Thursday, January 20, 2022

Fantastic at 50: Classic Movie Actresses

Earlier this month I celebrated my 50th birthday, one of those milestone events that feels important even if the pandemic kept me from doing much to mark the occasion. Several years ago, when I was 42, I wrote a post about 42 year old classic movie actresses and the films they made at that age, so this seems like a good time to revisit the idea and think about stars who enjoyed significant moments in their careers when they were 50. Of course, being 50 in 2022 is quite a bit different from being 50 in 1952, and Hollywood actresses in the studio era faced tremendous age discrimination. The women who managed long careers did so through versatility, perseverance, talent, and sheer determination. Here are a few of my favorite classic movie actresses and the films they made in their 50th year.

Katharine Hepburn, born in 1907, made the great romantic comedy Desk Set in 1957, one of her many pictures with costar Spencer Tracy. It's a funny, sweet story that highlights middle aged romance and women with careers, and it's actually one of my favorite movies that the pair made together. Of course, Hepburn would go on to even more great roles and Oscar nominations after 50, including three Best Actress wins.

Hepburn's Desk Set costar, Joan Blondell, was a year older, but she also enjoyed a long career. In 1956 the 50 year old star appeared as part of the ensemble cast in The Opposite Sex, a remake of the 1939 hit, The Women. Although she's best remembered today for her dozens of Pre-Code and other 1930s films, Blondell went right on acting until her death in 1979.

Bette Davis, born in 1908, was mostly doing television work in 1958, with a couple of guest spots on different series over the course of her 50th year. Even top stars like Davis and Crawford found big film roles harder to come by as they aged, especially if they wanted to avoid playing supporting characters like mothers to younger leading ladies. Davis, however, would eventually lean into horror roles and make the most of her lifelong ability to transform herself into extreme characters. Like Blondell, she would continue acting right up until her death in 1989.

Gloria Swanson was 51 by the time Sunset Blvd. appeared in theaters in 1950, but the actress really was 50 years old when she played the 50 year old Norma Desmond. It's a role that digs into the crisis of aging for a Hollywood actress, and it's not exactly flattering. Still, Swanson is brilliant in the film, and it's a shame the movie didn't inspire a revival for the star. Her leading man, William Holden, was still enjoying big movie roles well into his 50s, but Swanson, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Sunset Blvd., moved on to television appearances and semi-retirement.

Of course, some actresses fared better after 50 than others, with comic character actresses being some of the best at maintaining their careers. Long-legged Charlotte Greenwood made Down Argentine Way (1940), Mary Wickes appeared in Cimmaron (1960), Marjorie Main made seven films in 1940, and her friend Spring Byington took on ten roles in her 50th year in 1936. They had never been famous for their glamorous youth and beauty, and they trooped along through the decades in supporting roles that allowed them to keep working long after the starlet types had been forced into retirement.

When I look at modern actresses who are turning 50 this year, I see Cameron Diaz, Rebecca Romijn, Toni Collette, Jennifer Garner, and Gwyneth Paltrow, all of whom are still working and even thriving with their careers. I doubt they'll have to resort to hagsploitation roles like Davis and Crawford, and it's encouraging to think that we see 50 differently now than we did during the classic movie era. Personally, I'm feeling pretty good about being 50, and I plan to celebrate with several special blog posts in the weeks ahead.

If you're turning 50 this year, too, happy birthday, and remember, Jessica Tandy won an Oscar at 80, so you're definitely not too old to accomplish something big!


  1. I love this idea for a blog entry. I'd be curious to do the same thing for myself. I'm 37, turning 38 this year; but I don't want to look like a copycat! Lol. Looking at the who's who list of who is turning 50, that is also crazy to me. I can remember when Cameron Diaz was the "It" girl in the 90s when she was still a 20-something.

    Thanks for this interesting article.

    Kayla (Whimsically Classic)

    1. Feel free to do your own version! I missed the chance to do one for 40 and wish now I had thought of it sooner. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!