Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Age Enhances Beauty: A Salute to Cloris Leachman and Cicely Tyson

We’ve just lost two Hollywood icons who enjoyed long showbiz careers. Both Cloris Leachman, who passed away January 27 at age 94, and Cicely Tyson, who died the following day at 96, were performing on film and television almost until the very end. It’s wonderful to see that talented, award-winning actresses are not always put out to pasture when their glamour days are behind them.

 This thought, that women past a certain age can continue to have acting careers, is an encouraging one. The British have always been better than we are at appreciating their well-seasoned performers, as witness the leading roles that are still being played by such stars as Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench. I’m old enough to recall seeing Dame Judi as a sexy Titania in a long-ago TV performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: I’ll never forget how she was described in the press as “toothsome.” Today, at 86, she doesn’t flaunt her sex appeal, but she still plays stellar roles and wins awards.

 In the U.S., Meryl Streep (going on 72) contains to play leads, even getting the guy in last year’s The Prom. Still, we have a long tradition of shying away from the whole ageing process, especially when it applies to women. This was emphatically brought home to me last week when I watched a Hollywood classic, 1950’s All About Eve. This exhilarating backstage drama claims to be about stage actors, but its implication for the ladies of the silver screen can’t be overlooked. In All About Eve, Bette Davis (at 42) plays Margo Channing, a beloved stage actress, one for whom Broadway’s best playwright creates leading romantic parts. Though at the top of her game, Margo remains insecure—and with very good reason, because a ruthless young understudy named Eve Harrington is ready and willing to take over her roles and her place on the Great White Way. No one disputes Margo’s talent, but it’s strongly suggested that she’s hopelessly past her prime.

 All About Eve may be an oldie, but—regarding ageing actresses—times have not entirely changed for the better. In 2015, a viral video captured Amy Schumer being schooled by fellow Hollywood icons Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette on the danger of approaching her “last fuckable day.” Once, it’s implied, she’s no longer sexually appealing, her bright career will quickly dim.

 Cloris Leachman came out of television to win a supporting actress Oscar in 1971’s melancholy The Last Picture Show. Rarely a leading lady, she played the hilarious supporting role of Frau Blücher (insert horse whinny here) in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and also showed off her rambunctious side in a Roger Corman outlaw flick, Crazy Mama. I remember her most fondly as Phyllis Lindstrom, Mary Tyler Moore’s TV neighbor, who copes hilariously with an off-screen husband who’s been canoodling with Betty White’s “Happy Homemaker.”

 Cicely Tyson made a big impression in the Seventies as a sharecropper in Sounder (best actress Oscar nomination) and in the title role of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Emmy award). The two roles shaped her determination to play dignified African-American characters who advance the cause of civil rights. Thereafter she continued to rack up honors for stage and TV work. Lucky me: I saw her starring in a stage revival of The Trip to Bountiful. Her part was that of an ancient woman returning to her small-town Texas home one last time. Then nearly 90, she was charming but convincingly feeble—until she strode out for her curtain call.  Then it seemed fair to call her ageless.



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