There’s nothing fair about these fairy tales
SNOW White is having a Hollywood moment. Along with a recent TV appearance in Once Upon a Time, the tale is popping up in two movies: Mirror Mirror, a campy comedy that opened this month, and the violent, superintense Snow White and the Huntsman, which is due out this summer.
Unlike the 1937 Disney classic, which focused mostly on the ingenue charms of dear little Snow White, the new film adaptations seem more interested in the desperate psychodrama of the Evil Queen, played in Mirror Mirror by Julia Roberts and by Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman.
Now, it’s a bad thing when female stars over 35 drop off the scene, the studios believing that they’re box-office poison apples. It might be even worse, how- ever, when two female Oscar winners of a certain age actually get to headline two movies — and they’re each playing a monster who schemes and murders to hold onto her youth and beauty.
Both movies feature a lot of staring into mirrors, with Roberts and Theron giving their reflections that appraising once-over. Roberts’s struggle with the glass is played for comedy: “They’re not wrinkles,” she quips, checking out the corners of her eyes, “just crinkles.”
Cue the medieval-style spa day, in which scorpion bites and bee stings stand in for Botox. Roberts also gets laced into her corset by some fiendish tightening contraption, laughing that Pretty Woman laugh at the idea she might have put on weight.
Theron’s relationship with her looking-glass is a lot more overwrought and scary, her mirror being made of molten gold that oozes onto the floor and then reconstitutes itself into a sinister hooded figure ready for a staredown. Getting back to the story’s Grimm — and extremely grim — roots, this queen’s beauty treatments involve cannibalism. She sucks the youth out of hapless maidens as part of her maintenance regimen, but what she really wants to do is devour Snow White’s beating heart. “Beauty is my power,” says Theron’s icy queen. And she doesn’t plan to let it go.
Maybe it’s not surprising that actresses can look convincing as characters who fret about fading beauty and plot to kill their younger rivals. This is kind of the way things go in Hollywood. Except for those glorious tokens, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren, midlife women don’t do well in the industry. Many transition to television. Some are demoted to straight-to-dvd movies or regional dinner theatre or reality TV contests. Some just disappear. (And some won’t go away. Sean Young, onetime star of ’80s movies like Blade Runner and No Way Out, keeps crashing Oscar parties, showing up like the forgotten bad fairy at the feast.)
Those who persist have to deal with a culture that only recognizes the kind of unlined, unworried beauty that is allied with youth. Roberts and Theron are both gorgeous women, but when they appear in advertisements or on magazine covers, they’re usually Photoshopped into smooth, gleaming strangeness. They’re supposed to look young, but they end up looking like androids.
In these terms, Snow White is a perfect little story to illustrate current boomer anxiety about aging, especially female aging. In fairy tales, you can either be a maiden or a crone. The Evil Queen keeps the crone at bay with dark magic. Boomers use the even darker magic of the billion-dollar beauty industry, as the aging process is reduced to a willed, laborious and expensive replication of youth.
Age is just a number, we keep telling ourselves, and 50 is the new 29.
Now that’s a fairy tale.
Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen in Mirror Mirror.