The starlet’s dilemma
Over the past week or so, while spending a lot of quality time with our newborn on the living room couch, my wife has burned through the entire first season of Revenge on Netflix. It’s a great, trashy show that moves swiftly and doles out surprises at a satisfying rate, and it benefits enormously from the presence of Madeleine Stowe. Stowe, as those of us old enough to remember can attest, is talented, charismatic, and still a knockout, and although she was never quite a major star, she was notable enough to be granted an entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. Then, for close to a decade, she disappeared. And as tempting as it is to wonder where she’s been all this time, her long absence isn’t hard to figure out: it’s simply one of countless illustrations of the fact that an attractive woman’s options for starring roles in Hollywood dry up sometime before she turns forty. Stowe is currently lucky enough to be anchoring a hit series, but she’s a notable exception. As a glance at her fellow cast members in Bad Girls is enough to confirm, it’s far more common for promising young actresses to simply disappear, unless they’re smart or fortunate enough to make good, hard career choices at a time when they’re most vulnerable to being thrown away.
This, in a word, is the starlet’s dilemma—the complicated series of obstacles that an actress needs to navigate if she wants to have a career past her early thirties. And although it may not seem to hold many lessons for the rest of us, it fascinates me largely because it’s only the most visible example of a predicament that every artist faces sooner or later. Even the most successful and prolific career in the arts boils down to a finite number of choices: you can’t take more than one starring part or write more than one novel at a time. We make these decisions using all the information available to us at the moment, but it’s often not until after years have passed and we look back at our body of work that we start to see what the real shape of our lives has been. Throughout it all, we’re haunted by the fact that our work may cease to be marketable overnight, and that there are plenty of bright young things eager to take our place. Making the kinds of choices that result in a sustainable career requires a maturity and tactical intelligence that few of us have at twenty, thirty, or even forty. And as Stephen Rodrick’s wonderful New York Times piece on Lindsay Lohan and Paul Schrader reminds us, even beauty, talent, and early luck can’t prevent a promising career from being derailed beyond hope of return.
Which brings us to Jennifer Lawrence. At first glance, Lawrence is in an enviable position: she occupies the center of one enormous franchise, serves a valued supporting player in another, and has the talent to take on a wide range of projects. At twenty-two, she’s made all the right choices. Yet her career over the next ten years is likely to resemble a sort of Hunger Games in itself, as she accepts or turns down roles while fending off the incursions of the next wave of talented newcomers. Personally, I can’t help but wonder how she felt watching Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes on Sunday, shortly after claiming an award of her own. Foster’s speech—the most riveting I’ve ever seen at an awards ceremony—stands as a reminder of the tremendous odds against any actress, Lawrence included, having the chance to occupy such a podium under similar circumstances. A few have carped at the fact that Foster, at fifty, seems too young to be receiving a lifetime achievement award, which ignores the fact that any actress who is still bankable at such an age deserves a prize. Actresses face the same pressures that all creative professionals do, except at a drastically accelerated rate, and in public, and the fact that so few make it this far only underlines the impossibility of the task. And even for someone as talented as Lawrence, the clock is already ticking.
Faced with this situation, young actresses have three possible options. They can trust in their talent and continue to seek out challenging lead and supporting parts, potentially in smaller movies or television; they can move into producing or directing; or they can extend their viability for a few years by engaging in various forms of cosmetic enhancement. Given the daunting odds against the first two courses of action, it isn’t surprising that most choose the third. It’s the same choice any artist makes when he or she decides to stick with the safe and familiar—the only difference is that starlets wear their decisions on their faces. And while trading away their looks in the long term for a few extra seasons of bankability may seem shortsighted, it takes an exceptionally resourceful personality to take the harder road. Which is part of the reason why our best actresses tend to age more gracefully. You can say that Meryl Streep has continued to look great well into her sixties because it was clear that she had the talent to remain a commanding actress without resorting to desperate cosmetic measures, but I’d like to think that the causal arrow runs in the other direction: a woman so smart in her acting is likely to be wise enough to avoid plastic surgery, or at least intelligent enough to be subtle about it. In any case, I don’t think it’s an accident that Hollywood’s smartest women tend to age almost preternaturally well—call it the Kathryn Bigelow effect. And it’s a reminder to the rest of us, as if we needed it, that in the long run, smart is the only kind of sexy that counts.