Against eternal youth.

Author:Mathewes-Green, Frederica
Position:American movies
 
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I'm a fan of old movies, the black-and-whites from the 1930s and 1940s, in part because of what they reveal about how American culture has changed. The adults in these films carry themselves differently. They don't walk and speak the way we do. It's often hard to figure out how old the characters are supposed to be--as though they were portraying a phase of the human life-cycle that we don't have any more.

Take the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Here Claudette Colbert portrays a young widow who builds a successful business. (Selling pancakes, actually. Well, it's more believable if you see the whole movie.) She's poised and elegant, with the lustrous voice and magnificent cheekbones that made her a star. But how old is she supposed to be? In terms of the story, she can't be much more than thirty, but she moves like a queen. Today even people much older don't have that kind of presence--and Colbert was thirty-one when the movie came out.

How about Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, smoldering away in Red Dust? They projected the kind of sexiness that used to be called "knowing," a quality that suggested experienced confidence. When the film came out Gable was thirty-one and Harlow ten years younger. Or picture the leads of The Philadelphia Story. When it was released in 1940, Katharine Hepburn was thirty-three, Cary Grant thirty-six, and Jimmy Stewart thirty-two. Yet don't they all look more grownup than actors do nowadays?

Characters in these older movies appear to be an age nobody ever gets to be today. This isn't an observation about the actors themselves (who may have behaved in very juvenile ways privately); rather, it is about the way audiences expected grownups to act. A certain manner demonstrated adulthood, and it was different from the manner of children, or even of adolescents such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Today actors preserve an unformed, hesitant, childish quality well into middle age. Compare the poised and debonair Cary Grant with Hugh Grant, who portrayed a boyish, floppy-haired ditherer till he was forty. Compare Bette Davis' strong and smoky voice with Renee Zellweger's nervous twitter. Zellweger is adorable, but she's thirty-five. When will she grow up?

In a review in the Village Voice of the film The Aviator, Michael Atkinson dubbed our current crop of childish male actors "toddler-men." "The conscious contrast between baby-faced, teen-voiced toddler-men movie actors and the golden age's grownups is unavoidable," he wrote. "Though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a thirty-year-old until he's fifty." Nobody has that old-style confident authority any more. We've forgotten how to act like grownups.

Maybe "forgotten" isn't the right word, for the Baby Boomers fought adulthood every step of the way. About the time we should have been taking on grownup responsibilities we made a fetish of resisting the Establishment. We turned blue jeans and t-shirts into the generational uniform. We stopped remembering the names of world political leaders and started remembering the names of movie stars' ex-boyfriends. We stopped...

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