On July 30, two of America’s premier media outlets simultaneously gave voice to the huge number of us who often call ourselves "middle-aged," then pause uncomfortably at the realization that is no longer quite true. Instead, we are actually stumbling around in the new territory, both dark and exhilarating, of being old.
Surely the premier of HBO’s documentary About Face: Super Models Then and Now, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and the newstand appearance of the New Yorker profile “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two,’’ by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, fell on the same day only coincidentally. But their themes, although not connected by legions of critics and commentators, were all but identical.
How does one reinvent oneself and remain relevant, or make peace with the losses — both private and public — that come at a certain age when all things are no longer possible and never will be again? How do we swallow this bitter pill — because bitter it is — and also recognize its sweetness, and the liberation that comes when striving of a certain kind is mostly beside the point? And finally, who are we if we’re not who we used to be?
There may be people who breeze through this transition, which seemed easier in our parents’ generation, when a 65-year-old didn’t expect to live for two more decades. But I have yet to meet one.
Models Offer "a Hyper Look at Aging"
About Face is more direct in its purpose, and far less subtle and unnerving, than the Springsteen profile. Director Greenfield-Saunders, himself 60, could not have been clearer when telling Terry Gross, on NPR’s Fresh Air, what motivated his project. "It’s a metaphor for how we grow old and deal with changes in our lives," he said. "A hyper look at aging." The models, after experiencing the inherent drama and poignancy — shared perhaps only by professional athletes — of feeling over the hill in their 20s, when the next 15-year-old beauty appeared in the dressing room, now speak of the contentment of being older and wiser. (The subjects of the documentary range in age from their 40s to their 80s.) But they share only superficially what surely was a painful passage from there to here.
Their observations, predictably, have to do with the physical form of aging: crows feet and pounds added when they stopped literally starving themselves. Carol Alt, now 51, says she forced herself to shed nearly 50 pounds for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue as a 17-year-old; then, at 49, she did a Playboy cover — "For me this was a statement" — but had a fit when, contrary to her contract, the photographs were initially retouched until, as she told Fresh Air, she "looked like Barbie." She says she is a happier, healthier woman now, and I believe her, but I yearned for some guidance on how she arrived at that place.
The other dominant subject of About Face is plastic surgery and similar enhancers of youth. "Is this the new foot binding?" asks Isabella Rossellini, 60. "Is this a new way to be a mysogynist?" Paulina Porizkova, a mere 47, adds, "Nothing says 'I'm not confident' as much as Botox." Only Jerry Hall, 56, says the hard stuff out loud: "Of course it’s no fun getting old and sick and dying. We all know that’s coming and it’s a bore… [But] I think it’s bad when we have as role models people who look scary to small children."
Carmel Dell’Orefice, now 81, and modeling since she was 15, is the only one in the film still working — or admitting to plastic surgery. With a shock of white hair and a plastic surgeon whom Joan Rivers must wish she had hired, Dell’Orefice, as haughty as she is beautiful, makes no apologies: "If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?"
Pain and Loss Surround Springsteen
The lost-and-found of aging is but a part of the New Yorker profile of Springsteen. Yet its title, "We Are Alive," suggests the importance of the theme of holding up and even moving forward as friends and contemporaries who are sick or dying become the rule, not the exception, and we begin living amid ghosts. Remnick takes us all the way back to Springsteen’s first longing to be a star, in 1957, watching Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, and to his early performances at "Sweet 16s and Elk Club dances" in gritty central New Jersey. But mostly he writes about the current "Wrecking Ball" tour, which began in the spring and will last about a year, testing Springsteen’s 62-year-old body, however "preposterously fit" it may be.
These are concerts, Remnick writes, of more than three hours without a break during which the star, while not immune to the ravages of time, comes "as close as a white man of Social Security age can get to James Brown circa 1962 without risking a herniated disk or shattered pelvis." Backstage, ice packs, heating pads and tubes of Bengay soothe what the treadmill and weight training can’t erase at this stage of life. Remnick notes Springsteen’s receding hairline, but rather than asking his subject the question directly, as Greenfield-Sanders did, he simply speculates that "if one had to guess, he has, over the years, in the face of high-def scrutiny and the fight against time, enjoined the expensive attentions of cosmetic and dental practitioners."
More melancholy for Springsteen than the physical changes are thoughts of those missing from the stage — and the walking wounded still on it. Among E Street Band members still performing, one has had both hips replaced; another has had open-heart surgery, treatment for prostate cancer, two failed back operations and seven hand surgeries. Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, 64, is at home recovering from brain surgery that cost him his sight in one eye.
Since the last tour, his organist and accordion player, his body man, and his trainer have passed away. A few weeks before rehearsals for this tour began, Springsteen lost a beloved aunt. And the day before a concert in Barcelona, band mate Steven Van Zandt, Springsteen’s best friend since childhood, lost his mother.
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But no hole is bigger than the one left by the death of close friend and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, replaced on this tour by his young nephew. During the last tour, Clemons, a former football player and a hard liver, was already so hobbled that he made his way through arena tunnels in a golf cart. He had had hip and knee replacements, as well as back surgery, before finally succumbing to a stroke in June 2011, at age 69. Springsteen told Remnick that losing Clemons was like losing "the sea and the stars." He said he saw these latest performances, 40 years into his career, as a way to acknowledge so many losses "without turning the concert into a lugubrious memorial service."
"This show is the latest installment and, in many ways, it’s the most complicated installment because in many ways, it has to do with the end of that ride," Springsteen says. "There is a finiteness to it, though the end may be a long time away.’’
This, to me, is what joins these two pieces of work, both anthems to the first generation given both the gift and the toil of what for many, if not most, of us will be an entire generation of life that did not exist for our predecessors, except a few outliers on the demographic bell curve. As we have been so many times before, we are the canaries in the coal mine. We will figure out how to live these bonus 20 years, mindfully or by squeezing our eyes shut and fumbling through. Either way, those of us in our 60s will leave bread crumbs for the 20-, 30- and 40-somethings to follow. May we mark the trail well.