These days, high-definition technology has made it even harder for stars to cover up their age, so they’re increasingly turning to digital beauty specialists for a bit of retouching before their films hit TV and movie theaters. But how did Hollywood portray aging stars in a time before Photoshop?
It’s a question asked and answered by Heather Addison, who explores the early days of Hollywood’s relationship to the aging process. She argues that by the 1920s, the budding film industry already had a well-established “cult of youth” where history and technology intersected.
Addison argues that as manufacturing grew more predominant in American society, Americans became more aware of age differences. A new consumer culture created an “exaltation of youth” that privileged young, malleable consumers above their more conservative, less spendthrift elders. “Hollywood,” she notes, “with its spectacular moving images of elegant bodies, romantic interludes, and extravagant living standards, obligingly provided the consumptive capacity to absorb industry’s excess of goods by promoting the new standards of behavior, appearance, and lifestyle to which the public was to aspire.”
Despite the fact that many stars presented themselves as much younger than they were (Addison notes statistics showing the average Hollywood star was about 34 if female, 46 if male), youthful appearance was everything. Fan magazines focused on “youth and beauty,” even as they acknowledged the fleeting nature of both.
There was another factor in the industry’s embrace of the illusion of youth—new motion-picture technology. Addison writes that the advent of the close-up and the invention of better cameras meant that every facial flaw was highlighted. Fear of an aging appearance both hid age from a youthful audience and created the expectation that, with the help of new creams, procedures, and pills, the audience could achieve the same youthful face as stars who had access to advanced lighting and makeup techniques.
The stakes were high, she concludes: failure to stave off visible aging became associated with “depression, despair, and death.” The stakes are no less high for today’s actresses, who face the death of their careers when they are inevitably marked by the march of time.