What if I were to tell you that I haven’t told you all my stories, that I haven’t even lived my best stories, would you believe me? I’m 54. I’ve met my great love. I’ve become a mother. I’ve done a range of jobs. What else could there be to talk about? What else could there be left to tell, to do, to discover?
Why would you (and sometimes me) believe that there is nothing more for me to do? That I am finished, better placed as side-kick, minor character, comedic cameo?
Well, it might be that like me, you got too many of your ideas about the stories we are allowed to tell from the movies. And…
“Hollywood’s message is clear. Women get old. Men just get… older.” (Stephen Whitty, NJ Arts)
The Institute of Gender in Media looked at women over 50 on screen and found that in the years 2010 – 2020 characters over fifty only make up 20% of the characters on screen, and of those only a quarter are women.
It is well documented how women go from playing lovers to mothers in a very short period of time (with the unsaid part being that mothers are no longer sexually attractive). In Punchline, 1988 Sally Field played a love interest to Tom Hanks, but by Forrest Gump, 1994 she played his mother, despite being only 10 years older than him.
The biggest female stars are blonde, slight and beautiful, right? The glamorous woman is centre stage and even then we accept that she will be small, silent and apologetic for her allure. When did we become so accepting of a man narrating our stories, framing our bodies, denying us motivation? I’m sitting in a café and I’m surrounded by women of all shapes, colours and sizes. And all of them will have a story to tell. But would we listen if we didn’t like the wrapping?
There are trends in movies, but the women are always young and pretty, right?
Except, there was Marie Dressler.
As Betty Lee says in her biography of Dressler – the Unlikeliest Star:
“She was homely, overweight and over the hill, but there was a time when Marie Dressler outdrew such sex symbols as Garbo, Dietrich and Harlow”
In the January 1933 edition of Motion Picture Herald, Dressler was designated the number one box-office star against the competition of the pretty young women like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford or Myrna Loy.
Marie Dressler had been involved in show business since the age of 14 in vaudeville and Broadway. She was a pioneer of early cinema appearing in the first feature length comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance in 1914 alongside the Keystone Cops. But it was in 1930 at the age of 61 that she won her first Oscar for her role in Min and Bill and was nominated again in 1932 for Emma, just over a year before her death from cancer in 1934.
She was never a romantic lead. As she says in her autobiography “The Story of an Ugly Duckling”
“Fate cast me to play the roles of an ugly duckling with no promise of swanning”
But she knew she could entertain,
“I realised that my beauty, if any, lay under the skin. No-one has ever exclaimed ‘Isn’t she a beautiful child!’. But I found it quite as delightful when they said, ‘Isn’t she funny!’”
Her career was hardly a straightforward linear progression. There were triumphs often followed by periods of unemployment, bad financial management and bankruptcy. This probably added to her appeal in the depression era of the late 20s and early 30s. She was a star who had lived the worst of times, like her audience.
And it is easy to see why audiences loved her. She had great comic timing. The exchange between her and Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933) is delivered perfectly:
Harlow: I was reading a book the other day.
Dressler: Reading a book?
Harlow: Yes, it's all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Dressler: Oh my dear, that's something you need never worry about.
In Min and Bill (1930), we see Dressler at the height of her comedic powers, but also a toughness that deals with the drama of the plot.
In Emma (1932), a schlocky melodrama, that follows Emma as housekeeper who marries the man of the house, only to be widowed and the grown-up children disputing the will. It could fail spectacularly without the strength of Dressler’s central performance. She carries the drama as well as performing physical comedy.
As the stills above show, she was never the glamorous starlet. But she was the box-office draw. Hollywood take note. People don't just want stories of outstanding natural beauty.
Marie Dressler was born 100 years before me (almost to the day – my birthday is 3 November in case you’re wondering – it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got me a present, I’m fine with cash). And was older than I am now when she was at the top of her profession. And who knows if she had not become ill, what else she might have achieved.
She is my great reminder that:
No, I am not in my twenties, but Yes, I am absolutely in my prime.
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About the Creator
Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.
Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.