One of the most familiar stereotypes of our culture is that of the middle aged man. He's terminally insecure, hypersensitive to the hard reality of his own mortality, and desperate to reclaim the youth he has squandered so that he can squander it again. In this condition, he's liable to do just about anything, unless of course it's something stable and sensible. As we've seen in the last two columns, this stereotype of the male midlife crisis has provided the basis for a great many movies, including the currently playing "American Beauty."
The truth, however, is that the "middle age crazy" phenomenon is not limited to the male gender. Women are also subject to panic attacks when the realization of encroaching middle age bears down on them. Here's a sampling of titles, each of which is available on home video, in which filmmakers have built their stories around the female version of the midlife crisis.
"Rachel, Rachel" (1968). The directorial debut of Paul Newman stars Joanne Woodward as Rachel Cameron, an unmarried schoolteacher in her mid-thirties who still lives with her mother. Frustrated by the stultifying monotony of her life, Rachel is ready to break out of her routine and experience the life she has been missing. When an opportunity for romance presents itself, in the form of a childhood friend visiting the old hometown, she seizes it with all the prudence and emotional maturity of a lovesick adolescent.
"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974). Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), like many other women, is trapped in a loveless marriage with an ogre of a husband. When the husband dies, she grabs at what may be her last chance to reclaim her life. Packing a bag, she heads out to California with her precocious twelve year old son to make a last stab at the singing career she's always wanted. A car breakdown strands her in Arizona, where she takes a job at Mel's Diner. This early film from director Martin Scorsese was the inspiration for the "Alice" television series.
"An Unmarried Woman" (1978). In a way, this remarkable film doesn't belong in this category. It's about a woman's midlife crisis, to be sure, but Erica (Jill Clayburgh) doesn't do anything particularly crazy as a result. Instead she seems to have an attack of sanity, pulling her life together in a way that might never have happened without the crisis. It is Erica's husband who precipitates the crisis by tearfully announcing that he's leaving her for another woman. But instead of spiraling downward into despair, Erica pulls up her socks and discovers that she can actually get along very nicely, thank you very much, without a husband. By the time she meets another man to whom she is attracted, she's not at all certain that being with him is worth compromising her new-found independence.
"Alice" (1990). Woody Allen has made a career out of writing and directing a series of films about neurotic nebbishes, but this time his main character is a wealthy woman named Alice (Mia Farrow) who seems to have it all. Her Manhattan apartment is a showplace, all her material needs and wants are provided for, and yet she is unhappy. Her marriage is devoid of love and her life, although superficially full, is spiritually empty. When she seeks a remedy for back pain from an oriental acupuncturist, the wise old man diagnoses and treats something far more fundamental. Under the influence of his mystical herbs, she acquires the courage to pursue a relationship with a pleasant, kind man to whom she is attracted. This affair is only the first step in her metamorphosis, however. Ultimately she will reject her affluent life altogether and pursue a whole new existence.
That's really what all the films we've been looking at over the last couple of weeks have been about: looking for a new life. When we wake up one morning and realize that we're not entirely happy with where our life choices have brought us, and that the time for doing something about it is slipping away, the temptation to uproot ourselves and those we love and start over is powerful. Fortunately, we have these cautionary tales to warn us of the dangers entailed by such a choice, if only we can maintain the good sense to heed their message.