This is a very important and strange archetype for our generation and under. This is perhaps where we have been since the 80s finally eradicated all traces of profitable maturity.
Puella aeterna is Latin for eternal girl. The puella is a very important archetype in today's youth oriented, image driven world.... Today the very heart and soul of the adolescent girl/young woman is under siege. Media pressure through television, magazines and movies run the same basic message 24 hours a day: get beautiful. As we shall see below, getting beautiful is according to our cultural value of what beauty is, namely the Barbie Doll, Super Model, Movie Star look - (The Archetypal Connection)
|Disney did a number: L-R: Hillary Duff, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan|
Some girls try for gravitas and importance: As Gia she tried to hold that authority, but Lisa (from Girl, Interrupted) won the Oscar but Lisa was legit crazy, and so she became Angelina Jolie again, and--at least in her conveyed cinematic persona--remains a stone drag forever (we steer clear of films like Beyond Borders as if they had leprosy). Would we accept a new Spencer, even if he came back as hot babe named Angelina? Not yet, but no one asked for a new male Spencer, either. Society breaks the old mold and creates the new; some actors just melt down faster than others. Whomever fills that new mold, juuust right, gets to keep that new persona, forever, until we break it yet again. But the only new mold being struck right now, the only one hot and new enough that girls will melt to fill it, is the post-Disney blonde pouty princess with a slight drug problem mold. The girls who fit that glass slipper are the new princesses. And like Saddam or Qaddafi they cling to that royal title, however destructive its effect on themselves and those around. But without 'stoutness of character' or 'good values' they are like wax molds unable to keep their slender foot sizes for long under the blazing kliegs; late night parties; constant poking, primping, touching and retouching of their face and hair by their make-up and hair people; and the relentless paparazzi flashing. Gradually, it wears them down; the fixative spray hardens their faces, paralyzing their upper lip with biotoxins and puffing up the lower with lumpy collagen; killing all wrinkles and stretching back every new sag until they become as plasticine duck gargoyles looking grimly down from their billboard battlements for any sign of a threat their mirror-mirror might be too covered up with White Snow to spot.
And we on the street only worship them until it's time they be sacrificed, either by the slow scythe swipe of drugs and age, or else--even more dastardly--our sudden collective indifference.
|I've seen the Botulinum toxin and the damage done: Left to Right: Meg Ryan, Brittany Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Courtney Cox|
I'm not saying anything new, just saying it prettier. Beauty surgeries are old hat in Hollywood. The issue is, of course, that a lot of the surgeries done in the past just made the women more regal, cutting out molars to accentuate cheekbones, maybe nose jobs, amphetamines for weight loss and maximum twitch factor. The ideal wasn't to aim for looking like a pouty adolescent, or a Baby Jane Hudson deranged dolly, but a sophisticated woman of class and haunting anima allure not the 18 year-old Lolita look craved today, the shaving of the pubic hair, the widening and expanding of the lips, none of that makes a lady more regal only tragic, bizarre...
Luckily, most of us will never know the giddy high of mass adoration, so we're spared the certainty that such adoration is fleeting, an addictive drug of which we can keep no stash or ever own for ourselves, only mooch off other people. If we were to know that kind of mass adoration, never pay for anything or wait in line or suffer a single consequence, meet nothing but adoring faces, we too would know that terrible withdrawal when it stops as suddenly as it started (2). We too would have to undergo withdrawal, those ever-escalating 'mirror mirror on the wall' moments that slowly turns us into, not Snow White, or even the old crone witch, but some duck-lipped monstrosity, a caricature, desperate for yesterday's approval.
On the other hand, there is a less traumatic and all-around ballsier trend borne of this puella aeterna stampede... the rise of the cougar! For ladies looking to feel young rather than disfigure themselves trying to look young, it's irresistible. Ideally your choice of young paramour won't be an actual child like it was for cougardom's premier lady in red:
There's a great bit in the NBC TV show 30 Rock I think explains the appeal and its inevitable downside: Tina Fey is dating a young lad (above) who delivers her coffee in the morning. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), her boss, tells her it's "the ultimate status symbol." She only bails when she notices he still lives with his mom - who looks just like her! Jack then reminds her that these affairs "always end in humiliation." How can dating a younger person be both the ultimate status symbol and yet always end in humiliiation?
Though not explored in depth this is a fascinating paradox to examine. Taken to conclusion he is saying that humiliation is the ultimate status symbol. Maybe that's the crux of the whole youth obsession. Like fame withdrawal, it is this end-game humiliation that promotes real growth, which is the ultimate in real status, shaming the ego into backing away after indulging it allows a stray moment of grace. Status symbols, by definition, reinforce ego-driven self-perception, a negative as far as any kind of wisdom-based psychic or spiritual growth. Ergo, status symbols arrest human evolution unless they are the 'ultimate' (in Latin meaning 'the end or last') status symbol, which then eradicates the self-deception lesser status symbols encourage, a final binge of egoic vanity before the ultimate renouncement of youth and humble acceptance of middle age. Like the final piece in a puzzle, it arrives with both glory and tragedy, for unless you want to shellac the puzzle and hang it on the wall it's time to break the whole thing up and put it back in the box to either give to a niece or Goodwill. And then...
And then nothing... you have to find something else to do. There's no going back; the old symbols are meaningless now.
Then again -- not everyone is so lucky. Maybe you were just too famous too fast at too young. Now you're froze, stuck.... a cautionary tale to keep the rest of the herd from falling in to the same tar.
In the cases below, which I have set up in order, from still fairly young to old-old, it's generally hotness and adoration received while a young person that leads to chronic narcissism and then the La Brea tar pit (above) of the puella aeterna, from which arises, finally, at last, a tar-covered saber-tooth cougar from the black gold phoenix oil slick flames! It's no accident that those tar pits are right on Wilshire Boulevard... right across the street from the plastic surgeon.
1. Charlize Theron as Mavis- Young Adult (2011)
This film is so perceptive about aging but still-hot narcissists that I felt like it was written about at least three of my drinking and AA buddies over the years, one in particular (you know who you are - so vain you probably agree with me). A writer locked into a ghost job for a once hot-selling young adult book series, her arrested development helps her keep a pulse on the young, as does her bad eating and drinking habits (she eats at fast food joints, jotting down the drivel she overhears from the endless parade of teenagers coming through). Disgruntled and trapped within herself, she heads to her hometown to rekindle an old flame, but the flame has grown up, and is married to a granola chick, and they've got a kid, and he's a loyal father blah blah. A whiskeyhead accomplice forms from the mist of the bar she once again haunts. It's Patton Oswalt! She's safe with him because of their hotness divide and his crippled member but...
"Like the princess in the Grimm fairy tale The Frog King, today's young woman must be willing to accept and embrace the frog, symbol for her human imperfections. Putting this into psychological language, she must come to recognize and accept her own shadow."
So yeah, draw your own grueling conclusions.
2. Nicole Kidman in Birth (2004)
When Kidman plans to escape with Sean (the young boy who claims to be her reincarnated dead husband) and just drive, escape, get out, it reads wrong even to the swooning, half-asleep audience; a mid-life crisis of such outré proportions looks obscene even while we half want it to happen, just for the lurid charge, just to piss off her controlling fiance (Danny Huston). Even the kid can't quite grasp the possibility of such a thing coming true with any sort of realism or grace. And Canada is not an option. The touch of a lover your own age, whose very presence makes you suffocate, the comfort of belonging to a faceless, fascist mass, maybe a pill to help it all fit together...that's the best you can hope for… everything else is just a frozen north fantasia, wheels spinning in the slush… even death brings only another wet, screaming birth..." (more - 2004 - Acidemic).
3. Betty Draper in Mad Men
This description fits half the girls I've known in the rooms of AA and out, and so many of our best artists (like Plath). Betty Draper has a lot in common with the previous puella on this list, Nicole in Birth, as Betty too winds up in a strange Mary Kate La Tourneau-style relationship with a young boy who comes onto her in the first season of Mad Men. Jones' 'vulnerable, terrified child' is drawn to the boy the way a sexy babysitter at a vulnerable age might encourage the worship of her young charges (as mine did in the swingin' 70s) -- even engaging in games of crypto-post office, lap-sitting, horsey riding and leashes and other things that carbonize prepubescent boy hormones."The paradox is that the puella is driven by desires to be seen, to excel, and to be loved but not to be known intimately. Her fantasy is that one day she will become this ideal self that she cannot achieve now because she flees from reality. There is always a "but" preventing development or commitment because each situation is for the short term, and relationships are with others of similar bent. She becomes bored easily and feels trapped, unaware of her own lack of self-knowledge. Thus, her potential withers before it can ripen, because she has preferred the fantasy of perpetual youth to the reality of painful development.
The sense of fraudulence as an adult creates tension and dissatisfaction. She exudes brittle, crystalline quality and an aura of aloofness behind which she exists in her own untouchable domain. She is vulnerable, a terrified child for whom physical existence is a trial because bodily sensations are denied or ignored in order to avoid feeling and to protect from anything that is not part of her carefully constructed world. (-Susan E. Schwartz-Little Girl Lost: Sylvia Plath and the Puella Aeterna)
Betty's problems are much different than forthcoming examples of this archetype--those who revel in a childhood toy box perpetual twilight--instead she's like the older sister who one day decides to never smile or laugh again because she's decided she's grown up now and grown-ups don't do that, they just forbid their children to have any fun and then sit around acting important. Not doing the actual maturing, Betty performs an anti-burlesque of adulthood. And like Kidman's character in Birth she lives in an upper middle class society that infantilizes young women, especially those who are blonde, pretty, and have mastered the art of looking vacant.
4. Natalie Portman as Nina - The Black Swan (2010)
It's a well-known cliche that every girl growing up wants a pony and to be a ballerina, and the frustration of these goals helps them mature... BUT what if they do actually get a pony and/or become a professional ballerina? Is their maturity stunted? Certainly, at least in films, becoming a grown-up ballerina entails a state of exhaustion (long hours of grueling practice), starvation (to keep the body light and youthful), and any trick one can find to arrest the messy onset of womanhood: smoking, anorexia, bulimia, exotic growth-stunting drugs that evil stage moms procure in shady Mexican pharmacies--it's all in play. When Nina's stage mom (Barbara Hershey) brings home a hideously over-detailed cake--like some dusty cupid-drenched rococo antique--to celebrate Nina's getting the lead in the title ballet, the whole scene is laid out - Barbara Hershey is trying to turn her daughter into a little spinning ballerina on the top of this cake, and devour her!
In being forced to tap into her dark side to 'become the Black Swan' Nina's repression and her freedom from bad influences (thanks to maternal suffocation) are finally--for the sake of her role, for her big time ascension--overcome. Drugs, sex, sticky backseat fumbling, and lesbian experimentation come roaring up from the depths. In the end, it's a choice: adulthood or artistry. Heroically, Nina makes her choice for the latter. Adulthood can mean compromise and 'giving up' perfection; artistry means giving up all the other things --life, children, adulthood-- and rushing towards death's curtain call, devouring your own cake before mom can get her hooks into it, healing all your wounds with a single self-inflicted stab. The only other artists this beautifully brave are Jake Gideon in All that Jazz and M. Rourke in Aronofsky's previous film, The Wrestler.
I'm all for weird girls, but Zooey's just a bit too twee and quirky to not be chronically puella, at least in persona. God bless her for it.
While she explores the same arrested development 'boop boop de boop I'm a girl' terrain as Deschanel, Sarah Silverman gets a free pass because she's beyond a mere 'appealing to shy indie boys' aesthetic and instead she delves into the realm of gleeful id, and her songs are better than Zoey's. Look at her above with her castrating Antichrist scissors, a wistful look on her face as she wonders what she'll cut off next. You can believe she would cut something important off, all while sighing and going 'awwww' as you scream in pain. If Zooey was in a picture holding scissors the only thing you'd imagine her cutting would be some fabric to make an Appalachian pot holder... no offense meant, Zooey! Pot holders are nice, but quirks without a homicidal edge may just as well be Romper Room.
THE PUELLA-COUGAR BRIDGE:6. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly + Patricia Neal as 2-E in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
+ Nina Foch as Milo - An American in Paris (1951)
Everyone loves Audrey Hepburn Holly Golightly. In the late 90s, Tribeca Film Center used to screen Breakfast every Sunday afternoon and the small theater would be packed with hung-over crowds of post or pre-brunch hipsters and ragers, all swooning to the sophistication, booze fumes hanging in the air. All of us still buzzed, still dreading having to go home and face the crushing Sunday loneliness; then we'd all go off to the brunch in the other room for our one free mimosa, six more paid for, and weary punch-drunk 15th round boxer-style flirting. Though I too clung and dreaded, I never quite liked the film, for reasons which by now should be clear: if you compare it with An American in Paris, which also has two broke young artists with rich older sponsors and a brash stuck-up young gigolo who decides to harpoon both their lives so he can live destitute with the gamin, and she doesn't get a say in the matter (and that's supposed to be romantic!), then the seedy, perennial puella aeterna epiphany comes crashing through. Breakfast at least seems to realize it, while American seems largely unconscious of what a complete shit Kelly is.
As someone who enjoyed a wealthy Parisian sponsor for many years, I abhor Kelly's self-sabotaging of his good thing with the rich patroness (Nina Foch) who could make him happy and famous and the toast of Paris.
Instead he's bored at the cafe she takes him to since he can't keep up with adult conversation (he's more of a banal landscape artist, the kind whose work sells for cheap at small town art galleries) where he spies a similarly bored 'protege' at another table (Leslie Caron) and decides it's love at first sight, regardless of her pleas for him to stop stalking her. The big final ballet is gorgeous and Kelly's a helluva dancer but his self-righteous American snobbery is disconcerting (especially as he ends up getting everything he want). A similar thing happens in BREAKFAST, wherein kept man George Peppard and glorified escort Holly G. have some good times but then he decides they should live together in poverty regardless of her own more practical choice in the matter. As his patroness, Patricia Neal surely deserves more respect! Of course, I say that now, but my own French paramour patroness is four years gone (for all the same damned Peppard-ish reasons) .
7. Joan Collins
With a husband 32 years her junior and a loathing for all things associated with older age (such as 'doting' on grandchildren), Joan Collins is the premiere modern 'cougar' Just look at that sexy, decadent photo above, which you can instantly associate with a lot of the gender-bent 70s badass "Jackie is just speedin' away" Warhol era Manhattan / London /Berlin druggy cabaret of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Warhol, Jackie Superstar and the New York Dolls. As a kid in the 1970s all this stuff scanned as really dangerous and intimidating and Joan was a huge icon of the scene, I remember, way more recognizable to a child in the suburbs than, say, Lou Reed or Bowie! She was part of a whole 'older woman enjoying uninhibited casual sex' trip inspired by the book Fear of Flying, written by Joan's buddy, Erica Jong. It seemed like all the big cities were just reeking with the smell of sex, cigarettes, whiskey, smog, urine, freebase, hash, perfume, sweat, blood, and burnt gun powder --all rolled into one the fleabag room where Joan Collins comes in to change for her next number while you cower in the corner like a five year-old Emil Jannings.
8. Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
As Tennessee Williams fans well know, being obsessed with youth and beauty is more than just empty vanity and fear of age and death, it's a very real and genuinely (at times) subversive refusal to follow the dopey trail to the reproductive slaughterhouse set up up by mainstream 'straight' conservative America. Like Douglas Sirk, Williams applauds widows with the moxie to shucker loose from the perfumed prison of their age bracket. If you love a young stud then you should go for it, even if it means you buy him gold trinkets and sports cars and end up heartbroken or shot or stabbed.
In these two films, Leigh is clearly playing a sort of stand-in for Williams himself, the older alcoholic southern gay gentleman, scarred by redneck homophobia and a yen for les boys. Leigh adds a weary desperation in her twinkly eyes and seems a bit bewildered by the weird ride her beauty and talent took her on in earlier decades. Her characters are still getting used to the fact that the ride has stopped and there's no date waiting at the Exit with an ice cream and roses. Karl Malden basically tells her in Streetcar that her cougar-behavior (seducing the newspaper boy) and age and past wouldn't have mattered if she didn't come on so phony and regal, staying in the shadows like a drag queen trying to pass as long as possible before the big reveal.
Like Charlize with her Patton Oswalt frog, in Stone Leigh ends up throwing her door key down to a disheveled pretty boy / probable murderer who's been silently following her for the bulk of the film. It's a tragic, desperate gesture of supreme loneliness and--in its strange way--heroic, like those crazy collagen / Botox injections. What is heroism, after all, but the ability to let an abstract idea like God, country, brotherhood, or beauty trump our fear of death and ruin? Who knows how many times you and I have played out similar scenes and just not remembered them? We never do seem to remember dying, so how can we possibly recall anything about ourselves, unless we're immortal? And how can we find out for sure unless we invite the blade in? Williams knows that you can't judge any experience as good or bad and still be a true genius writer. You have to find God and compassion even in the horror of baby turtles being picked off by millions of hungry birds as they rush to the sea, or the slow, inexorable advance of that final curtain switchblade beach boy.
8.b. Geraldine Page - Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)
As a movie star cougar of dwindling years she's slightly more together than, say, the delusional 'chicken hawk' (Lotte Lenya's words), played by Vivien Leigh, in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone; even though she's on the run from the bad reviews of her latest film, we like her moxy, her wounded druggie vanity, which even allows her to treat Newman, God's own true Adonis hustler, with the same entitled disregard with which she uses her oxygen tank, Mexican dirt weed, cigarettes, vodka and sleep mask.
I love this film because it's one of the few that really capture the feeling of arriving at a hotel after driving all night, then settling in a room, procuring a bottle and some ice, and relaxing finally and deeply, like it's only possible to do in motels after a long drive that crests the dawn, with whiskey ginger ale and ice. Few films or moments compare --maybe Frank Sinatra in the first reel or two of Some Came Running, or Maxine in Night of the Iguana-- and poor stud Newman starts out the film little more than a maraca-shaking beach boy or bus ride floozy.
9. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond - Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Of course not all our aging Hollywood cougars end up wizened to their puella aeterna ways, or get to be already dead and worshipped as some flash frozen eternal youth. Some come running home and stay hidden in the mansions, phantoms of their own private opera houses, the production in their haunted minds a most functional distraction as the world burbles outside.
Swanson, herself a former puella aeterna from the silent era, plays what was undoubtedly her own fucked up shadow self in Sunset Boulevard. Her Norma Desmond is a Venus flytrap slowly digesting the clueless meat-headed screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) while he's wrapped tight in the teeth of a spoken contract to edit her screenplay of Salome (apt since decapitation's got such castrative resonance), and eventually guilt trips him into spending New Years as her lover when he'd rather be with kids his own age.
Wilder's film is one of the key Hollywood-on-Hollywood classics of the 1950s and is still the funhouse mirror boiler plate of the elliptical Hollywood experience, and its fame is a blessing to the trade: who knows how many aging stars have been steered away from the delusional recluse path because they don't want to become a 'Norma Desmond'? And here's another thing - time's been kind to Norma and her big haunted palace is great. If she'd have fixed the pool sooner maybe she could have done without the Gillis. He only drags her down.
0 Ruth Gordon - Harold and Maude (1971)
I wanted to stick Maude in here because although she's all life affirming and quirky one must ask if--and when--quirkiness becomes a burden to others. One can trace a direct line from this film to Zooey Deschanel's pixie-ism, and for that alone I'm no fan. Maude's attendance of other people's funerals, her motorcycle riding, it all struck me even 20 years ago (which is when I last saw it) as terminally whimsical and whimsy has become toxic in our puer/puella culture. It's not Hal Ashby's fault that we took his whimsy but left the crushing black humor behind when we looted his corpse and now it's we who blew it. We let both these characters down.
11. Bette Davis - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1967)
If there's a single person who embodies the puer aeternus in contemporary pop culture, it's Michael Jackson, so it's fitting that his favorite book was The Little Prince (which Maria Von Franz analyzed extensively in her definitive book Puer Aeternus), and favorite movie was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We're all, if we live long enough, bound to experience that Baby Jane's big tragicomic moment of being lost in her childhood past, traipsing around our mansion and then suddenly looking in the hallway mirror and being confronted by a hideous, aged demon looking back. Michael tried to carve it away with plastic surgery but it was always there, waiting. If we're "lucky" and live long enough, we come to know it well, which is why Davis' scene is so hilarious, terrifying and tragic. Somewhere, along the hours leading up to our own Baby Jane moment, we had forgotten we too were old, and in a rush it comes back to hit us, square in the hideous demon face.
Baby Jane's not really a cougar; she's from a different generation. The girls idolized in her time weren't hot bronzed 18 year-old navel-ring-wearing girls in bleached blonde dreads, but pale eight year-old moppets in frilly white skirts and golden ringlets. But this is a fitting wrap-up icon with which to end this list-- the final note of warning about the danger of not overcoming your inner puer before growing too old to change, the Benjamina Button-terna!
It's one thing to have an inner child who's free to come and go in your thoughts and who keeps your sense of humor light and airy, another to use that inner child as an axe handle with which to jam the gears of time, to stave off maturity and death and cling instead to the tattered, windless sail of past glories. If we don't learn the lesson from Norma Desmond, the Baby Jane lesson is our last stop before the bughouse.... as Sunset Gun's Kim Morgan points out (read her stunning Davis birthday tribute here), the key difference between the much more vain Joan Crawford and Bette Davis was that Davis was a cool old bat, smoking and joking and keeping a devil-may-care attitude on set, throwing herself into the madness while never losing a sense of wry fun, and making Baby Jane one of the most terrifying, tragic female characters in all horror. Joan, as the victimized sister, still struggled to maintain her puella poise and delusional dignity. She's great too, but she just looks pained, there's none of the maniacal desperation she brought to Homicidal, for example. It was Davis Aldrich wanted to work with again (in the follow-up Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) not Joan, after all, and considering the diva claws rumored to be on set, what does that tell you?
1. Mad Men reference, season 1
2. I know whereof I speak (see: My Long Day's Journey into Night of the Iguana)