There is no actress in the history of cinema who is more quoted on the subject of sex than Mae West, who spent a career dodging and finding ways around censors.
After years in vaudeville and on stage, her first film role came in the 1932 gangster film Night After Night, at the urging of her friend, George Raft. According to her bio, she had a good deal to do with how her role was re-written and directed, including one of her more memorable lines, in response to "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds."
"Goodness had nothing to do with it," she famously replied.
Few remember that when she made that notable film debut, she was 39 years old. That's right, 39 years old. In film after film for a decade or more afterwards, she continued to play a sexual object of desire.
Marlene Dietrich made her film debut in Germany at the age of 21, but her Hollywood debut at the age of 29 (Morocco), and was noticed for her roles as prostitutes in Dishonored, Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus. She, too, continued to play sexual creatures well into her late thirties and early forties.
Yes, the role of ingenues have always gone to women in the early twenties, sometimes a little younger, as with Lauren Bacall's sexy 19-year old performance in To Have and Have Not. However, Hollywood in the early studio days assumed that their male audience would be attracted to women, and didn't think it odd to cast women in their thirties or even older as sexy leading ladies.
Today, there are better roles for women once they get past their early twenties, but still not near as many as there are for men. They hit what I call "The Actress Sabbatical."
You know it when you think about the careers of the current "hottie" actresses. Some young actress will seem to be the hot love interest in almost every film for a certain period - Salma Hayek, Jessica Alba, Halle Berre; before them Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Cameron Diaz. Then, suddenly, without notice, their appearances become a little scarce, until the point at which they play - sigh - the "other woman", or worse, the "friend."
I call this transitional period from ingenue to character actress "the actress sabbatical," as if there were some lush island nation where they are allowed to tan and wait for more mature roles to arrive.
These are for the stars. For everyday working actresses, and especially indies, they go from playing the girl in the nude scene to the "young mother." As someone who has many actress friends, that first offer of a "young mother" can be chilling. It means that casting directors no longer keep your photo in that pile of "hot," sexy actresses.
This is not to say their are no roles for women being love interests into their thirties and beyond; certainly there are. Today, though, we have actually developed new terms for them, "MILFs" or "cougars."
Reviewers seem genuinely surprised when someone like Diane Lane can actually be seen as sexy and a little older, sometimes - heaven forbid - being attractive to younger men.
Meanwhile, as actress Greta Scacchi (The Player) once said, "Hollywood will accept actresses playing ten years older, but actors can play ten years younger."
The double standard hardly needs much explanation, and is hardly new. Indeed, one of the more famous screen romances, Bogart (44) and Bacall (19), would not have happened if not for the constant pairing of older men as appropriate suitors for younger women. While I would never suggest that Cary Grant or Clark Gable or any of those folk were not dashing into their older years, it's not like female stars of the same stature were always afforded the same luxury.
If some were to suggest that younger women are naturally attracted to older men, let me share this story. I loved the movie Atlantic City. For those who may not remember the 1980 Louis Malle film, Burt Lancaster plays an old, ex-gangster named Lou who helps a young croupier, played by a (then) young Susan Sarandon. Well, Lou wasn't quite the big shot gangster he imagines he was; not really a hit man but a marginal numbers guy. Still, he offers his protection, and even at 67 years old, Lancaster was still charming.
I was in college at the time, and mentioned to my date that it was absolutely believable that Lancaster and Sarandon (then 34) would have a brief sexual encounter. Her response can basically be boiled down to one word: "Eew!" further dispelling the notion we males like to foster as we get older that women find age attractive.
All of this is by way of talking about one of the more interesting aspects of my return to SOC.
One aspect of the movie features the lead character, a young woman bored with her life and trying to find something new, in a relationship with a nihilist older theater director, played by one of New York's wonderful character actors. In one scene, she finds herself in a threesome with another woman and this man. We will call the actress playing the other character Eve.
When I looked it up recently, I was surprised to find that when SOC was shot, Eve was in her early forties. Fit and attractive, she could easily have passed for mid-thirties. In her younger days, her good looks and figure had led her to roles as dizzy blondes, even though she was quite the opposite. In addition to one noted film appearance, she had established herself in many Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals as a fine singer.
Z hired her for her talent, not just her looks, and since there was nudity involved in the scene, he offered her early on the option of having a body double as the type of courtesy he might offer a star of any age.
She would hear nothing of it, insisting on the integrity of the role, and maybe just a bit because she rightfully was still very proud of her fit body.
So it was that I arrived on the day of shooting that scene to find the crew standing around in the hallway. It seemed that Eve was complaining about the work of the make-up artist and the body make-up involved.
The old stage manager in me quickly figured out that the problem was not with the make-up artist, nor necessarily with Eve doing a scene with partial nudity, but doing the scene where the other woman was somewhat younger.
This might seem vain to some, which is why I opened this article with an explanation of what it can be like for actresses getting even slightly older (I refuse to call anyone of any gender in their mid-forties "old"). Because of my experience in the area, I spent about twenty minutes talking with Eve, after which everything went fine, and she is wonderful in the final scene.
Veterans will tell you that nude scenes are far from titillating on a film set; they are cause for problems. To properly protect the actors privacy, they are closed sets, meaning only essential personnel can be in the room. This means that anytime you need someone else in the room - a grip or electric to make an adjustment, a prop person, etc - time is taken to get everyone covered up, then the person, who would normally be right by, is summoned, they come in, everything resets. There is little sexy about taking more time than usual to get a scene done.
Additionally, the First AD has to take time to think about when to schedule it. After meals is always a bad idea, for some reasons the reader can imagine. Late in the day, the actors may be tired. First scene of the day, which is my preference (so it can't wind up getting pushed back to past lunch) means a slow start to the day.
I should again note that the problem was not one of Eve being concerned about showing skin, but rather the specific situation. The problems I've had with nude scenes have almost always been with actors, who are asked to show much less, rather than actresses. We men often talk about women's vanity, but from my experience, male vanity is a much bigger problem.
It is also a comment on our business that women feel routinely required to disrobe at some point in their career, where men consider it a special occasion. Think about it. How many times have you watched a "morning after" scene where the woman steps out of bed topless or completely naked, only to have the man remain safely under the cover.
In other areas, Eve was not shy about her body. We were filming at night in the Meatpacking area of Manhattan at a time when it was not a place for chic restaurants and clubs, but rather for cheap (and often tranny) hookers and crime.
Our set was a few blocks from holding, and Eve was hanging in holding a scene or two before she was required on set. She was dressed in very short cut-offs, a tight, skimpy blouse and high heels. This was her own wardrobe, not wardrobe for the set.
"I need to talk to Z," she said, as she headed for the door. "Eve," I said, "wait a second. I'll have the PA drive you over."
"JB, it's only two blocks. I can walk it."
I knew she was perfectly physically capable of doing the walk, but was concerned that her attire might attract unwanted attention. Certainly, Eve was not naive, but seemed not to be worried.
Watching out for my actors is always part of my responsibility, and although I was not acting as one of the producers, I knew what P, our AD who had asked me back, would think of me letting Eve walk to set under those circumstances.
I found a way to politely suggest that I never let talent "walk" without escort (a 1st team PA should always accompany talent in any situation when heading to set, so there is no confusion as to their whereabouts). As that PA was currently on set, I walked her over.
Eve has since crossed to other side of that "actress sabbatical," though more in television than film. Ironically, one of the places where an actress can transcend the bias against older women as sexual creatures is soap operas - ask Susan Lucci - and Eve started a recurring role on a soap in 2011.
Dealing with these situations with Eve was my only "producer-related" work on SOC after my return, the rest of my time dealing with the more mundane concerns of locations management, the details of which have faded from my memory. My time spent with the lovely and talented Eve remains one of my fonder memories of that period.
As I write this in 2012, I am encouraged that while we still have a double-standard regarding age and sexual attraction between the genders, that gap is closing, maybe even to the point where we get back, one day, to a time when a 40-year old Mae West could tell a 29-year old Cary Grant, "Come up sometime, and see me." (Yes, that is the correct line) and not be called a "cougar" or "MILF", but simply, an attractive woman.