Reflecting the lives of women of real substance

Older women too often feel invisible because they see few faces like theirs in the media, says leading actress Dame Harriet Walter. She talks to Sheena Hastings.

TAKE a good look at Harriet Walter. Does this strong face with fine cheekbones and the lines of a 60-year-old make you want to turn away, or are you intrigued? Do visible signs of ageing make you feel that this acclaimed classical actor is more or less able to convince when she plays a character who’s saintly, vile or any shade in between?

Does the white hair beneath 78-year-old Sheila Hancock’s glamorous hat detract from her ability to amuse, or the crow’s feet around Annie Lennox’s beautiful eyes mean that, at 56, she enthrals less with her vocal witchery or when she talks about the political issues she espouses so passionately?

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Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both 76) may not exactly exult in the wrinkles that time and experience have brought them but they, like Dame Harriet, don’t believe that their faces are the sum total of who they are. This, especially in the age of the air brush, is fighting talk.

For all she has a track record or breaking through taboos about sexuality and female power, Madonna apparently saw no harm in her slightly saggy cheeks and hint of loose neck being erased by the electronic wand when she modelled for the super-expensive accessories label Louis Vuitton last year. As one commentator put, it no wants to buy a bag from an “old bag” – even if a 51-year-old may be far more likely to afford the luxury goods than the 20-somethings the advertiser would have her emulate. LV wanted the coolness of the Madonna brand, but not the reality of the still-handsome but middle-aged face of her Madge. She really ought to have done other grown-up women a favour and said no, but anyway someone saw fit to make a point by leaking the pre-touch-up images.

Some people may deny it, but contemplating and coming to terms with the physical signs of age is difficult for anyone and much more so for women, whom society generally and increasingly expects to continue forever to look weirdly like their young and most nubile selves. If you don’t, you will become invisible seems to be the subliminal message, so the stark choices many women in the public eye feel they face are the knife or becoming part of the wallpaper, overlooked and under-employed. Where celebrities go, many ordinary mortals sadly follow...

Harriet Walter believes there is a third way for women whose face is their fortune – and all of us. Her simple credo is this: why not enjoy, luxuriate in and celebrate the interesting lines and little hollows that living has added to a face that was once a blank canvas?

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Walter, whose award-winning work includes Anthony and Cleopatra (as Cleopatra), Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Arcadia, Life x 3 and Women Beware Women with the National Theatre and West End roles in such work as Dinner, The Late Middle Classes and The Royal Family, as well as Mary Stuart on Broadway, is keen that she does not appear to be using her new book and photographic exhibition about older women as a means of bemoaning the lot of the ageing actor.

She’s one of Britain’s busiest actors, with a CV that also boasts recent film credits in Bright Young Things, Atonement and Young Victoria, and on TV we’ve seen her recently as DI Natalie Chandler in Law and Order: UK. She was made a Dame last year for her services to drama, and now at the start of her seventh decade, she’s as energetic as ever. Self-publishing, horseriding and marriage for the first time, to American actor Guy Schuessler keep her busy outside the theatre or studio.

For several years Walter has been collecting images of older women, famous and unknown, whose faces have inspired and moved her. Some were captured by well-known photographers, others by friends, and a few by her own camera. She has curated a travelling exhibition of these wonderful women, but when it came to publishing a book of them, she was serially rejected. So she and a friend did it themselves.

“It was one of those strange things. No-one seemed to think it was a great proposition, but now it’s out everyone’s saying what a great idea,” she says.

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The starting point for the two projects was a confusion about how to approach her own advancing years in a society which often ignores older women. She looked around for the older faces in our culture who would be her role models and found few, except for the likes of Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. “They (older women) are strong and beautiful and their faces speak of how interesting they are. But there aren’t many. Young girls and women are conditioned to aspire to look like other people. From an early age we leaf through magazines measuring ourselves up against the airbrushed images of a fairly narrow standard of female perfection.

“The habit of aspiration dies hard, and as I hit my 50s I wanted some role models to help me move into the next stage of life. I could find few if any images of women my age to emulate. There were plenty of pictures of youthful perfection, but I didn’t want to be young any more. I wanted to be the age I am and feel good about it.”

Walter says she wanted to “take courage” from the boldness, wit and audacity of other older women, and by making the book and putting together the show she wants to share the idea that not only is it fine to look your age but beyond that we should treasure the wisdom of all women by allowing the ageing process to be reflected in the images we see around us – particularly in advertising and films.

“Ageing is weird. There’s such a gap between how I feel inside and how others may see me. With a young, perfect woman a persona is projected onto her; with an older woman, experience and character are there inside her. An older woman may not be smooth-faced, but once someone troubles to speak to her and see how animated her face becomes, she may be perceived in a totally different way.

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“The problem is that older women, including actors, aren’t necessarily given that chance. Older female actors also find that if they are given a part the story won’t be about that woman, and those women get less air time in TV and films. If they have dark hair and cheekbones like me they’re usually typecast as the ‘tough nut’.”

Walter says she’s not “a complete fascist” about cosmetic surgery, but wouldn’t do it herself. “I can see that small tweaks might be helpful to some people, but there are some people who’ve had major work done and they no longer look like themselves.”

One glimmer of good news on that front came recently from her US agent. “There seems to be a hope of a backlash going on. He said producers were complaining that all the surgically enhanced women ‘looked the same’ and what they wanted was women with some character in their face. I’m waiting to see if that actually means something real...I haven’t had a phone call yet.” Luckily, Dame Harriet doesn’t have to hold her breath.

Facing It: Reflections on Images of Older Women is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Gallery until September 3. Dame Harriet will be at the theatre to talk about the exhibition and her career on Saturday, August 27 at 5.30pm. For details call 01723 370541.

Her book is published by Facing It Publications, £21.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to Postage costs £2.75.