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The Icons of Book Club on Sex, Sexism and Life After 70

6 minute read

Candice Bergen is probably only half kidding when she says that Book Club, the new movie in which she stars with Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen, is about “glamorous geezers having sex.” Sure, the plot revolves around four older women reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and that does precipitate a little over-70 sex (and a lot of talking about it).

But the male love interests here (Richard Dreyfuss, Don Johnson, Andy Garcia and Craig T. Nelson) are supporting players–comic foils for funny, sexy women. There’s plenty of over-the-top romance, and most of the expected boxes get checked. (Almost everyone couples up in the end.) The heart of the story, though, is about friendship–both onscreen and off.

From the minute these four women walk into the garden at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills for tea and tiny macarons, it’s obvious they really like one another. This is the first time any of them have worked together, but it seems as if they, like their characters, have known one another for ages. Or so we want to believe. With people who have been so famous for so long, the lines between the individuals and their roles inevitably blur.

That’s especially true with this movie. The production budget was so small that some of the clothing the actors wear is their own, from Keaton’s wide belts to Fonda’s slim pantsuits. Co-producers and writers Erin Simms and Bill Holderman (who also directed) wrote one character with Keaton in mind and revised another for Fonda, after she deemed the original script too simplistic.

The filmmakers were also advised to cast younger “older” women–all the leads but Steenburgen are over 70. They wisely declined and ended up with a roster of icons with four Oscars and six Emmys between them. Despite all that talent, they had to finance the film independently before it was acquired for distribution.

It’s different when the stars are men. There are ample parts in blockbusters and buddy movies for older dudes, grumpy and otherwise. And while it’s noteworthy when four women over 60 lead a movie, no one marvels at seeing 63-year-old Denzel Washington as an action hero in the upcoming The Equalizer 2 or 65-year-old Jeff Goldblum in this summer’s Jurassic World sequel.

It’s doubtful that either of those men had to borrow from their own closets, but watching the stars of Book Club cracking jokes over tea, it’s hard not to think that it might be the action heroes who are missing out.

“Who wants peppermint? Jane, give me your cup.” Bergen takes the lead at tea, and within 15 minutes, the women have covered subjects including sex, sexism, loss, aging, feeling invisible as an older person and making new friends when everyone already knows your name.

“It’s always been the woman’s disadvantage to be older, never the man’s,” says Fonda. But how is it to age in Hollywood’s fickle climate? Did they ever grieve the loss of attention?

“Once I turned 40, I was like, ‘Hey, hey!'” says Bergen, waving her arms. “And now at almost 72, I don’t even expect anyone to acknowledge my presence.”

“She’s right,” says Keaton.

“But I love being invisible,” Fonda says. “I can go anywhere.”

The whole table turns to her, incredulous. But Fonda insists she can go to a grocery store unnoticed, without wearing a disguise.

“If you just move through life in a certain way, people don’t pay any attention,” she says.

Everyone digests this silently for a few seconds. Then Bergen says quietly, “Well … I did have a tiiiiny, tiiiiny moment of grief.” Her timing is exquisite, cracking everyone up. She explains that after her hit 1990s show, Murphy Brown, ended, she had to get used to spelling her name for a restaurant reservation.

All the women say they’re grateful to still be working actors, not least of all on a film relevant to their demographic–one that’s pitifully underserved. “That this movie was made at all is a miracle,” says Bergen. “A miracle,” agrees Keaton.

Fonda says she never expected to be going to a set every day at 80. And it’s true: just by being here in the spotlight, they have already defied the special laws of gravity that govern women in Hollywood. Survival is success.

At one point, Keaton interjects to marvel that the four of them have only now found one another. “I just didn’t know how hilarious these women were or how we could have this kind of a conversation!” She gestures in a Keatonian way, “I mean, oh my God!”

There’s always an element of both delight and caution in finding new friends later in life, and it’s surely more complicated for celebrities. Steenburgen says actors are often surprisingly reticent about meeting new people or even going to parties. But she adds, “I actually want to be braver about everything, including friendships.

Some subjects the film touches upon–life after retirement, relationships with adult children and the ability to live independently–are serious. And yet the movie is light. The women date and find love. They eat ice cream. Book Club is not so different from younger girlfriend comedies like Girls Trip or Bridesmaids. And it could find a millennial audience, like Fonda’s Netflix series Grace and Frankie, whose young fans (like Miley Cyrus) post about how they’re “STOKED” for the next season. Clearly, badass older ladies are having a moment. Just ask Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Joan Didion or Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Maybe they never went out of fashion. Fonda recalls filming the 1981 drama On Golden Pond, in which she starred alongside her father. She was fixing her hair in the mirror when the legendarily stylish Katharine Hepburn, then 74, took her cheek and asked, “What does this mean to you?” (Fonda does a very good Hepburn.) “This is your box. This is how you are presented to the world.” Confused at first, she realized Hepburn was annoyed that she wasn’t paying attention to her style, to what she was saying with her look. Fonda says she did start paying attention, and she hired a stylist.

She and her co-stars are certainly conscious of how they’re perceived, but part of their appeal is that they don’t seem self-conscious in the corrosive way that younger women can be. They make 70 look like the year women are liberated from all that idiocy. If that’s not true, and they actually spend their nights fretting about wrinkles and the state of their upper arms, then maybe we’d rather not know. Let’s just go with this movie fantasy, in which women get to march into old age with a posse of hilarious friends, a fierce wardrobe and as much sex as they can handle.

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