One of the perennial problems for actresses – particularly in Hollywood – seems to be with lines. Not so much in learning them, but avoiding them. Many promising careers have been stalled or curtailed by signs of ageing, a situation that seems to afflict women more than men.
Although their male counterparts have been known to carry on portraying romantic leads into their 60s, opposite female co-stars who are sometimes decades younger, actresses are not so fortunate to have the same opportunities. Whereas life is supposed to begin at 40, the opposite often seems to be the case for women who are seeking worthwhile roles to play, and sometimes sooner: at 37, Maggie Gyllenhaal was informed that she was too old to be the love interest for a 55-year-old.
When Meryl Streep turned 40, she was offered three roles as witches. Conscious of how ageism can come into play on both sides of the camera, Streep launched a fund in 2015 to support female screenwriters over the age of 40. Streep has also become one of a slowly increasing number of actresses who have won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in their senior years, picking up her Academy Award in 2011 for The Iron Lady, aged 62. Most recently, Frances McDormand bagged her third Best Actress Oscar in 2020, at the age of 63.
Despite gradual inroads being made, it seems there is still a long way to go. Russell Crowe was lambasted for comments he made in 2014, suggesting actresses should look to play age-appropriate roles. Helen Mirren – who won an Oscar at 61 – has pushed back against such ageism in Hollywood, as one of a growing chorus of voices. A 2021 study showed that there was still a strong tendency to cast younger actresses, and earlier this year, the Executive Director of Age Inclusion in Media said ageism in Hollywood was the worst he had ever seen it.
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Given how prevalent this issue still is, it would likely come as no real surprise to find how long-standing it has been. In a new book by Caroline Young, Crazy Old Ladies: The Story Of Hag Horror, we discover the effect this had upon the movie industry and the role of older actresses in Tinseltown as far back as the 1950s. It demonstrates how we are only acutely conscious of such blatant age discrimination nowadays as there are so many powerful voices now who are able to speak out, without fear of the impact it will have upon their future prospects.
Back in the day, however, when the studios were even more male-dominated than they are now, and actresses were at the mercy of the vagaries of the system, it was so easy to be chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood machine. Due to a stroke of casting genius, which presented Bette Davis and Joan Crawford playing off against each other in classic taut psychological thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, a whole new genre of filmmaking was inadvertently created, giving older actresses an altogether different kind of role to take on.
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The ‘Hag Horror’ of the title has become one of a number of nicknames to describe the type of movie which saw a series of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?-inspired creations and blatant knock-offs or thematic follow-ups, like Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Women who were no longer young enough to play daughters or love interests were now given an outlet to still have gainful employment, by portraying an unfamiliar type of part: that of damaged, obsessive, and very often dangerous harridans.
Crazy Old Ladies takes us on a chronological voyage through this particular type of film, showing how it blossomed when the studios realised that they had a potential moneymaker on their hands, and could make use of the talent which they had so casually cast aside when those actresses had reached a certain age, as the roles had dried up for them. Menopause in women had seemingly given men a pause when it came to giving actresses any gainful employment once they were no longer considered comely and, therefore, bankable.
Young’s book lifts the lid on this chapter of cinema history, exposing how exploitative it was, and revealing how poorly treated some of the talent had been, even in the years before they were so casually kicked to the kerb by the studios. The inspiration appears to have come from the casting of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, which – although not a horror – really set did the tone for the types of female characters which would dominate ‘Hag Horror’, as the eccentricities and grotesqueness combined with a gothic and horror-minded sensibility.
The real horror here, however, comes not from the motion pictures themselves, but the behind-the-scenes stories. In Crazy Old Ladies, Young tells us about the various stars of yesteryear, who had been discarded by the execs, and giving context to the reasons behind them taking up roles in these kinds of features. Young does not hector or use a soapbox to lecture the reader; instead, she chooses to let the plain, bare facts speak for themselves, making the telling all the more impactful and powerful, rather than browbeating you into a particular mindset.
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There is a real, genuine sadness in the telling, with some of the actresses taking up offers based not upon the quality of the material that they were being offered, but out of sheer necessity, such as through having fallen on hard times when opportunities vanished years before. It shows how much of a disposable commodity they were seen as back then, and also how it has continued right up to the present day. In the case of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, this struggle can be seen in the FX docudrama Feud: Bette and Joan, which is on Disney+, and well worth a watch.
Crazy Old Ladies is a deeply affecting and moving read, and seeks not to sensationalise the true story which lies behind this particular genre. It really is an essential read, not purely for cineastes, but for anyone who has an interest in finding out far more about the struggle for women’s equality in one part of what is still a very uneven playing field, as society is still seemingly rather intent upon treating them as second-class citizens in so many ways.
Crazy Old Ladies: The Story Of Hag Horror is out now from BearManor Media.