I am fascinated by Jessica Lange.
Not because of her talent, her recent Oscar, or even because she’s sane enough, in these money-mad times, to say of Demi Moore’s $12 million salary for the upcoming “Strip Tease”: “It’s absurd that this … is paid to any actor.”
Lange awes me for one reason: At 45 and looking it, the lovely star can be seen in two movies wearing almost no makeup - an unprecedented move for an “aging” actress whose appeal is largely based on her beauty.
In “Rob Roy,” Lange wore only foundation because she finds absurd filmdom’s insistence on having even medieval peasant women appear as if they just emerged from full-service salons. In “Losing Isaiah,” she allows herself to look as haggard as any woman threatened with losing her son actually might - which is amazing, considering that her rival for our sympathy is Halle Berry, one of the most radiant humans alive.
She’s doing this in the same Tinseltown in which countless actresses “of a certain age” have the perpetually surprised look caused by too many face lifts; in which certain stars’ bust lines appear magically bigger in each successive film; in which Liz Taylor once posed in Life magazine insisting she was makeup-free - though her thick eyeliner and mascara were clearly visible.
It’s little wonder that Lange has dealt with numerous “Will-you-or-won’t-you?” queries about face lifts - and wondered if male stars her age would ever face them. “Would they actually say to De Niro, ‘Hey, you’re 50. … Have you thought of (plastic surgery)?’
“It’s very insulting to assume that every woman as she ages is going to become so anxious about it.”
Sure it is. Recent articles about Kathleen Turner, 40, and Sally Field, 48, have spent inordinate inches on how their faces and bods are holding up. Pieces about male forty-somethings - even matinee-idol types like Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford - seldom do.
Lately, I’m spending more time studying what strikes people as beautiful and how it’s linked to age. Looking at Lange and a few, brave others, I wonder if we’re on the edge of something radical: a mainstream redefining of beauty; an acceptance that it’s as much about qualities you can acquire - such as character and cachet - as the features you inherit.
Regardless of what the culture deems cool, every aging woman - and what woman isn’t? - must make her own separate peace with the mirror.
My friend Patrice, who’s 45 and looks 10 years younger, swears that peace has more to do with a supple spirit than an unlined face.
“I’ve decided looking good is looking vibrant,” she says. “It’s an inner energy … an attitude.”
Last weekend’s holiday had Patrice musing about how much she used to enjoy having her picture taken with Santa and the Easter Bunny and buying tacky Halloween jewelry - all as gifts for her daughter, Andrea.
Recently, Patrice decided “enough is enough” - until Andrea, 26, informed her, “I miss those things.” Says Patrice: “I realized I still felt like doing all those things. And I thought about how my mother, at age 60, got down on her knees in the back yard of her house and put her hands into just-poured concrete. She was so young, up until she died, because she wasn’t ever afraid to look ridiculous.”
What makes people beautiful, she says, is a confidence that has little to do with taut butts and line-free brows. That helps explain why men, who wrinkle and sag just as women do, often seem more attractive as they age. Men’s confidence is seldom based on looks, which fade more quickly than other appealing qualities.
“Certain women know that being beautiful doesn’t come by looking a certain way, but by being a certain way,” says Patrice. “I look at (actresses) Debbie Allen and her sister, Phylicia Rashad and at (Essence magazine editor) Susan Taylor and (California Rep.) Maxine Waters. You can’t tell how old these women are because their energy doesn’t give you a clue. Sally Field is playing these older parts now, but her energy can’t be quenched.”
“Watching these women,” she said, “makes me feel energized.”
Me, too. As someone who rails against the bad lessons taught by celebrities, I’m thrilled when the famous set worthy examples. I’m grateful to every woman, famous or not, who insists on rising at an age when society would suggest she start slipping “gracefully” away.
“Every once in a while,” Lange recently said, “you catch a glimpse of yourself in a store window and you go, ‘Whose face is that?’ … It’s just a very hard process to watch yourself age.”
It must be even harder to let the rest of us watch, too - in living color, on humongous screens.
Which only makes what we see more beautiful.