Close Up #3: Midlife Sexuality in The Female Animal (1958)
During the ongoing publicity campaign for Feud, Ryan Murphy highlights his inclusion of sex scenes for Joan (Jessica Lange) and Bette (Susan Sarandon) to restore each woman’s core sexuality. Murphy attempts to brand his show as singular for depicting middle aged women with active libidos, by noting that once women in Hollywood reach a certain age they disappear from bedroom scenarios. Sounds like good copy, which would lead one to expect that his scenes for Joan and Bette would promise something edgy and maybe even feminist. Unfortunately, what transpires in episode two adheres to mouldy stereotypes about women’s sexuality. Feud argues that women who make the first move, as Joan does with director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), appear controlling, desperate, or clingy. Aldrich pushes Joan away, repulsed by her attempt to initiate sex. Bette, on the other hand, rings him in the middle of the night but assures him she only wants a friend. She assumes a submissive pose on the floor and gushes about his talent as a director, a man who has a brief lacklustre list of credits. She waits for him to make the first move and he does. Each woman’s scene sends a clear message: men take charge and women should know their place. Most likely Murphy took a page from Vincent Sherman’s memoir Studio Affairs which includes unflattering accounts of his real-life relationships with Davis and Crawford. Sherman estimates Bette as appropriately feminine because she waited for him to decide when their professional alliance became personal. He describes Joan as aggressive and unhinged for initiating sex after screening one of her own pictures. Sherman believes women should conceal desire and ego under a passive demeanour. Ungallant as the tawdry details remain, Murphy should know better than borrow them for Feud.
Murphy’s claim for breaking new ground or doing women any favours rings hollow. Even by standards of 1962, the year of Baby Jane’s production, it rates as an old fashioned and lazy reduction of women’s sexual agency. In the 1950s, often regarded as a hyper-conservative era, filmmakers still rendered more interesting portrayals of women’s sexuality than what Ryan Murphy has created. For example, Hedy Lamarr and Jan Sterling in The Female Animal (1958) offer compelling representations of carnal pleasure for women over 40. Strangely, three women seem miscast for the ages they play. At 29, Jane Powell looks far too old to play Hedy Lamarr’s daughter. Jan Sterling was only 37 and doesn’t seem old enough to settle for a cut-rate gigolo. And Hedy Lamarr, at 44, could easily pass for 35, with a waistline trimmer than most starlets half her age. Perhaps casting underscores a difficulty for accurate guesses about a woman’s true age.
The Female Animal, directed by Harry Keller, establishes more empathy for aging women than Murphy extends to Joan and Bette. In Keller’s picture, Hedy Lamarr plays Vanessa Windsor, Hollywood royalty. One day at the studio, an extra saves her from a falling spotlight. Viewers can read the scene as emblematic for her career in the picture. In a town that trades upon youth and beauty, we’re led to understand Windsor’s prospects dim as calendar pages turn. George Nader plays the brawny extra, a man who in real life had his film career abruptly destroyed when he was outed by Confidential magazine, a scandal he endured to protect his more famous friend, Rock Hudson. Nader’s Chris Farley puts himself in harm’s way for the star and receives a gashed arm for his trouble. As the doctor checks the damage, Vanessa Windsor observes his rock hewn musculature. The foot-long cut only accentuates his ideal physique. Charles Atlas would seem a tad flabby next to Nader’s sculpted physique. Reclined in her studio dressing room, Vanessa’s eyes linger over the tall drink of man water without drooling. She keeps a lid on her desire for the moment but viewers know she’s already busy planning an opportunity to meet him again.
While a masseuse pounds her legs and buttocks, she rings Farley and invites him to escort her to a premiere. In his tiny bungalow, a mere cubby hole for a he-man, he objects that he lacks appropriate formal attire. A seasoned pro, Vanessa responds that it’s all publicity and to report to wardrobe for a dinner jacket in the morning. After the studio obligations, she takes her time on their first date seducing Chris.
At her private beach house, she seems amused by how impressed Chris appears to be with the house and obvious wealth. Vanessa suggests a swim. Chris admits that he had trouble with the fancy shirt pins earlier. At this point, Lamarr leans forward and draws out a reply ‘Studs?’ Her delivery aims for lusty rather than campy and she nails it. She’s awake with desire for the hulk, so much that she can’t help rubbing his chest just a little as she unclasps the fancy buttons. She bumps against him and apologises. Desire has made her a bit unsteady; she’s inebriated with the pleasures his body promises. Hedy Lamarr’s performance identifies how women surprise themselves with sexual longing. She’s off balance and delighted. When they leave the surf, she’s in a white bikini that boasts a dancer’s lithe shape. She tosses him a towel but holds on to one end and then uses it to tug him down beside her on a blanket. Hedy as Vanessa uses a seductive move that looks smooth, confident and in charge. One tug on the towel and she brings the muscle man to his knees in a moment of wild abandon. A ringing phone interrupts their hot beach sex and despite pleasures thwarted, Vanessa responds to the request to return to tend a sick daughter without looking angry or frustrated. She’s happy to savour the evening. Hedy Lamarr’s lust for Nader’s Chris offers more of a revelation than the onscreen orgasm she simulated in Ecstasy (1933). Ground breaking though it may have been, Ecstasy seems like climax after climax where The Female Animal lingers on the drama of foreplay. She appears happy in taking the lead in sexual play.
Jan Sterling’s character, by contrast, emphasises the tedium women may experience in sexual relationships after the shine wears off. At a seaside bar, her character Lily Frayne complains of boredom in having ‘nothing to do night or day but go to bed’. Once the plum roles dried up, she has little business other than sex and it’s not a suitable replacement to fulfil an ambitious studio queen. Sterling’s brassy platinum locks lend a hardboiled quality to age a woman who mourns the glory days. In the old days, which her ungallant paramour refers to as the ‘stone age’, they were giants. Now she laments that only a few picture titans remain, enough to fit under a card table without messing up a hair, she says.
Lily Frayne doesn’t bother to soldier on with a film career as Lamarr’s Windsor does. Her entertainment limits itself to slapping bracelets on men with an accent. In this scene at the bar, we see full circle into the career for female stars in Hollywood. As Lily Frayne, which approximates ‘frayed’ as an apt allegorical, she gives her Lubitsch pedigree, one that holds more weight and worth than the diamond earrings she wears. She’s rueful because her rise through the ranks began at 11 and progressed with the distinction of being the ‘first child star ever to be chased around a desk’. Lily avoids grist for the sexual mill by surviving. At the same time, her character recognises the limited pleasure of sitting next to arm candy with no dimension. He may be pretty, but he’s also blank. Rather than depict Lily as angry or frustrated, she seems disappointed, as though the whole business of sex promises a banal resolution. Lily’s the antidote to Vanessa’s swooning over Chris.
Viewers portend the love triangle. Vanessa installs Chris in the beach house as caretaker when really he’s a live-in lover. One night he intercedes on behalf of a woman thrown in the mud by a handsy date. Chris takes Jane Powell’s Penny Windsor back to the beach house to clean up and sober up before returning home. Penny doesn’t know about the beach house, a point that illustrates the frosty relationship between mother and daughter. If that seems hard to swallow, remember that Joan Crawford refused to share the address of her beach house with husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Sometimes a movie queen needs a secret beach house. When the news of the triangle surfaces, there’s no competition for Chris or catfight when he falls for Penny and cools toward the movie star. Vanessa bows out without question or objection. She’s no kid. Vanessa knows what Lily has demonstrated—he’s but one guy in a long line. Vanessa doesn’t lose the run of herself over muscle man. She can find another one in the studio just as easily as she found him.
Some viewers might object that she looks resigned or that the ending casts too bleak a shadow over prospects for middle age women. We do get an upbeat closure, it’s just not a romantic one. Instead of walking off to the beach house with Chris, Vanessa receives validation from another woman. The film closes on a moment with a nurse that sets a proper woman’s picture tone: that she was appreciated in spite of the men in the studio system. The nurse confides: ‘I’ve always felt that you were a much better actress than the roles they gave you’ […] ‘because the one great thing you have on the screen is believability.’ At the end, the nurse leads viewers to regard a sincere woman overlooked and underestimated. Recognition of Vanessa’s talent, presence, and connection with women in the audience feels in some way more satisfying than had she simply walked off with muscle man. Vindication rates as a greater pleasure in the fade out. What a fitting send-off for Hedy Lamarr’s last picture. Without question, she was better than the roles studio executives assigned.