"Oh, come on," I said.
"Okay," she snapped, "name one you've seen lately."
She had me there; I thought for several moments and couldn't. She smiled grimly and said: "Small film parts they used to call someone like me for, now they call Frances Fisher. Oscar-winning actresses are duking it out with each other for 20 minutes on screen."
This poisonous atmosphere has a pernicious way of spreading beyond performers, which is why I'm saving up to get rid of my eyebags. If I don't, I can see myself starting to lose work. You think I'm being paranoid? Maybe so. But really, who wants a 40-year-old freelance writer? I can't say I would. God knows it's appalling enough just being one.
A few years ago I interviewed Jerry Seinfeld and asked if he thought women have a harder time in New York or Los Angeles. "Los Angeles," he said, "because women are commodities here." The thing about interviewing celebrities is that every now and then they say something not terribly original that nevertheless sticks in your mind forever as piercingly true. Probably that's just the fame factor working, but thus spake Seinfeld and who am I to argue? Plus, he was very charming to me during the interview. My eyebags were smaller then.
Not that men always have it easy here, especially men who have enjoyed an exceptionally handsome youth. Lance Loud came over to have lunch and prune my lime tree last week, and he recounted a traumatic experience he'd had while attending a movie premiere in Westwood recently. "Are you a celebrity?" some UCLA students standing on the sidelines asked. Actually, Lance is sort of a celebrity. He couldn't use "LanceLoud" as his AOL moniker because it was already taken by some pop culture parasite, and there's a band in San Francisco who've named themselves the Loud Family. But he just joked good-naturedly, "Oh, sure, I'm a big celebrity."
"Yeah, right, Grandpa!" the students said rudely.
Still, it's worse for women. My friend Sandra Tsing Loh just finished a four-part radio commentary about her own excess undereye luggage in which she noted that there are only two jobs where eyebags don't count against you: President of the United States and Vulcan crew member on the Starship Enterprise. A few months ago I accompanied her on an eyebag research expedition to a plastic surgeon. We leafed through a thick binder of the surgeon's work in the waiting room and were shocked to see how many girls (and even a few guys) in their 20s were getting this done. The difference was exquisitely subtle. Sometimes the "bags" in the pre-op photos looked more like slightly heavy circles.
"You're Persian!" Sandra yelled to the pictures of one young patient. "Get over it!"
A week later, however, she'd snapped up one of the surgeon's few available spots and was quickly eyebag free. Personally, I didn't think she'd had a huge problem to begin with, but Sandra said she was beginning to see martial arts star Sammo Hung whenever she looked in the mirror. If that had been merely my situation probably I would have joined her then under the laser. But since I'm a few years older and a few shades paler, not only do I see Sammo Hung under my eyes, but an apparition of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi is beginning to form on top. So my operation would be twice as expensive. As I said, I'm saving up.
Part of my trouble is that, although I live in a humble, barrio-adjacent neighborhood, I'm often over on the moneyed west side of town and find myself surrounded by women I know are several years my senior who have begun to appear, mysteriously and unfairly, markedly younger. The rich, they are different. Because they can afford to be surgically altered.
Here in Silverlake, it's easier to look relatively good. The day after I'd been to a party in Beverly Hills I went to a meeting at my daughter's school and felt fairly dewy fresh compared to the other parents. I scrutinized everyone around the table as the meeting droned on: eyebags...eyebags... jowls...big mole...eyebags... After you've been among your cosmetically improved betters, you stare at ordinary people and think, why don't they just get rid of that?
On my right, the principal had arranged his features into an expression of long-suffering martyrdom as he doodled little pictures of airplanes and daisies on a notepad. Hard to tell if he's older or younger than I am, since he started the school year at around 300 pounds and has since gained 80 more. So eyebags really aren't his problem.
After my conversation with the over-40 actress at the bus stop I took the dog for our usual morning hike through the Silverlake hills. On my route is a house where the upcoming Paramount feature The Next Best Thing was on location for a couple of weeks this summer. In the film Madonna gets impregnated by her gay best friend, Rupert Everett, after a night of drunken abandon. The production has also been in the news because Madonna's entourage reportedly has been addressing her as "Hatsumomo" on the set; apparently, Madonna is campaigning to be cast as a geisha in the film version of Memoirs of a Geisha, and this helps her keep a positive attitude.
The street was congested that day because they were shooting exterior scenes in front of the house, but dog-walkers and neighbors were allowed through. I picked my way carefully over the lighting cables and was lost in thought about the usual?how many good years I have left, with eyebags and without?when a production assistant came running after me.
"Excuse me!" she yelled, huffing and puffing to catch up. "But would you be an extra in our movie?"
"Well..." I really had a lot to do that day.
"Oh, please!" she insisted. "The assistant director told me to catch you because of your cute little outfit and your cute little dog." I was wearing green socks, yellow leggings and a red t-shirt?apparently this fit in with their color scheme?but what got me was the flattery about my dog. I did like the idea of seeing Linda immortalized on screen. Also, Madonna is exactly my age and therefore I've watched her closely over the years. My mother used to do the same thing with Angie Dickinson in the 70s, tuning in to Police Woman every week just to keep tabs on Angie's figure. I was curious to see how my age doppelganger looked in real life.
By the time they called me to the set my daughter was back from camp, so she played with Madonna's two-and-a-half-year-old and wrote in her notebook as Linda and I, "background action," walked down the street for about 15 takes while Madonna acted out a fight with her boyfriend in the driveway. This scene is what instigates the crying-on-the-shoulder, rebound sex with Rupert Everett.
"I don't love you! I never did! Take another lap around your self-discovery track!" Michael Vartan as the caddish boyfriend yelled at Madonna as Linda and I walked by, over and over, with me (as directed) doing a little nosy neighbor stare each time. One of the producers whispered to my daughter explanations about what was going on as she watched. Later I saw she'd copied down the dialogue in her notebook with this addendum: "Extra word: 'Asshole.' Man said, Madonna added word because she's a really good actress."
Like many stars, Madonna is remarkably tiny in real life. "She's your age?" said my daughter, shocked. "She looks like she's in her 20s!" No doubt about it, Madonna looked great, but I don't think this is just because she's several inches shorter and many pounds lighter. Up close, I would say that the weirdly serene expression she's been wearing ever since entering her spiritual phase is probably due to Botox. Plus her undereye area is remarkably smooth. And of course, she stays out of the sun. Between takes her muscular bodyguard hovered over her with a big umbrella, like a Nubian slave.
Being a big star, Madonna was standoffish, although she did say hello to my daughter when her own little girl insisted on introducing her. Michael Vartan, who was Drew Barrymore's cute love interest in Never Been Kissed, was quite friendly, asking my daughter and another 10-year-old girl standing around if they'd liked that movie and happily giving them his autograph.
"Aren't you a bit young to be playing Madonna's boyfriend?" I said, as he signed their notebooks.
He smiled and shrugged. "I don't write 'em!" he said tactfully.
I shouldn't have been so catty?blame it on the eyebags?because it's refreshing to see someone Madonna's age working at all on screen. Hatsumomo, you go, girl! There was talk a while ago that the success of The First Wives Club would loosen things up for post-ingenue actresses, but that hasn't happened. First of all, remember that while the stars in that movie were all at least 50, the characters were in their (oh, sure) 40s. Still, it made enough money that a sequel is in the works and so are a lot of knockoff projects. But this being Hollywood, naturally there's a nauseating twist.
A friend of mine, a 48-year-old actress-turned-writer, got a lot of interest in a vaguely First Wives-ish treatment she wrote, about three over-40 friends reentering the dating world. But when she actually met with the producer, an over-40 woman herself, the news wasn't good. "These women cannot be in their 40s," the producer announced flatly. "They have to be 38." Why? "Because we have to believe they have a chance at a future life."
And actually, even 38 may not be young enough. Because then an executive said that the studio was only interested in the project as a starring vehicle for Sandra Bullock. And Sandra Bullock is...well, let's see?either only 35 or only 31, depending on which reports you believe. With true foresight, Bullock began fudging her age several years ago, although she seems to have stopped, after Vanity Fair called her on it.
Not that men are immune to this sort of thing. After Albert Brooks' character's cri du coeur that he was a 40-year-old man in Mother a few years ago, I couldn't take my eyes off the then-49-year-old Brooks' jowls. Still, they have it easier, both on screen and off.
Some time ago, my father and I were sitting on a bench outside a Los Angeles courtroom. We'd just finished testifying for my ex-husband in his custody trial with his #2 ex-wife. "She's a horny broad," my father remarked, about the #2 ex-wife's lawyer.
I could feel a headache coming on. "Why do you say that?"
"Because when she asked me a question I didn't want to answer, I said, 'Well, you know, I'm 70 years old, and my memory isn't quite what it used to be.'" Technically this is true?he is 70, and his memory isn't quite what it used to be?but it's still better than the memories of 99 percent of people half his age.
"Then she stared at me and said, 'Hmm, you look pretty good for 70.'"
I closed my eyes, wishing I had a Tylenol. "Yeah, Dad, she wants your bod," I said. Obviously, she just wasn't buying his Clintonian answer. But then my eyes snapped open again with a sudden thought. That lawyer looked like she was in her mid-50s. And the man shortage at that age being what it is... Probably, I realized, she did want his bod. And why should he not think so, given how Hollywood encourages this attitude? So far, he's seen As Good As It Gets three times.
I could see my future, and it wasn't pretty. I think that's when I started my eyebag fund.
On the other hand, there is hope on the horizon. I saw the actress mom at the bus stop the other day and she was much more cheerful. She'd gotten some work, on the tv show Star Trek: Voyager. There are roles for over-40 actresses after all. "I spent all last week as a Klingon," she said happily.