Glenn Close, star of Damages, holds her award for best actress in a drama series at the 2009 Primetime Emmy awards. Photograph: Chris Carlson/AP
Diane Keaton has just published her memoirs, Then Again, reflecting on becoming an adoptive mother at 50 and kissing Jack Nicholson at 57. Keaton is ageing in her own unique way: at 63, her mother had finished raising her four children; Keaton, conversely, is busy driving her teen daughter to 4.45am swimming practices and struggling with a booster seat for her eight-year-old. Following a career resurgence, prompted by those kisses with Nicholson and an Oscar nomination for Something’s Gotta Give, Keaton exemplifies how getting older today entails quite a different set of possibilities than it did a generation ago.
Celebrities such as Keaton, Brigitte Bardot and Nicole Kidman are ageing in the glare of the media spotlight. Academics across the UK are now beginning to analyse these stars and how celebrity culture plays an essential role in shaping our perceptions of age, ageing and growing old.
Film stars such as Helen Mirren and Julianne Moore continue to secure roles way past the age when most Hollywood actresses have disappeared from public view. In fact, Mirren and Moore have achieved more success and become more celebrated as they have got older. Moore has even commented, “Whenever you ask anybody, ‘Would you want to be 20 again?’, invariably they go, ‘No’ … It’s great to be 48.”
Television, meanwhile, is widely acknowledged as a place where ageing stars can flourish. Think, for example, Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer or Glenn Close with her electrifying performance in Damages. As far back as Lucille Ball, performers have been able to elongate their careers by crossing from big screen to small screen. Television has always been kinder to stars past their “Hollywood prime”, particularly women. It is not just that TV allows these ageing stars to prolong their careers; their presence on the small screen, as they continue to expand their talents, has enriched television itself.
And yet, while such sentiments may be more commonplace nowadays, they are but a smokescreen. Our culture remains obsessed with delaying the signs of ageing. Stars are endlessly praised for not letting themselves go, for taking care of their bodies and thwarting the ravages of time – even if it entails a little help from the surgeon’s knife. Female celebrities are having children in their 40s (often through assisted means that are not frequently discussed) and men are becoming fathers when they are even older.
Frequently, the greatest achievement of the maturing star is not the quality of their acting, but their ability to avoid physically decaying before our amazed media eyes. We live in a culture where youth is revered and envied, while ageing remains feared, even repugnant. The same celebrity culture that appears, on the surface at least, to accept older women stars also subjects them to unremitting scrutiny on gossip blogs and cosmetic surgery sites.
Men have traditionally escaped the opprobrium associated with getting older. Stars from Cary Grant to George Clooney actually gained in gravitas as they started to grey. Male stars are often admired (rather than vilified) for “age-inappropriate” antics, and it is not uncommon for them to father children late in life. Think Kevin Costner (55), Michael Douglas (56) or Larry King (67).
Still, anxieties about physical weakness and a decline in male potency are never far away. Just as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon compete over who can do the best impersonation of Sir Michael Caine, the BBC2 comedy The Trip ruminates on ageing and its relationship to masculinity and the male body, fame and questions of success (or lack of).
Endless reports tell us how age is relative, that “60 is the new 40″. With the baby-boom generation heading towards retirement and reluctant to age in the same way as previous generations, there are renewed calls for adjusting our attitudes towards ageing and its representation. “Growing old, and I do mean growing,” writes Keaton, “requires reinvention.”
Yet it remains almost impossible for our culture to speak about ageing without talking exclusively about how we defy the ageing process. It is time to think anew about how we age. In response to her mom saying, “Don’t grow old, Diane,” Keaton writes: “I didn’t like those words then, and I don’t like them now. The exhausting effort to control time by altering the effects of age doesn’t bring happiness.”