping her fingers on the table and finally eats a piece of candy that she had been eyeing, chewing it violently. Bill furiously insists, “Eve Harrington has never by word, look, thought, or suggestion indicated anything to me but her adoration for you and her happiness at our being in love, and to intimate anything else doesn’t spell jealousy to me, it spells a paranoiac insecurity that you should be ashamed of.” With these last words, Margo widens her eyes and flinches as if he had slapped her. Basically, when a woman gets jealous, a man unfairly questions her sanity. At the party, Margo confesses her true age, 40, to Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). She believes her life and career are over.
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, and an example of Davis’ genius, Margo confides in Karen (Celeste Holm). She apologizes for treating everyone so horribly and explains why she acts up: “Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster, you forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman.” She does not know who she is without her star persona, and she believes she has lost her femininity. She has everything, but she is unhappy and lonely. Finally, in a truly grim and sexist assessment, indicative of the 1950s, she concludes, “And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can…look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.” Davis’ heartbreaking monologue almost makes the viewer overlook that disturbing statement, but not quite. At the end, Margo accepts her age by refusing to play parts that are too young. Margo and Bill also decide to get married, and they still have their friends, Karen and Lloyd, even after all the damage Eve did. In one of the greatest exit lines ever, Margo coldly spits at Eve, “Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.” Margo gets the last word, a happy ending, and a newfound acceptance and appreciation of her age.
If Bette Davis as Margo Channing is one of the most indelible performances in the history of cinema, then certainly Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard ranks right up there with it. At the time of the film’s release in 1950, Swanson was 53, by far the oldest actress of the group, and her performance is arguably the most risky and courageous, not just because of the sheer enormity of the character, but because of the striking parallels to her own life. Like Norma, Swanson was an aging star from the silent era, in many ways forgotten until her triumphant comeback in this film. However, unlike Norma, her decision to leave the business was a choice. “Never at home in Hollywood, Swanson stuck around as long as she could stand it, then moved east. Not because she couldn’t make the changeover – she quickly starred in half a dozen talkies – but rather because she didn’t much like the parts offered her” (Staggs 49). Swanson did not fear her age at all, but she worried about the resemblance to her own life, stating “that I would have to use all my past experience for props, and that this picture should be a very revealing one to make, something akin to analysis” (Swanson 481). Certainly, Swanson’s fearless performance as Norma paved the way for older actresses and women to express themselves comfortably without reservation.
For Norma, age, or what she perceives age to be, is everything. She lives in the past; the past is her present. She wants to always be young. Joe tries to tell Norma the truth about her life, “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” After Norma kills Joe, she remains oblivious, leaning up against a column, hand to her forehead, posing. She whispers madly, “The stars are ageless, aren’t they?” Norma is the victim of a youth-obsessed society, a society that still exists. She fails to meet society’s expectations. In a tragic and unforgettable final scene, her loyal servant Max (Erich von Stroheim) convinces her that the media covering the murder is really a film crew there for her big scene. As Joe’s voiceover concludes, “The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” She descends the staircase and delivers a final, chilling line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Norma Desmond is gone forever, but she is where she wants to be, on the screen in her mind. Tragically, she does not receive the happy ending afforded the other four characters, and she represents the dark side of the middle-aged woman.
All in all, Constance MacKenzie, Jane Hudson, Cary Scott, Margo Channing, and Norma Desmond symbolize various incarnations of the middle-aged woman. Older women tend to get overlooked in society for younger and more vibrant models. These characters all spoke to the women in the 1950s, and they still provide astute viewers today with the guidelines for self-examination. More than that, they indicate the flaws still present in today’s society regarding the treatment of women. While they appear wildly different at first glance, these five characters all learn valuable lessons about love and relationships, and most of them triumph. They are connected by desperation, oppression (both external and self-inflicted), fear, insecurity and, most of all, loneliness. Even though they are all middle-aged women, those are feelings that everyone has experienced, and they have nothing to do with age.