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Monday, June 18, 2007

Older…older…no longer so old…

Sunset over Gaucin, Andalucia, Spain
Posts about aging, conscious aging, gracious aging, happy aging have sprinkled this blog, and today I am reminded once again of Jane Fonda, an icon to me as I was growing up, because she proved – in an era when a 35-year-old woman was considered (and often looked like) a matron - that forty is beautiful! From the vantage point of my teenage years, I remember a certain amount of relief when I saw her saying that, recognizing that she was offering up some kind of freedom for the rest of us. And of course after raising that cry to the heavens, along with the idea that women could also have toned and muscular bodies (yes, girls, that didn’t really exist in the pre-Jane era), we soon saw that 50 could also be beautiful. And we are edging up to 60, with wonderful – natural – role models such as Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Julie Christie. And of course Jane Fonda herself, whom I saw recently in an advertisement in a glossy magazine, now 69, as per the ad, and looking wonderful!

At first it began very slowly, and very gently. In the late 90´s and at the turn of the millennium, a few ads could be seen in some world-class magazines, of women who were no longer in the first blush of youth. Sexy women, but women who had some wrinkles (hey…it happens...men get them too, and we don't tend to think of them as being over the hill). (See also my radio program: Men are Sexy at 70, Why not Women? in the “Aging Section”). Then it gained some momentum. And now we have women “of a certain age” as this article from the NY Times that I include below, puts it, showing up more and more regularly on prime time TV.

It’s about time. And much more is coming. Read my lips. This is only the beginning!

June 17, 2007

In the Prime of Their Time

BOTOX and plastic surgery allow actresses to look younger. Television is permitting them to act their age.

Older stars who once had to resign themselves to playing frustrated spinsters or docile moms are suddenly flaunting their ripened sex appeal on television. Its not “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” anymore. This season marks the summer of hot cougar love.

Kyra Sedgwick returns this week for her third season as Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson, the sexy and single-minded detective on “The Closer.” At the moment Brenda is dating someone close to her own age. But the success of that TNT series has emboldened other networks to showcase 40-plus female protagonists who like to date young.

The older woman-younger man dynamic, which once seemed so bizarre and pathetic that Tennessee Williams built whole tragedies around it, has a new sparkle.

On “Saving Grace,” a TNT series that begins next month, Holly Hunter (“Broadcast News,” “The Piano”) plays an Oklahoma sheriff with a ravenous appetite for cigarettes, booze and sex with younger men. Lili Taylor (“Mystic Pizza,” “Six Feet Under”) plays a successful therapist with family troubles of her own on “State of Mind,” a Lifetime series that begins in July. She catches her husband, also a psychiatrist, in flagrante with their marriage counselor, then quickly finds a much younger lawyer to take over her husband’s office, and perhaps his place in bed.
Starting in July, Glenn Close will star in “Damages” on FX, playing a rapacious top litigator who terrifies her opponents and her subordinates (the devil sues Prada). Ms. Close could turn out to be the exception to the rule, because at least in the beginning her character is married to an age-appropriate businessman. But he does go out of town on trips. All of these series permit actresses with narrowing options in Hollywood to broaden their range on the small screen by tapping into baby boomers’ reluctance to sit back and let a younger generation take over the dance floor. Youth seeks out youth on reality shows and on MTV and VHI, cable networks that serve the YouTube generation. Older viewers, particularly women over 30, gravitate to the kind of dramas and conventional sitcoms found on TNT and Lifetime.

This isn’t entirely new of course. Television has always offered fading movie actresses a second chance, from Lucille Ball, Ann Sothern and Doris Day to Candice Bergen in the days of “Murphy Brown.” More recently Mary-Louise Parker landed in Showtime’s “Weeds,” as a pot-dealing suburban mom; Minnie Driver moved from “Will & Grace” to “The Riches.”

But comedy has long been more hospitable to older women than drama, if only because it more easily allows a transition from romantic heroine to character actor.

Aging has worked better as a laughing matter. Cybill Shepherd and Christine Baranski hammed it up as an over-the-hill actress and her martini-swilling best friend on the sitcom “Cybill,” a watered-down version of the British hit “Absolutely Fabulous.” Wendie Malick played a promiscuous former model on “Just Shoot Me.” And of course Kim Cattrall was a polymorphously perverse cougar on “Sex and the City.”

That HBO hit stirred an appetite for series about women’s sex lives that hasn’t yet been quenched. ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” which tried to follow in the footsteps of “Sex and the City,” was hailed because it dared to cast actresses in their 40s as sex symbols, but that was always part of the joke. (“Grey’s Anatomy” tried to fill the “Sex and the City” gap by mixing a playful approach to sex with a swoony look at love, and ended up taking adult romance so seriously that it veered into ludicrous melodrama.)

Until recently most crime shows and hospital dramas wedged older female characters into broader ensembles, reserving romantic subplots and sex scenes for younger players. On “Boston Legal” Ms. Bergen’s character has had a few farcical stabs at a love life, but it’s the young lawyers in the firm — and the bimbo clients — who have the steamy moments.

That is beginning to change. Calista Flockhart, the romantic heroine of “Brothers & Sisters” on ABC, is not in her first blush of youth. Even Sally Field, who plays her mother, a widowed matriarch and grandmother several times over, has romantic interludes.

Female viewers like sex, but they really love “Law & Order.” One reason “The Closer” has resonated so well with female audiences is that it’s a classic “Law & Order”-style procedural, only centered on a female detective who is single, not so young and still desirable: a boss who is also a babe, whose jagged love life is as much part of the story as her interviewing technique.
Inspired by Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison, the middle-aged heroine of the acclaimed British series “Prime Suspect” played by Helen Mirren, Ms. Sedgwick’s character is not a cougar per se, but she is certainly no ingénue. She had an affair with her married boss, and this season is still sleeping with an F.B.I. agent whom she loves but doesn’t really have time for.

And newer copycat series like “Saving Grace” and “State of Mind” take their heroines’ dating options a little further, sometimes to the cradle. That’s a license that echoes real life, at least in show business, where celebrities like Demi Moore and Katie Couric consort with younger men without much censure or ridicule.

Nothing is a trend, of course, until there is a reality show about it.

On Monday NBC begins “Age of Love,” a dating competition like “The Bachelor” that divides the women into two teams: the Cougars, whose ages range from 39 to 48, and the Kittens, all in their 20s. The older women compete with the younger ones for the affections of a 30-year-old Australian tennis player, Mark Philippoussis. “He’s my son’s age,” Jennifer, 48, purrs on camera. “But I could definitely see myself falling for him.”

Mr. Philippoussis, who was not warned ahead of time that half his bachelorettes were old enough to remember typewriters, looks stunned but not horrified. The women all have impressively taut faces and figures; only their deeper, more commanding voices give their ages away. (The next big thing in cosmetic surgery: the larynx-lift.)

Movies have not ignored the phenomenon. When Rene Russo got a second wind as a thinking man’s sex symbol in the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” it seemed like a fluke. Then Diane Keaton, sixtyish, made a comeback with AARP romantic comedies, from “Something’s Got to Give” to “Because I Said So.” Meg Ryan had a Mrs. Robinson moment with Adam Brody in “In the Land of Women.” And in this summer’s hit movie “Ocean’s 13” Ellen Barkin is wooed, albeit unscrupulously, by Matt Damon, who is young enough to be Ms. Barkin’s nephew.

But Hollywood still tends to box its female leads, whatever their age, into secondary roles as the hero’s girlfriend, or in some cases the girlfriend’s mother. Television has more leeway to let female characters lead — as detectives, surgeons or psychiatrists who have boyfriends, and sometimes boy toys, on the side.

The strangest thing about this trend in women’s programming is that Oxygen, the cable channel that Geraldine Laybourne helped found in 2000 as a high-minded alternative to Lifetime, isn’t part of it. It instead seems hellbent on becoming the channel of choice for Paris Hilton. Having struck out in its pursuit of the high road, Oxygen is competing for the lowest common denominator.

Last Tuesday Oxygen began “Bad Girls Road Trip,” a reality show that stars foulmouthed young women who roam the country, get drunk, party and fight. “Fight Girls,” which also began last week, is not much different, except that the women are taught Thai boxing.

Compared with Oxygen, TNT and Lifetime seem quite dignified and at the cutting edge of feminism’s third wave. But they too have a built-in fear of straying too far from convention. All these new series fall far short of “Prime Suspect,” a drama that not only was ahead of its time but still stands out. Ms. Mirren’s lonely, workaholic, alcoholic heroine was far more prickly and flawed than any American equivalent — and far more compelling than any of her successors.

Ms. Sedgwick’s Brenda can be abrasive and socially gauche, but she is also pretty, feminine and endearing, more Chris Evert than Billie Jean King. American producers and writers seem unable or unwilling to push a female character to the personality extremes allowed their male counterparts, be it Sgt. Andy Sipowicz of “NYPD Blue” or the lovably unlovable grouch Dr. Gregory House.

In the season premiere of “The Closer,” Brenda is under pressure to enforce budget cuts and lose one detective from her squad, and adamantly refuses. When told that the lab work she ordered has been delayed to avoid overtime, she turns confrontational. “Look, I’ll pay for the expedited blood work myself,” she hisses at her boss and former lover. “But my team stays put.”

Nobody gets fired of course, and Brenda manages to solve the murder and keep her team intact. When her boyfriend, who recently moved into her too-small apartment, insists they house-hunt for a bigger place, Brenda balks at first, but finally gives in.

Unlike Tennison, Brenda balances, however teeteringly, the demands of her career and love life; she doesn’t drink vodka to ease the pressure either. Her worst vice is candy.

Holly Hunter, on the other hand, is not the least bit ladylike on “Saving Grace.” The premiere episode opens with Grace, naked, having vigorous sex with her married partner, a strapping young buck who seems far more missish than she about their sexcapades. “I can’t do this anymore,” he says. “Its over, it’s the last time, I mean it.” No does not mean no to Grace. “If it’s the last time,” she replies, out of breath, “can’t we at least finish?”

She dates younger men, smokes, drinks heavily and slugs mashers who hit on her too aggressively. But unlike the real-life bad girls who are prodded by MTV and Oxygen reality shows to behave as badly as possible, Grace is held accountable by TNT for her excesses. As the title portends, “Saving Grace” involves spiritual rescue. An angel, in the form of a redneck named Earl, is sent to set Grace straight and give her one last chance at redemption: “The Closer” meets “Touched by an Angel.”

Cougars are wild, but eventually even they have to be tamed for television.

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