This essay was originally published in Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations, edited by Kathleen Woodward (Indiana University Press, 1999).
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It took me donkey’s till I saw the point but saw the point I did, eventually, though not until the other day, when we were watching The Dream again in Notting Hill, that time, couple of batty old tarts with their eyes glued on their own ghosts. Then I understood the things I’d never grasped back in those days, when I was young, before I lived in history. When I was young, I’d wanted to be ephemeral, I’d wanted the moment, to live in the glorious moment, the rush of blood, the applause. Pluck the day, eat the peach. Tomorrow never comes. But, oh yes, tomorrow does come all right, and when it comes it lasts a bloody long time, I can tell you. But if you’ve put your past on celluloid, it keeps. You’ve stored it away, like jam for winter. That kid came up and asked for our autographs. It made our day. I could have wished we’d done more pictures.
– Angela Carter, Wise Children.
In the 1950s and 1960s a new figure began to appear in Hollywood film-the figure of the aging actress undergoing a crisis as she confronts her demise. Produced as the studio system was at its end and the domestic introduction of television was well underway, these films-Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962), All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), and The Killing of Sister George (Robert Aldrich, 1968)-played out the passing of the old Hollywood through the figure of the aging actress.
The central characters in these “aging actress” films were generally played by a major female star, each of whom represented an earlier moment of cinema: Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis in both All About Eve and (with Joan Crawford) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Sister George-made in England and starring Beryl Reid (who had played the role in the earlier stage production)-is the only one of these films which does not incorporate a major star. (1) Both the actresses themselves (Swanson, Davis, Crawford) and the periods of cinema that they narratively (and extra textually) represent function as what, following Walter Benjamin and Louis Aragon, we could call discarded “transitory tyrants.” They are the “outmoded,” “the objects that have begun to be extinct, [like] grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them.” (2) In the aging actress films, transitory tyrants return with a vengeance and refuse to pass away.
Each of these women-Norma Desmond, (Baby) Jane Hudson, Margo Channing, and (Sister) George-are having a breakdown, a breakdown which is not the “result” of her aging but of finding herself occupying the position of cultural refuse. If these women (who aren’t, after all, that old) are staged in the moment of their redundancy, it is their refusal of this position that keeps us enthralled. Despite their pending (or already enacted) demise as public stars or celebrities, these characters all make a heroic attempt at a grand performance either on or off stage. Each makes a desperate move to thwart the attempts to place her on both the cultural trash heap of discarded moments of cinema and television, and the trash heap of discarded women. If these films stage, in different ways, a crisis, it is predominantly one of confronting one’s status as image-and as an image marked by its use-by date. Norma Desmond and Baby Jane seem to burn themselves into the celluloid as a blaze of white, delirious fury in their final moments of occupying a stage and finding an audience. Margo Channing finds a performance space offstage by taking on the bit part of the entertaining, smart-talking wife (but not without getting in a few good offstage performances first). And Sister George, who is subjected to more brutal humiliations than her earlier colleagues, at least gets to hold court during her character’s wake. George refuses the “killing” of her character by simply refusing to lie down and die. She will pretend to be asleep and she will pretend to be drunk, but she will not play dead: she will not be complicit in the killing off of the older woman she plays on television. Of these four women, only George has no audience for her final moment. We last see her on the empty set of the TV show that she has, until recently, starred in. On the dimly lit set, she finds the coffin destined for her character and begins to smash it-and the set-to pieces. As the camera tracks back to a long shot from above, George begins to wail-or rather, she lets out a long, heart-wrenching “moo” (after losing her part as a motorbike-riding country nurse, her only job offer is doing the voice-over for the character of a cow in an animated children’s program).
One of the fascinations of these films is the way that each of their central characters refuses being positioned as the discarded and as a figure of loss. Certainly their refusal of this position generally fails, and given their limited options this is hardly surprising. To refuse their status as discarded “transitory tyrants” they can, like Norma Desmond, attempt to freeze time (and their place in it) by trying to resurrect their status as commodity-fetish, which results in a psychic economy of narcissism. Or they can accept their place in the culture’s gendered discourse of aging, one that will define them as “too late.” In their negotiation of these two options however, we find something else altogether. While each of the characters may fail in terms of the outcome of the narrative, their refusal to be placed on the cultural trash heap (a refusal which is primarily played out through performance) enables the films to stage two (and sometimes more) colliding structurings of time-that of historicism (here in terms of the market and a gendered discourse of aging) and that of a bricolage-style practice of remembrance.
What these characters and their performances offer is a form of crisis in which time is loaded to breaking point-the temporality of the commodity, the temporality of stardom for women, the temporality of woman as image. Both their refusal to leave the stage and the ways that they negotiate their status as image take the form of stretching time, of re-pacing the temporality of spectacle, display, and performance. On the one hand, these women stand as dinosaurs, museum pieces, historical markers, and confront being left in the dead time of the museum. They carry the burden of representing the forgotten: they are marked by and as loss without, it would seem, being able to represent their own experiences of loss. On the other hand (or at the same time), the ways these characters negotiate their position as cultural refuse takes the form of summoning and displaying the discarded. In this respect these women do not only figure as the discarded. They also stand as custodians and collectors of a discarded past of cinema, summoning and performing characters, stars, and scenes from other moments of cinema. (3) Norma does Chaplin and Merman in a private show for her younger (and reluctant) lover Joe (William Holden) (4); George and her girlfriend Childie (Susannah York) do Laurel and Hardy at the local lesbian bar (though they are misrecognised as Abbott and Costello by an upmarket john visiting their prostitute neighbour); and Jane has no problems in mimicking Blanche’s (Joan Crawford) femme-screen-goddess number. Through the summoning of the forgotten into the present, they practice a form of remembering as a means of refusing their status as the discarded. Through this summoning of the forgotten, they charge the dead time in which they find themselves with anticipation: the discarded displays itself, demands attention. In Sunset Boulevard, for example, Norma’s silent-screen melodramatic acting is set against the 1950s cool indifference and restraint of William Holden’s Joe. The pacing of her performance slows down time, making it heady, while in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Jane’s wide-eyed expressions and gestures from pantomime and burlesque drown out everything else in the frame. Through their pacing of performance, these characters stretch the temporal economy of spectacle, charging the image with a kind of rage.
In many ways this group of films plays out the temporal economy of the commodity fetish. These women, and the moments of cinema that they represent, have functioned as commodity fetishes, both narratively and, through the use of stars in these films, extratextually. In the “now” of each film’s diegesis, however, they are the discarded. The ways that these films mobilise star discourses here is, of course, crucial, and one of the fascinations of these films is the relation between the star/actress who has, in some sense, been discarded, and her performance of such a character. (The degree to which Crawford, Swanson, and Davis are playing “themselves” and some of their previous characters is kept in the forefront, particularly through the use of footage from their earlier films. (5)) If we were to read these films through Benjamin’s work, we could say that these women stand at the intersection of the two axes that Susan Buck-Morss locates in Benjamin’s Arcades Project-petrified/transitory nature, and waking/dream. These two axes define four fields of “faces” of the commodity-ruin, fossil, fetish, and wish image. (6) For Benjamin, the commodity can become a ruin when its promise has not been fulfilled, and it has been cast off in favour of another commodity. As fossil, the commodity operates as a trace, a petrified imprint of “living history that can be read from the surfaces of the surviving objects” (Buck-Morss, 56). The commodity, as the new, operates both as fetish (the new as the ever-always-the-same), and as wish image in that it contains a sort of promise and utopian potential (of happiness and fulfilment, for example). In these films, the aging actress is herself the site on which the various “faces” of the commodity are juxtaposed and brought into a tension. We find this most clearly in Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, primarily because of the temporal distance the two films establish between their central characters’ status as fetish and wish image and their status as fossil and ruin, and because of the ways each of the films explicitly draws on and plays with the (supposed) discarded status of their central players. But if the aging actress is the site on which the various faces of the commodity are brought into juxtaposition, she can also, and very importantly, be seen as taking up a particular relation to the commodity-image and the market. (7)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? stages two types of relation to the commodity-image-what we could call a relation of longing and a relation of rage, each of which is based in an experience of proximity to the image. Blanche Hudson (Crawford) is the more familiar figure and cultural stereotype of the female spectator, the woman who is entranced by the image. When we are first introduced to Blanche (the adult Blanche, the Blanche of the now of the film), it is through her gaze at her own image. At her neighbour’s house, a mother and daughter are watching a rerun on television of one of her films (it is, of course, an “old” Crawford film). Seemingly following the gaze of these two women, the camera moves in to the television screen until the whole frame is filled with the image of Blanche/Crawford, a closeup of a closeup of the star. As the camera draws back out, we find ourselves in Blanche’s bedroom, and it is now Blanche who is seen to be captured by the image. Enchanted by what she sees, she smiles with that highly posed wide-eyed gaze we associate with Crawford.
If Blanche represents the familiar figure of the female spectator caught in a relation of enchantment with the image, her image, Jane on the other hand displays herself. The ways in which she does so have crucially to do with charging time-and charging herself into it. Jane certainly operates as an anachronism, a kind of cinema dinosaur, but at the same time that she is a figure arrested in time, she attempts to arrest time, to arrest the present and charge herself into it. Jane spends most of the film largely oblivious to the fact that she is no longer in the limelight and continues to operate as if she were. She seems to emanate her own stage lights, as if in her years as a child star she voraciously soaked up all the gazes upon her, hoarding and adorning herself with them so that now they seem to beam out from within. With the slightest suggestion of an audience, she radiates.
Jane performs a particular kind of intoxication-refusing her status as arrested image she attempts to animate that image. Six years later, in The Killing of Sister George, George will put on a rowdy drunken performance at her “farewell lunch” at the studio, much to her girlfriend’s distaste. “Appearing to be drunk happens to be one of the easier ways of getting through life’s most embarrassing situations,” George tells her. Jane’s attempts to resurrect her childhood act are a similar means of dealing with humiliation and redundancy, though she performs herself as a state of intoxication rather than simply feigning intoxication as George does. While all of these women are good drinkers, they practice forms of intoxication which extend well beyond their states of alcoholic inebriation. George may appear to be drunk at her (character’s) wake to save face, but at other times George, Jane, Norma, and Margo perform a form of intoxication in relation to themselves as image which crosses between a desire to merge with that image (“they just didn’t love you enough,” Jane tells her “Baby Jane” doll) and a desire to blast this image apart and set it in circulation.
This charging of time is produced in a number of ways, and underlies the central tension or contradiction of these films-that between, on the one hand, the characters’ status as arrested image and on the other, the fact that they are the site of all movement and affect in the films. This contradiction can be found, for instance, in the relation between the ways these characters are framed, figured as both arrested and arresting and the refusal of this arrest that result from the various temporalities that infuse and charge the image. Norma (Swanson), for instance, is often imaged as mummified, sitting on her “throne” like a wax figure. These shots, offered up as moments of horror, mark a different monstrosity to that which is defined narratively as monstrous in Sunset Boulevard-the “horror” of mutton dressed up as lamb. If these shots establish the “obscenity” of Norma, this obscenity is less to do with her refusal to perform a socially sanctioned version of the aging woman than with the fact that she is economically-and more importantly here performatively-powerful over Joe, and has no qualms in displaying this. It is shots such as these which are the souvenir “trademarks” of the aging actress films and the promotional stills tend to be shots of the figure of the aging actress figured as both arrested and arresting, as dinosaur and medusa. In the films themselves however, these shots are infused with various temporalities (in particular those that arise from editing, shot duration, and performance) that complicate this figuring. While Norma, Jane, George and Margo may sometimes “forget” that they are seen as dinosaurs, they are well aware of how their very self-production as image carries the threat of freezing them in time. It is here-at the site of this tension-that they play out their struggle and stage their war.
Norma, Jane, George and Margo attempt to (re)animate the image, to unleash that which has congealed in it. Jane stands before the rehearsal mirror in the parlour, decked out in her “Baby Jane” costume and singing “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” Her performance is intoxicating, our gaze framed and held by her image in the mirror. The horrific whiteness of her presence seems to erode the surface of the film and burn into our eyes in the same way that early studio lights were said to burn out the eyes of the actors. But she is, of course, superb. She seems to stretch the temporality of performance and spectacle. (8) In these scenes it is only the return of the gaze which marks her as grotesque-the unwanted “intrusion” of the cut away from Jane to the look of distaste on her accompanist’s face, or when, in her unaccompanied performance of this number, she screams and turns away from her own reflection before “recomposing” herself, slamming down the lid of the piano, and leaving the room with a ballsy swagger. What it is that breaks the spell for her here? Is it her reflection, rendered grotesque by poor lighting? Or the persistent call of Blanche’s buzzer, summoning her back to the banality of her present? Jane, of course, does not need to be performing her “Letter to Daddy” number to distort the temporal logic of spectacle here. She does it just as well in the ways she occupies the frame, the ways she seems to make the shot wait for her, and then make it wait a bit longer.
These characters stage a particular relation to the temporality of the commodity fetish (and to the temporal structuring of experience in modernity as the new-as-the-always-the-same). They summon themselves as an image, as the scene and site of a disappearance and a forgetting. While each could certainly be seen as practicing a form of (narcissistic) spectatorship characterised by an experience of proximity in relation to the image (their own image), here this proximity is summoned by and infused with an explosive tension. Perhaps, in fact, we could see these films as soliciting a similar kind of gaze from the spectator-both now and at the time of their release. Each woman stages a kind of boredom and disinterest with the present in which she finds herself-a present that certainly excludes her. The 1950s pseudo-bohemian young Hollywood writers’ scene in Sunset Boulevard is represented as vacuous. All About Eve heralds a new kind of 1950s star, one embodied in Eve (Anne Baxter) and Eve’s soon-to-be successor Phoebe, but this new kind of star is figured as formulaic and bland. Against this vapidness the tempestuousness, rage, and sheer presence of Margo Channing/Davis can only stand as magnificent. And in those rare scenes in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? when we leave Jane and Blanche’s house, the Californian culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s seems more arrested in an eternal, amnesiac present than do these two women seem caught in a past. While these women may be excluded and discarded from the present, this present is also represented as something that doesn’t offer much worth claiming. In the aging actress films it is, after all, the discarded that is given most value, and it is the off stage performances of the discarded star that claim centre stage.
Refusing to be arrested in and as a discarded past, these women appear, instead, to arrest the present. By summoning, re-ordering, and performing forgotten moments of cinema, the historicism of the films’ presentations of both the history of Hollywood and of (women’s) stardom is simultaneously declared and undermined. By fine-tuning and expanding their “acts” (though these are mostly off stage performances) the arrested and arresting present that they narratively represent (dinosaur and medusa) is complicated by the charging of the present as a site of and for performance. While these women do not, in the end, avoid the trash heap, they nevertheless stage something else-an experience of time and their place in it (as both historical markers and as discarded from the present) which is written through by shock and crisis. Each of these films draws to a close with the aging actress staging (or re-staging) her own disappearance in her very attempt to refuse it and carve or burn her way into the present. As sole witnesses to their own disappearance, they have, it would seem, only one option-to reproduce and direct that disappearance, now with an audience, through performing an excessive visibility. In the final scenes of Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Norma and Jane are both swallowed in whiteness, as if disappearing into and becoming one with the light of the projector. In All About Eve Margo avoids her disappearance by quietly leaving the public eye, but in her place we witness another disappearance. In the final shot, Eve’s young fan Phoebe performs the disappearance that has already been marked as her future. Standing before a set of mirrors in Eve’s apartment, her image is fractured across a million reflections, lost, once again, in a blaze of light. It is only George who is swamped in darkness.
While the aging actress films were at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, their central premise can be found across a number of more recent films, including Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) and Michael Hoffman’s Soapdish (1991), along with John Waters’ glorious rewriting of the cycle in his recent film Cecil B. DeMented (2000). But the film that I am particularly interested in here, however, is John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1978), whose central character offers an interesting reply to those in the films of the 1950s and 1960s. In the earlier films the characters try to maintain or resurrect their status as image by creating a stage and an audience for their “acts” (and their acts are always intoxicating)-they attempt to animate their own (arrested) image. In Opening Night on the other hand, Myrtle (Gena Rowlands)-the film’s aging actress-mobilizes crisis as a means of rupturing both the dead time in which she finds herself immersed and the discourses of women’s aging and depression in which she is implicated.
Myrtle is a 40ish actress who is to play a role that, she fears, will define her as “too late.” The crisis which she undergoes results from her attempts to find a place for her character and for herself as aging women, and to articulate loss (and to articulate what this loss is) while not being defined by or as it. Myrtle is unable to communicate her experiences (she can hardly recognise them as her own), and she is constantly brought face to face with representations of herself which she doesn’t understand. Her dilemma, then, is to find a way of producing an image of women and aging in which she can locate herself, and which doesn’t send the middle-aged woman to the wings. She is, in short, in an impossible place. On the one hand, she is being incorporated into a narrative of women’s aging in which she is marked as fading. On the other hand, she is experiencing her life as a collection of random, fragmentary, shock-like events. Both experiences of time threaten to annihilate her.
Myrtle is constantly trying to bring forth an image through which she can locate herself and make sense of the character she is to perform, a character that she says she feels nothing about, a character without hope. To do this she puts the very parameters of herself at risk-through intoxication, physical trauma, possession, and exorcism. What is ultimately produced is a rewriting of the dominant discourses of women’s aging, a rewriting that is enabled both by the film’s relation to earlier “aging actress” films (in particular, as I will go on to discuss, All About Eve), and through the gestural practice and performance style that Myrtle/Rowlands produces, for her character, as the film unfolds.
Myrtle summons states of shock and crisis as a means of rupturing both the present in which she finds herself and the image of her future with which she is confronted-a future marked by loss, regrets, and fading. The premise of the film is particularly apt: her task is to perform a character in a play, a character that she struggles against, a woman who is “past her prime,” a woman for whom it is “too late for love” and who is coming into acceptance of this. “She’d like to fall in love but it’s too late,” Myrtle is told by the play’s author, Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell), when she withdraws from the character, once again interrupting a rehearsal. In Myrtle’s battle with her role, two figures emerge, both of which she has an ambivalent relation to: Virginia, the character she is to perform in the play entitled The Second Woman, and Nancy, a young woman who stands for her own youth, for what Myrtle thinks is being killed off, and in relation to which she does not know whether she should be grieving or whether in fact this loss has even taken place.
“Virginia” regrets the choices she has made in her life. She revisits ex-husbands in an attempt to locate exactly what it is that has been lost and confronts her aging as the realization of lost opportunities. Nancy, a fan of Myrtle, becomes what we could call a casualty of the theatre (early in the film she is knocked down by a passing car outside the theatre as Myrtle and her colleagues are leaving). If this young woman’s death is hardly noticed by those who witness it (Myrtle’s cast and crew), her death crucially represents for Myrtle those things which she suspects are being killed of in herself and defined as losses for the character she is to perform. Myrtle “takes in” this young woman in the sense that she is possessed by her. If Myrtle feels, uncannily, that in the role of Virginia she is undertaking her own embalming (and participating in the laying out of the body of her character), Nancy at first seems to offer her a way of both giving form to this loss and disavowing it. From this point on, Nancy appears as a presence, a ghost, who increasingly threatens to consume Myrtle-and whom eventually Myrtle kills.
Thus both Virginia and Nancy threaten to define Myrtle as loss. Virginia threatens to define her both personally and professionally as outside desire, and, in relation to Nancy, Myrtle is an older woman, “afraid” and a “coward.” Both these women (we could see them as the “first” and “second” woman, leaving Myrtle in the nowhere zone in between) have to be brought forth by Myrtle herself. Virginia exists on the page and in performance. Nancy exists as a ghost. Myrtle tries to recognize herself in these figures and these figures in herself, but to do so she must both take them in and keep them at a distance. (9)
Myrtle is thrown forwards and backwards throughout the film. The shocks she undergoes are the recognition of her own allocated disappearance, of her own no place, of her loss of identity. It is the possibility of recognizing these experiences as her own that has her coming off the wall (and Myrtle spends much of the film up against walls-clambering them when she is too drunk to walk, throwing herself against them each time she exits the traumatic space of the stage). We could say that what she suspects is letting her down is performance itself, and Myrtle is before all else a performer. The structuring of the film-the lines and relationships that cross from onstage to offstage (Myrtle’s ex-lovers are her co-workers, playing her character’s lovers and ex-lovers), the virtual impossibility of ever distinguishing between what is part of the play, what is improvisation, and what is taking place outside the play-means that performance occupies all of its parameters. It is not that the part she is to perform throws her forwards and backwards (we see early on in the film that the part she is to play, the way it “reads” her life, simply throws her into depression). It is the image of herself as loss and her inability to locate herself in relation to this figure of the aging woman that seem to pull the ground out from beneath her. “Does she win or does she lose?” is the question she asks about her character. What sets her spinning is the performance that she is trying to produce-a way of articulating women’s experiences of aging which is not defined by the idea of being too late, or of being caught frozen in an image of narcissistic youth.
It is not that Myrtle finds a way of representing women’s experiences of aging (what, after all, would such a representation be?), but that she finds a way of interrupting the narrative of women’s aging that she is confronted with. Of course, she interrupts the narrative of The Second Woman repeatedly during the film-each time she leaves a rehearsal, and when she rewrites the part she is to perform. But these interruptions early on in Opening Night are read within the same narrative: Myrtle is having a breakdown, Myrtle refuses to recognize the reality of her aging, Myrtle is being a drama queen. To all this Myrtle can only respond “I’m in trouble-I’m not acting.” If in the end she finds a way of playing the part on opening night, it is because she has found a way of interrupting this narrative by embracing rather than refusing the stage. Barely arriving for the opening night performance, she eventually turns up so drunk that she passes through the first two acts in a haze. Propped up on and off stage, she collapses in shock with each exit. But by the final scene Myrtle has come into her own. We see her in a performance style unseen until now. In a mix of slapstick and 1930s vamp, she finds a way of both bracketing and embracing the part she is to perform. If in the final performance (it is, of course, opening night), she has found a way of performing the part, it is not by producing a unified character, subject, or body for Virginia. Rather it is through further fragmenting the image of the woman for whom it is “too late.”
By the final performance another female character has taken on increasing visibility. For most of the film, Dorothy (Zohra Lambert), the wife of the play’s director, has a barely articulated role in relation to Myrtle and her character Virginia (Myrtle rarely even addresses Dorothy throughout most of the film). Nonetheless, Dorothy’s importance in the constellation of female characters whose gestures make up Myrtle’s final performance is established relatively early in the film. In a remarkable scene, Dorothy and her husband Manny (Ben Gazarra), alone in their hotel room late at night, attempt to articulate their different experiences of time and loss (and their relationship), but their words circle around each other without ever meeting. Manny asks Dorothy “what it’s like to be alone as a woman”: he needs to know for the play, he wants Dorothy to “fill Myrtle in” on herself. Manny complains about the rehearsals, saying that he is getting bored with things, with himself. Dorothy replies, “Manny, I’m dying. I know I’m dying because I’m getting tired. It’s always the same-you talk, I sleep.” But it is Dorothy’s mute response to Manny’s tedious litany that is taken up in Myrtle’s final performance. Later in this scene between Dorothy and Manny, Myrtle rings Manny to discuss a scene in the play where she is to be slapped by a lover. As Manny tries to reassure Myrtle about the slapping scene (“it’s a tradition-actresses get slapped,” he tells her), Dorothy fools around in the room, shadow boxing, playing at punching herself in the head, and collapsing on the bed. In the opening night performance it is these gestures that Myrtle will perform: Myrtle has managed to rewrite the play to the point where the “slapping episode” has disappeared, replacing it with a form of shadow boxing where she hits towards the character who was to hit her. In the end, Dorothy is shown in the audience as Myrtle’s true audience. The film’s closing image is of these two women in an embrace. Myrtle’s opening night performance is, in the end, written through by a number of female characters (Nancy, Virginia, Dorothy, and “Myrtle” herself), their gestures and desires. The generating and production of this performance entails a practice of remembering that re-collects and interrupts fragments, using them as the basis for a gestural practice and a form of narrativity.
If Myrtle’s opening night performance is inflected by the gestures and desires of a number of female characters, there is another figure that haunts this film-Margo Channing from All About Eve, perhaps the quintessential Hollywood film about women, performance, aging, and crisis. Unlike Nancy and Virginia, this figure doesn’t have to be summoned, but rather seems to sit in the wings of Opening Night (and certainly haunts the film for the viewer). Opening Night is by no means simply a remake of All About Eve, although it does restage the earlier film, taking its central characters and its discourse of aging, femininity, and performance and rewriting them. What is brought into visibility in Opening Night is what was relegated to the “footnotes” in All About Eve-the breakdown of Margo Channing (Davis).
Opening Night does the work of remembering for All About Eve. It unfolds All About Eve and interrupts it. Myrtle, like Margo Channing, is a successful actress. Like Margo, she is struggling against a gendered discourse of aging which threatens to make her disappear and in which she can no longer place herself. She is constantly being defined by roles of “a young girl, around twenty.” But Margo at this point is forty years old. Standing, drunk, in her kitchen during a party, she spells it out to her producer and to us. “I’m forty,” she says in a classic Davis drawl, “4-0.” There are three choices available to Margo Channing in All About Eve. To continue to work, she can perform the role of a young woman, a role she no longer seems that interested in. She can take up the position of the angry bitch, the drama queen who holds court (the intentional or deliberate camp that Sontag finds in this film). Or she can accept her culture’s (and her profession’s) gendered discourse of aging which figures her as in her moment of fading. Margo ultimately chooses the latter option, accepting her position as one of loss. She decides to leave the stage, to marry her younger lover and colleague, and to hand her next role over to Eve (who has in fact already moved into it, with the complicity of Margo’s friends and lover). She decides to leave one profession and to learn the “profession” that, as she says, “all women have in common, being a woman.”
This resolution (if it can be called that) is only possible because we do not see Margo on the stage (except once from the wings via Eve’s point of view as Margo is taking her bow at the end of a performance). If we know Margo as a performer and as someone who takes pleasure in performing, it is less in terms of her work and more in terms of her histrionic performances offstage, for which she is both loved and punished. And while it is these offstage performances that define her as a “true star” in the film, Margo is reminded that “what is attractive onstage is not necessarily attractive offstage.” The resolution the film offers is both precarious and acceptable precisely because it is this histrionic form of performance, though muted, that we assume she will continue to produce, even if she leaves the stage. After the lengthy flashback that makes up the bulk of the film, we return to the scene of its opening sequence-the crowning of Eve as Margo’s unworthy heir. We find Margo and her lover announcing their impending marriage to their “dearest and closest” friends in a double date at the “Cub Room.” As she meets the toast of the film’s male villain (Addison de Witt) with the raising and munching of a celery stick, it is clear that Margo has not in fact relinquished performing, but rather her profession.
If Margo produces a smaller stage for herself within the decorum of marriage, for Myrtle the distinction between onstage and offstage is less than certain. Her image and her gestures have become abstracted from her both on and off the stage. What has been lost-almost without her having noticed-is her ability to occupy her body. It is as if it has been erased by a narrative which is now rewriting it. Against this she embarks on a process of remembering, and without the ideal circumstances in which Proust, for example, undertook his project (his cork-lined room, and his cast and crew of supporting staff working offstage to produce and maintain the necessary environment). Worse, she has a deadline. She is not struggling so much against the temporality of aging as against a deadline she can neither avoid not postpone-opening night.
Central to both All About Eve and Opening Night are a number of groupings of female characters-intergenerational “sets” of three. In All About Eve there are two such sets of characters, one of which could be seen as representing an axis of women’s aging in terms of femininity and hetero-desirability, the other an axis of women’s aging in terms of performance, the stage, and stardom. On the first axis, Eve is on the left, Margo is in the middle (the Margo before her crisis), and on the right is an open position, which is where Margo would be located if she were simply to remain on the stage, being “not a woman.” This axis is demonstrated to be cyclical by the film’s ending: Eve moves into the middle position, Margo avoids the last (but the film leaves it open as a sort of threat), and Eve’s original position is occupied by the new younger female actress and fan, Phoebe, seen in the closing shot of the film caught in a mirror maze of her own reflection. On the axis of women and the theatre, Eve is on the left (entering the space of spectacle), Margo is (precariously) in the middle, and Margo’s assistant Birdie-the ex-vaudeville star-is on the right (and allocated to backstage). Both of these axes are marked by a movement towards disappearance.
In Opening Night these axes are both restaged and interrupted: on the axis of women and the theatre, Nancy is on the left, Myrtle in the middle, and on the right, is the play’s author, Sarah Goode, played, of course, by ex-star and Busby Berkeley girl, Joan Blondell. On the axis of women’s aging in terms of femininity, Nancy is on the left (in the position of Eve), Myrtle in the middle, and Virginia, the character Myrtle is to perform, is one the right-the space left ominously empty in All About Eve. In Opening Night’s restaging of All About Eve these axes no longer stand for a movement towards disappearance. It is not that Myrtle kills off the young woman and refuses the role of Virginia (the position on the right) so that she can retain her position in the middle. This position too is ruptured. Rather, in Opening Night these networks of characters are interwoven in such a way that the middle-aged woman is not confronting her disappearance from the present, but rather struggling for her appearance in it.
“Seek to enlist time on your side in all things.” (10)
In a photograph of Bette Davis taken in 1982, Davis is pictured sitting in what is presumably her lounge room holding a cushion on which is embroidered “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” None of the central characters in these films could be seen as “sissies.” Each is involved in a battle to articulate her experiences of time. Each stages the temporal structuring of experience in the age of the commodity-fetish-the relation between woman-as-image (star) and the commodity as the new-as-the-always-the-same (and the soon to be discarded). In the aging actress films of the 1950s and 1960s, the discarded female star attempts to refuse her status as the discarded by arresting time. These women are reluctant witnesses to their own disappearances. “To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event,” writes Cathy Caruth (4-5), and in many ways Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? could be seen as staging the temporality of trauma, the repetition and belated experience of disappearance, the incomprehensibility of survival. Rather than producing the aging actress as arrested in a state of shock or crisis as she negotiates her demise, in Opening Night crisis-indeed performing crisis-is precisely what enables Myrtle to articulate (and complicate) her position in a gendered discourse of aging. Myrtle attempts to both wrest herself from a narrative which she fears will mark her as loss, and also to find a way both of making crisis communicable and coming through it. It is only by bringing the force of shock, or a rupturing instant, against the narrative of women’s aging, that she can both rupture and produce an image of gendered experiences of aging.
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With thanks to Viki Dun, Lesley Stern, and Kathleen Woodward for their comments on this paper.
All About Eve. Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. 1950.
All About My Mother. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. 1999.
Banner, Lois W. In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Benjamin, Walter. “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. Suffolk: Fontana, 1973. 111-40.
__________ “Letter to Adorno.” 31st May 1935. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin: 1910-1940. Ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1994. 488-91.
__________ “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia.” Reflections. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken, 1986. 177-92.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: MIT P, 1989.
Carter, Angela. Wise Children. London: Vintage, 1991.
Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience: An Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 3-12.
Cecil B. DeMented. Dir. John Waters. 2000.
The Killing of Sister George. Dir. Robert Aldrich. 1968.
Opening Night. Dir. John Cassavetes. 1978.
“Rebirth of a Star.” New York Times 23 Apr. 1950, sec. 4: 26-27.
Ross, Andrew. “Uses of Camp.” No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1989. 135-70.
Soapdish. Dir. Michael Hoffman. 1991.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.'” Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, 1966. 275-92.
Sunset Boulevard. Dir. Billy Wilder. 1950.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Dir. Robert Aldrich. 1968.
- While The Killing of Sister George differs from the other films in a number of respects, I have included it here for specific reasons. Sister George doesn’t draw on Hollywood star discourses in the same ways that the earlier films do; the film is set in England rather than in Hollywood, and Beryl Reid, who plays George, is not a star of the order of Davis Crawford and Swanson (and hence there is not the same kind of play with a correlation or discrepancy between actor and role, except of course-in the publicity around the film-in terms of Reid’s sexuality). Nevertheless Sister George revolves around the figure of an aging actress who is being dismissed from the visual sphere and the market, and therefore shares much with the earlier films as well as standing as an interesting comparison to Aldrich’s earlier film about aging actresses, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As with all of these films (with the exception of Sunset Boulevard), Sister George focuses on a relationship between two women. As with All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? it involves (though more explicity) a butch-femme dynamic.
- Benjamin’s term “transitory tyrants” is taken from Aragon’s Paris Peasant and refers to the endlessly usurped gods of modern existence. See Benjamin’s essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia.”
- For a discussion of the ways in which Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? can be seen as playing out a relation to Hollywood as lost object, see “Uses of Camp” by Andrew Ross.
- In a promotion-review article in The New York Times titled “Rebirth of a Star,” stills from Sunset Boulevard are set against portrait-style stills from some of Swanson’s earlier films. What is most striking about this spread is how many of the characters Swanson had played are quoted in Sunset Boulevard: her Mack Sennett period (which Desmond performs for Joe); her “Sadie Thompson” character (which she often slips into); and a still from Stage Struck, where Swanson had parodied Chaplin (as she does for an unappreciative Joe in Sunset Boulevard).
- Sunset Boulevard is particularly noteworthy in this regard. The film is, in fact, populated by a number of discarded stars. Buster Keaton is in Norma Desmond’s bridge group, which is referred to by Joe/William Holden as “the wax works,” and Hedda Hopper appears in the final scene of the film as herself in her later life role as a gossip columnist. Interestingly, Swanson was to play out her “fading star” character in a different way in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, where, playing “herself,” she is selling her house for charity. Granny hears of this, and thinking that Swanson is in desperate need of money, produces a film starring Swanson (with the rest of the family as the supporting cast) to save her from financial destitution. (Granny is also motivated by the fact that she believes that she and Swanson are twin sisters. The two women are, she claims, the spitting image of each other.) Granny “returns” Swanson to the silent screen, producing a silent melodrama that has its opening night in a barn in the family’s hometown. It is worth adding that at the time of Sunset Boulevard’s release, Swanson had not exactly left the public eye: the year before she had started her own television program. For a discussion of Sunset Boulevard and its use of stars, see Lois Banner’s In Full Flower.
- “Each field of the coordinates,” Buck-Morss writes, “can then be said to describe one aspect of the physiognomic appearance of the commodity, showing its contradictory ‘faces’: fetish and fossil; wish image and ruin” (211).
- We can position the figure of the aging actress in this group of films alongside the social types that Benjamin discusses. The ragpicker, the collector, the flaneur, and the whore can each be seen as staging particular relations to the temporality of the commodity, and as embodying particular aspects of the commodity. While the ragpicker and the collector are more concerned with the discarded commodity in its status as discarded, the whore and the flaneur are aligned with the commodity as fetish and wish image. The ragpicker not only collects a culture’s trash but is also allocated to the position of cultural trash; the collector is part of the collection; the flaneur, like the commodity, is intoxicated by the crowd; and the whore is both commodity and seller in one. Like the collector, the central characters in these films both gather what has been discarded and have become part of their collections (they collect moments of cinema and re-order them, placing themselves in the collection as prize possession). Like the flaneur, they practice a form of intoxication in relation to the commodity-image, and like Benjamin’s whore, these women (or their youth as stars) are both commodity and seller in one.
- As Jane does a slow spin, her dress swirls up and we see the considerably younger dancer’s legs of Davis: thus, this body itself refuses classification. Discarded wish images return en masse-the performance style, the postures of her body, the stage lights around the mirror-and in doing so seem to take on a life of their own, returning like the uncanny.
- Myrtle will go to great lengths to grasp that image in which both the character she is to perform and her own experiences of aging will make sense. She tries the dissolution-of-self-through-intoxication approach, drinking her way through much of the film. She tries to locate herself by revisiting a history of affairs and relationships (as her character does as well), but most dramatically, she will summon the figure of Nancy. Nancy is a way of giving form to and simultaneously disavowing the experiences of loss Myrtle is undergoing. Ultimately, however, the erotic charge between these two women that we find in the first part of the film is infused with terror, and Myrtle has to kill off Nancy because Nancy locates her in a dead-end narrative of women’s aging (“you’re an older woman, you’re scared, and you’re a coward”) and because her affect-driven presence is tyrannical.
- Walter Benjamin, “Letter to Adorno,” 31st May 1935. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, p.488.