Why The "Forever Young" Trope Never Gets Old

Photo: Gregory Pace/BEImages.
“This is life's ultimate cruelty,” says the sorceress Lisle Von Rhuman in the '90s horror-screwball comedy Death Becomes Her. “It offers us a taste of youth and vitality, and then it makes us witness our own decay.”

This spring, we are getting a front-row seat to witnessing this decay — and the anxiety around it. Just last month, TV Land threw its hat into the sitcom ring with Younger, starring Sutton Foster as a fortysomething divorcee who lies about her age to get a job and a new boyfriend. And, this week, the movie Age of Adaline premieres, starring Blake Lively as a woman who, after a car accident, becomes trapped in her 20s for eight decades. She falls in love with a mortal (no mere mortal, actually: Michiel Huisman) and has to lie about her agelessness.

The two projects may express it from different angles, and through different lenses (shiny sitcom, gauzy drama), but they are both tapping into obsessions that seem more urgent than ever: Do we really want to live forever? Are we supposed to attack aging or embrace it? We know it’s possible to age gracefully — just look at Helen Mirren — but should we feel badly about ourselves if we don’t have Mirren’s genes?

Being immortal, cheating old age, living on and on — timeless tropes in the movies, from 1937’s Lost Horizon (explorers discover Shangri-La) to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt ages in reverse) to Death Becomes Her (Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep drink a youth potion).

Our obsession with youth fits the cinematic arts as tightly as a glove. French film theorist André Bazin once ascribed the fundamental human impulse to create art to a desire to conquer time and death. He died of leukemia at the age of 40.

Sometimes, it’s all about lighting. Whether they are gods, vampires, or superheroes, it’s important to bathe your immortal star in a certain kind of glow. Think Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen: twinkly, pale, cabernet-red lip stain. Or, Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire, with her haunted pallor, auburn curls, and knowing eyes. Set in San Francisco, The Age of Adaline wraps Lively in a wet, sweater-weather fog. 

Some actors are genetically predisposed to look immortal. The more alien, androgynous, or otherwordly-looking you are, the better — like Tilda Swinton in Orlando and Only Lovers Left Alive; Jaye Davidson as the sun god Ra in Stargate; Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in the '80s vampire classic The Hunger. (He hasn’t played an immortal yet, but Benedict Cumberbatch — who looks like he was raised underwater by a family of sharks — has a long career ahead of him playing immortal cursed souls.)  

Blake Lively, who usually exudes “I’m getting a salad on Venice Beach while wearing Dior from the latest resort collection,” isn’t the first person one thinks of as timeless-looking. But, her gazelle-like beauty becomes the anchor in the increasingly convoluted story (how she becomes ageless is explained through a series of bizarre, unintentionally hilarious voiceovers about tides and telomeres and defibrillation). Despite this, she proves herself as a stellar lead actress. And, like most immortals in film, she is pained by her perpetual youth, fraught with despair about being so young and gorgeous and fitting into evening gowns.

Foster portrays the polar opposite angst on Younger. With her approachable beauty and well-honed comedic chops, she's not at all the preternatural immortal. Concealing her age magnifies the aging anxieties many people feel every day, with bitterly hilarious results. Every episode involves her nearly blowing her cover, like when she exposes her un-manicured nether region to her twentysomething friends in the gym locker room. And, before sleeping with her oblivious and sexy young boyfriend, she worries he will notice the boob crease she has from “too many years sleeping on my side.”

Humankind has obsessed about aging forever, but now it seems to be a paralyzing cultural anxiety. Gone are the days of Hollywood immortality, when you could isolate yourself, like Greta Garbo. Now, exposing a star without makeup has become a national pastime — a shaming ritual.

Plus, all our relentless selfie-taking and posting seems very much tied up in our compulsions about how we're aging: Do you still like me? Did you double-tap a heart on my photo? Am I still attractive? Am I still here? If the fantasy of immortality fits film like a glove, it fits social media like a silicone cell phone case.

Meanwhile, a new wave of elixirs and fixers (from nootropics and plastic surgery to advances in biotechnology, or, as in Age of Adaline, some strange scientific principle that will be discovered in 2035) are refreshing the promise that eternal youth is possible, someday. But, every promise still sounds a lot like Lisle Von Rhuman offering her magical cure: “Drink that potion, and you'll never grow even one day older. Don't drink it, and continue to watch yourself rot.” (The character is played by another otherwordly beauty, Isabella Rossellini.)

So, how do we escape our anxieties about aging? Well, let's at least start by putting down the selfie stick and going on a social media vacation. It’s certainly better than drinking a magical potion.

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