Narcissism and Hollywood often seem synonymous. Not only do actors, as they’re stereotyped, get caught in paralytic reflection-gazing, but so too does the industry from which they’re born. You can feel the giddiness of a film or TV show when it engages in its own act of narcissism: self-parody. It often becomes scathing, pointed — and electric. 2014 has been particularly full of exquisite self-parody in the film and TV mediums.
Each of the works below uses an actor character as the center of its parody. This makes perfect sense because, as professional vessels, actors reflect the entertainment industry’s every absurd desire — and are among the most affected by its satire-worthy qualities, to the extent that they embody them. The industry is age-obsessed, thus the actor must become age-obsessed. But age, as we know, is uncontrollable. And as actors find their bodies and faces doing that thing that bodies and faces do as we grow older, they find the industry simultaneously neglecting them and searching for the next young person to indoctrinate, to uplift, and then to set on a path of fear that escalates in unison with their escalating years. The industry is, of course, especially age-intolerant with women — and this is reflected in the number of female characters at the center of Hollywood self-satire this year.
Here are this year’s most fascinating characters who happen to be aging under the reign of a harsh youth ideal:
Valerie Cherish — The Comeback
Valerie Cherish — Lisa Kudrow, and Michael Patrick King’s gratingly brilliant creation — is this year’s quintessential example of the archetype: when she appeared in the series’ first season ten years ago, she was in her early 40s, and Hollywood was already beginning to abandon her because of it, asking her to take desperate measures, like signing on to star in a reality TV show in order to secure a role in a sitcom, in order to stay relevant. Now, nine years later, she’s nine years more forgotten, burdened by a dust-collecting supply of “Cherish Your Hair” dye and by the notion that the only way to break back into Hollywood is by playing her old — in both senses of the word — self. To be anything whatsoever in the present, she’s forced to make a joke of her past.
Riggan Thomson — Birdman
Michael Keaton’s Thomson is probably the year’s most prominent — if not the most nuanced — example of the aging-actor type. After declining to play the superhero Birdman for a fourth time, Thomson fell into obscurity. Now, far from the youngish meat monster one needs to be to play an action hero, he’s trying to prove himself as impressive a pseudo-intellectual as any Broadway personality, through his oddly grandiose theatrical Raymond Carver adaptation. But while his confidence wanes, his old Birdman character begins taunting him, giving him the most pathetic delusions that he may be a superhuman savior. Sadly, he’s not trying to save anything but his own ego — an act so caught up in delusion that it’s doing the opposite.
Maria Enders — Clouds of Sils Maria
Juliette Binoche’s Maria certainly cannot be considered “washed up.” Her acting career is still thriving, still revered, still glamorized — it’s all still going so swimmingly, in fact, that she has Kristen Stewart as her assistant! But when she’s approached to act in the same play that made her famous — a play about the relationship between an older and younger woman that leads the older woman to suicide — her professional and existential security are called into question. She became famous playing a character whose youth was her power; now the roles have switched, and she has to watch her younger co-star rise to fame through the usurpation of her old role — a role whose function is to destabilize the older character. (Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria hit the festival circuit this year, and will see limited release in the US in March, 2015.)
Emily Mortimer — Doll & Em
In HBO’s Doll & Em, Emily Mortimer and best friend Dolly Wells (both are the show’s creators and writers) play themselves — sort of. Their friendship suffers, as would be expected, when Dolly becomes Mortimer’s personal assistant. But while Emily, the movie star, is seen as a prima donna, Wells’ role as the humble assistant wins over everyone on set — suddenly, she’s seen as the beau ideal of the actor, i.e. a non-actor, and Mortimer falls further and further into the shadows of the set’s social hierarchy. This triggers something of a career crisis, with Mortimer suddenly obsessing over her impending obsolescence. In the photo above, Mortimer is put in age makeup to play a 60-year-old, though the makeup obviously makes her look more like an octogenarian. When Dolly innocently says “60! That’s 20 years away!,” Mortimer feels her “60”-year-old mask turning to stone atop her face.
Elsa — American Horror Story: Freak Show
Jessica Lange’s Elsa has a similar story to the rest of ’em (including last years’ AHS character, Fiona Goode), only peppered with the requisite ridiculous AHS trappings: ultimately, she just wants to be a staaaaah, and a few things have held her back. Unlike, say, Valerie Cherish, who was pigeonholed as a very specific type of sitcom actor and couldn’t reshape her image, Elsa’s AHS-y parallel is that her legs were (non-consensually) amputated for a German snuff film. And unlike the things that some of these other characters might do — like adapt a Raymond Carver novel or star in a scathing portrayal of herself — Elsa’s desperate measure is also a little more AHS-specific. When she feels threatened by the stage presence of two anachronistically Fiona Apple-singing conjoined twins (I mean, don’t we all?), she sells them to be the love-slaves of Jupiter, Florida’s hottest serial murderer.
Robin Wright — The Congress
In Ari Folman’s The Congress, Robin Wright plays a character named Robin Wright. Of course, the real Robin Wright’s career isn’t currently suffering like that of the Robin Wright in The Congress (as is visible in her starring role in The Congress). The character in the film is seen as difficult, and no longer gets offered roles. Her career has plummeted to such an extent that she cannot afford to pay for the operations her son needs to prevent him from going blind and deaf. So, in order to make an extra buck for the sake of her sensorily threatened son, she sells her image to a CGI company who ultimately attempt to turn it into a commodified identity that anyone can purchase and become.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon — The Trip to Italy
With what Grantland’s Wesley Morris referred to as “a melancholy that sneaks up on you,” The Trip to Italy saw Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon teaming up again for another caloric vacation, where the actors put gorgeous things in their mouths, annoyed stuffy fine-diners with their comedians’ antics, competed to be the better aging male comedian, and occasionally faced the less goofy facts of aging and (eventually) dying.
Milo Dean — The Skeleton Twins
Milo kicks off The Skeleton Twins with an attempted suicide: ten years after having moved to LA to pursue acting, Milo’s life has stagnated, his goals not only unachieved, but now entirely absent. When he returns home to New York to stay with his sister, he lies to his former high school English teacher/lover about having an agent that he can pass scripts along to. Unlike most of the other characters on this list, his character hasn’t been cast aside by the industry: he’s always been on the margins.
Vanda — Venus in Fur
Emmanuelle Seigner’s character (Vanda) in Polanski’s French-language adaptation of the play Venus in Fur situates herself within the desperate thespian trope, then hijacks it. When she shows up at the theater where Mathieu Almaric’s director character is hosting auditions, she’s sporting a corset and dog collar she looks to have purchased at Le Topique Chaud. Her heavy makeup is cascading down her face from the rain. She makes a great many gaffes in her attempts at small talk about the script — she seems like something cooked up in a misogynist director’s nightmare. Though she’s two hours late to her audition, she and her running mascara beg him for a chance to audition. But when he capitulates, it very soon becomes clear that he’ll keep capitulating — that these capitulations will, in fact, lead to a strange reenactment of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s literary birth of masochism. Vanda, we see, is anything but powerless.
Havana Segrand — Maps to the Stars
While David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars didn’t win the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (it’ll be released in the US in February), Julianne Moore won Best Actress for her turn as Havana Segrand, the aging star who suffered abuse by her actress mother when she was a child. Similar to Doll and Em and The Clouds of Sils Maria, this film deals with the tense (and in the case of Maps, violent) power dynamics between celebrities and their assistants. And, similar to Clouds and The Comeback, the film sets its archetypal aging actress on a nauseating meta-journey, where the role being played dangerously mirrors reality: Havana happens to be preparing to star in a remake of her mother’s movie.