Paul Rudd, star of films like Ant-Man, Clueless and Anchorman, turned 50 last week. It wasn’t exactly a momentous occasion, even by celebrity standards, but it was still a moment that brought the internet together in a show of united positivity and bafflement. How on earth is this guy 50?! Look at that fresh face, seemingly untouched by the ravages of ageing like the rest of us mere mortals. Time makes fools of us all but not Paul Rudd. There was even an admittedly fun quiz compiled for the occasion wherein you had to guess which of two pictures he was younger in (shout out to Jenna Guillaume of Buzzfeed for that one: I got 8 out of 12). How does he do it, the internet asked. Is being a non-sh*tty guy that good for the complexion? What brand of unicorn tears does he bathe in? If he’s got access to the fountain of youth then can he let the rest of us in? I love a good ageless Paul Rudd meme as much as anyone, but it said a lot that I seldom saw anyone respond to such questions with, ‘He’s had work done.’
Now, let me get this out of the day. I have no proof Paul Rudd has had work done, nor am I insisting that he 100% has undergone some sort of cosmetic procedure. However, it seems naïve at best to have these discussions about the business of Hollywood ageing and not even entertain such possibilities, especially when it comes to men. The double standard is worth noting in these conversations. We gawk over images of 50 year old women in Hollywood and interrogate every pore on their face, questioning what invasive operations they undergone to cheat the passing of time, but men get the benefit of the doubt. They’re allowed to age with less scrutiny than women and they’re also allowed to not age with a similar lack of focus. Neither option is especially fair or comforting, of course. Your face is nobody else’s business. But in a business built on youth, beauty, and the eagerness to maintain both things in a seemingly effortless manner, the lie of being young forever holds more weight than ever.
It’s easier to age in Hollywood today than it was even a decade ago, but maintaining one’s visage against time and general wear and tear is as old as Hollywood itself. The industry was an early adopter of plastic surgery at a time when it was still experimental and mostly used on burn victims and injured soldiers from the First World War. Valentino had surgery to make his ears look smaller. Burt Lancaster once joked to director Bernardo Bertolucci that he’d had so much work done on his face, teeth and body that the only real thing left were his eyes. Silent movie-star legend Mary Pickford allegedly underwent a facelift - at a time when the operation basically involved slicing your face and pulling it back to your ears to smooth out the wrinkles - that left her unable to smile. Hollywood wasn’t quiet about this either.
The entire process of transformation was key to selling the legend of becoming a star. A famous example of this was the becoming of Margarita Carmen Cansino into Rita Hayworth. When she was signed to Columbia Pictures in the late 1930s, studio head Harry Cohn thought her image was too ‘exotic’, and so she underwent a make-over that created a more traditional (read: white) glamour image. Her hair was dyed dark red but the more painful transformation came with electrolysis to raise her hairline and get rid of her widow’s peak. Overall, she spent three whole years getting electrolysis done to raise her hairline and lengthen her face, and this was without pain relief, one hair at a time. This was obviously super racist but what remains surprising is how open Columbia were about the process. This wasn’t something shameful, this was exactly what they wanted the world to see. Look at how she’s so much ‘prettier’ now that we’ve moulded her into a whiter image. Hayworth was encouraged to talk about her transformation all the time too, focusing on how hard she was working to be a star, with the obvious implication being that she could never be so the way she used to look. In the endless make-over assembly line of the studio system, with its cycle of screen tests and eagerness to force a ‘type’ onto its actors, what’s a bit of nip-tuck now and then but another tool for the process?
Everyone knows the stories of celebrities who had bad plastic surgery done. We’ve all seen the clickbait slideshows that invite you to gawk at the before/after horrors of overdone botox, facelifts that were just a bit too tight, and nose jobs that verged on ghoulish. It’s the ultimate Hollywood cautionary tale, the thing us normal folks get to look at and pretend we would never fall prey to such insecurities if we were in that position. Of course, we only call out the bad work, or at least the more noticeable work. Nowadays, if the work is good then it won’t stop the ageing process but it’ll slow it down enough to have people wondering why you never age. You can get cold laser facials (reportedly popular with Meghan Markle), or have the fat removed from your backside to fill in those pesky lines, or get stem cell cream treatments, and so on. The options have never been more plentiful or available if you’ve got the cash and clout.
Yet still the illusion of effortless perfection is upheld. The reality of anti-ageing treatments is denied time and time again. Oh, it’s just good genes. I just make sure to drink my eight glasses of water a day and get a good night’s sleep. It’s the same nonsense that occurs when celebrities who drop their pregnancy pounds in six weeks claim breastfeeding was the key cause of weight loss. We know why they uphold the lie but our empathy for their impossible bind and industry-wide pressure doesn’t make it sting any less when the inherently unattainable is shilled back to us as the dream. The transformative legend became the secret we don’t talk about, the endless act of smoke and mirrors that can never be confessed because to do so would break some sort of unofficial contract between fame and fan. Even at its most lavish, there exists this need to position the fantasy of celebrity as something that anyone can attain. Forget societal boundaries, systemic misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism, and don’t pay too much attention to the stifling requirements of youth and beauty. Just get the right creams and eat the right food and you’ll be good to go.
And now we’re in the age of technological youth, with computer effects now close to seamless with full-on de-ageing, as evidence with Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel. That film wowed audiences with how far the CGI has come, but many people may not even be aware of just how often their favourite stars have been retouched in film, just to take out a few crow’s feet or some of those flyaway grey hairs. It’s as commonplace as wigs now. Cinema was heralded as the medium of truth for so long, but hoo boy is that going to be more complicated than ever in pure terms of ageing.
Paul Rudd is kind of an easy target for this. He’s an attractive white guy whose face hasn’t changed all that much over the past two decades and there’s something comforting about that. He still looks like himself, free of collagen puff or the half-closed eyes that betray one’s face after a quick touch-up. If he’s gotten work done then it’s probably some of the best in the business, the kind his peers should be taking notes on. Of course, he’s also a guy who will get to be a rugged character actor if he does start to show his age eventually, so he’s in a safer situation career-wise than any woman who dares to embrace their wrinkles. As long as we don’t see the work, we can continue the façade. After all, it’s a good looking one.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.