It is a commonly commented-upon phenomenon that Hollywood has little use for older women. Male actors can continue to get roles long after they succumb to gray hairs, even heartthrob roles, as Sean Connery has proved again and again. But as actors of both genders have noted, female actors are treated like they have expiration dates, and after they have a few wrinkles they lose the occasionally-interesting love interest roles, and a few lucky ones will get stuck in the never-interesting mother and grandmother roles while the rest are shuffled off the stage entirely.
So I always feel an extra bit of joy when I find a movie with a good role for an older woman. It makes me want to show the movie to everyone else– “Look, women’s lives don’t end when then turn thirty! I have proof! Our stories continue!” It’s very related to my frustration with motherhood as an ending— the patriarchy likes to pretend that women don’t matter once men stop finding them sexy, and the movie industry is obliging by acting like we cease to exist altogether.
Except for a few gems. I loved The Devil Wears Prada, for example, for exactly this reason, and I’m planning to see Mamma Mia eventually as well. Howl’s Moving Castle was flawed, but it did well with this part of things. And oh, did Under the Tuscan Sun ever get it right.
Katherine is an older woman who nonetheless enjoys her life. She indulges herself in things that make her happy, and tried to approach everything with “childlike enthusiasm.”
Here she is on the left, looking very much like herself: a slightly outrageous but still lovely hat (because “hats make me happy”), age-appropriate but never dowdy clothing, and ice cream (because “I love ice cream”). She is an actress and she refuses to accept that her life can’t be exactly as fun as it was when she was twenty, just because she’s gotten a bit older.
She is also vital to the plot of the movie– she acts as a mentor and role model for Frances. She encouraged Frances to buy the villa in the first place– by suggesting that Frances should indulge in her “terrible idea”– and Frances returns to her throughout the course of the movie for advice.
In fact, the friendship between Frances and Katherine is stronger and more important than any of the romantic relationships either of them enters into. One of the sweetest scenes, I thought, took place just after Frances discovered that Marcello (her would-be boyfriend) had found another woman. Frances returns to her little village late at night, only to hear children running and shouting, “the crazy blonde is in the fountain!”
Frances: What’s going on here?
Martini (her realtor and friend): She is Sylvia in “La Dolce Vita.” She’s very good, actually.
Frances: Is she drunk?
Martini: I hope so.
Frances: You know, in “La Dolce Vita,” he goes in and he gets her. Mastroianni. He goes in, and he fishes her out.
[Martini wades into the fountain in hit suit, gently takes Katherine, still smiling in her soaking wet evening gown, and leads her out of the water. Frances takes Katherine to the woman’s apartment.]
Katherine: Do you think I make a good Sylvia?
Frances: You were wonderful.
[Frances gives Katherine a mug of tea.]
Frances: I see Zeus is gone. [Katherine’s young lover, and art student who was on break.]
Katherine: Back to Mount Olympus.
Frances: I’m so sorry.
Katherine: Don’t be. I’m fine now. There’s nothing like a fountain and a magnum of French champagne to put you right again.
Katherine: What do you think?
Katherine: You know who I really love the most from all the films? Cabiria. You remember at the end when another man has left her in the most terrible way, and she thinks it’s all over for her? Then she sees some children playing in the street, making music. And before she knows it… she’s smiling again. That’s what Fefe always said. No matter what happens… always keep your childish innocence. It’s the most important thing.
The two of them eventually fall asleep on Katherine’s couches in their lovely clothes.
I liked seeing how these women were both dealing with heartbreak together. Frances is not young, but there’s still this feeling that maybe she won’t recover from her heartbreaks, that she’s starting to think love is a waste of time. But Katherine has done this before, and she knows that although it hurts, it is not the end of the world, and you just have to do something a little silly and continue with your life. I think it was really important for Frances to be able to see that even Katherine, whom she admires and aspires to be like, feels pain after a relationship ends. It’s equally important for her to see that one must nevertheless refuse to become jaded about love.
It’s a much more mature message about love than most movies give us– most of them are about younger women, who have no older women to seek advice from, and whatever their first relationship is is their One True Love Forever And Ever, but that’s not how it is in real life. You go through a lot of relationships until you find one that will last, and you can’t allow yourself to feel that the world has ended when a relationship ends. Because it hasn’t.
That’s one of many reasons I wish Hollywood didn’t chuck actresses to the curb when they hit forty– because I would like to see more of these mentoring relationships, more coming-of-age narratives that aren’t about kids and teens, more women’s stories. Because we don’t all die off as soon as we get wrinkles.