Sunday, October 9, 2011

Norma Desmond be Damned!

I was at a dinner some months ago where a friend at the table was telling the other guests of my interest in interviewing actresses who worked in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s about their careers.  One of the guests at the table made the glib comment “I’m sure they were all eager to tell you all about their faded careers because they don’t have anything now to fill their time!”  I was surprised by the presumptuous comment.  I know we should all “consider the source” whenever snotty comments are made.  But I thought the comment deserved a response so I said “That’s not true.  A lot of them are busy with their families, their grandchildren.  Some of them are still active in the arts and pursuing acting roles.  Others are pursuing careers in other fields, or doing volunteer work that means a lot to them.  It’s not fair to make generalizations or presumptions about people you haven’t met.”

Nevertheless, his remark made me stop and think about how people easily assume that, if an actress is now over 50 and isn’t in the spotlight the same way they once were, their personal and professional lives are over and they are living in self-centered seclusion.  As much as I love Billy Wilder’s classic film “Sunset Blvd,” the Norma Desmond character he created has helped perpetuate this negative notion about mature actresses.  I’ve had the privilege of interviewing actresses of earlier generations and stayed in touch and developed friendships with some of them.  While they are glad to share anecdotes from their lives and careers with people who are interested, it’s not their raison d’etre.  They all live in the present day, enjoy what life currently has to offer, and remain contributing members of society.  If they share anecdotes about the past, it is no different than an experienced attorney that I know who now teaches law school and often shares his experiences with students about how he handled numerous cases in his career.  They are also no different than the retired Generals and Admirals I’ve known who share anecdotes about how they faced professional challenges in the course of their military careers.  What these people have in common is that they are simply sharing their personal histories so that they can impart the wisdom and knowledge they have acquired with others.  All of this has taught me that you cannot make presumptions about individuals based on the demographic they fit into. 

Take the two Ann(e)s for instance—Ann Rutherford and Anne Jeffreys.  I’ve had the privilege of getting to know both of them in the last year.  They are both vibrant, energetic people who have an incredibly positive attitude and enjoy life.  Rutherford is always busy raising money for organizations she cares about, such as the Young Musicians Foundation, or for Kent State University.  Jeffreys filmed an Italian movie earlier this year with Danny Glover and Val Kilmer called “Vespro d’un Rinnegato” (a.k.a. “Espiation”).  During the past year, Jeffreys also visited her hometown of Goldsboro, N.C. to see her relatives, went on a cruise, and attended the wedding of one of her granddaughters in Oregon.  Both Ann(e)s are often seen around Los Angeles together attending arts-related events, such as the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, glamorously dressed in elegant gowns designed by David Hayes.  They remain close with their families and have strong relationships with dozens of friends.  When a friend was recovering from surgery, Ann Rutherford made arrangements for someone to take care of him until he was well on the road to recovery.  Both Ann(e)s are justifiably proud of their careers, but it is not the only thing that matters to them.  Whenever I mention to each of them that I just saw one of their films from the 1930s or 1940s on TCM or YouTube, they each laugh and exclaim “I can’t believe you wasted your time today doing that!” and then proceed to ask what is happening with me.  Rutherford, in particular, has taken a mentoring interest in my life and career, always offering a sympathetic ear and advice about how best to handle any situation.  Whenever I tell them I will be in Los Angeles, Ann Rutherford always exclaims “We’ll go dancing in the streets together!”  They have more joie de vivre than people half their age and are always thinking about helping others. 

Another good example is the Chinese American actress Lisa Lu, who is a longtime family friend.  Lisa was recently in Washington, DC as a guest of honor at the Smithsonian Museum’s Sackler Gallery for the opening of an exhibit of artwork depicting the life of the Empress Dowager Cixi of China.  Because Lisa played her in two lavish Shaw Brothers productions in Hong Kong “The Empress Dowager” (1975) and “The Last Tempest” (1976), she attended the opening night reception of the exhibit as guest of honor.  I was able to spend time with her that evening at the reception and at dinner afterwards and we caught up with each other’s lives.  I hadn’t seen her since the mid-1990s.  The next day, she was on a plane to Shanghai to start filming a Chinese language version of “Dangerous Liaisons” starring Zhang Ziyi, and would be appearing in a Chinese opera in Hong Kong this month.  In the last few years, she appeared in the disaster epic “2012” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and garnered praise at the Berlin Film Festival for her lead role in the Chinese language film “Apart Together.”  She already made another movie in Mongolia earlier this year.  I was just amazed at her sustained energy and enthusiasm for her craft, more than 50 years after she started her career.  I could tell how grateful she is about her continued success, and her kindness was inspiring.  She made a point that evening to share with me extremely positive insights about my father and mother, both of whom she admired greatly, that helped me to look at my parents from a fresh perspective.  As we were leaving after dinner, Lisa went back into the restaurant to thank the representative from the Sackler Gallery who was hosting the dinner.  She wanted to express her gratitude for all that the Sackler personnel had done on her behalf.  It demonstrated how good manners and genuine kindness still counts for a lot at a time when too many people rely on post-modern glibness or irony to express themselves. 

Yet another example is the talented Bridget Hanley, known to TV viewers as Candy Pruitt on the “Here Come the Brides” series or as Barbara Eden’s nemesis on her 1980s sitcom “Harper Valley PTA.”  Bridget is very active with Theatre West, the oldest continually running theatre company in the Los Angeles area.  I have seen her in several plays there that provide strong evidence that her enjoyable television roles only tapped into a portion of the talents and range Bridget is capable of.  In recent years, she performed in a production of “The Lion in Winter” at Theatre West that won her great acclaim from the city’s theatre critics.  Through it all, Bridget is constantly “out and about” spending time with her two daughters and her new grandson, as well as actively participating in the lives of her nieces and nephews, stepchildren and step-grandchildren, and other extended family members and friends.  She has lost none of her enthusiasm for acting and continues to enjoy the process of exploring the nuances of characters.  Bridget and her good friend Lee Meriwether often attend theatre productions in Los Angeles together, eager to sample and explore what their peers are working on.  They both have active, well-rounded lives and are too busy to just stay at home resting on their laurels. 

These are just some examples of mature actresses who defy the Norma Desmond stereotype.  I'm not implying that every actress who is over 50 is as kind or well-rounded as the women I mentioned here.  I am sure that there are people who fit the negative stereotype, but they should not be the standard with which to judge all the rest.  The ultimate point I am making is not merely about actresses, or about women in general.  All around us, in different industries and communities, we are surrounded by mature men and women who are, as Ann Rutherford likes to say, “turning their golden years into platinum.”  They are vibrant members of society with a lot to offer all of us with their wisdom, maturity and experience.  We just have to be smart enough to listen. 

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