Writing the Familiar Female Protagonist by Pam Munter

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            Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood is a series of ten short stories and two short plays about women who have aged out of the profession they love. Many of them were screened for “success” early in their careers by the infamous and widely-accepted casting couch, the audition site wielded by powerful men in the motion picture industry. When one reaches a certain age, however, even sex won’t grant professional longevity.

            When I thought about whom to include in this collection, I wanted to write not only about the famous, but also those who might not be immediately recognizable. As a film historian and movie fan, I was more than familiar with the real stories. I had hoped by adding a twist of fiction, all these would translate well to an inclusive readership.

It would be easy to think of these women as victims but the more I wrote, I came to see them as existential survivors, struggling to carve out new identities when the old ones had been stripped away. My goal was to present their stories in such a way that the reader could see the complexity, the inner workings of a famous woman coping not merely with the challenging process of aging, but also with a world in which she no longer had agency.

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My first stop was a familiar one. I had worshipped Doris Day since I was very young. Without knowing who she was in real life, her Warner Bros. image impacted my decisions in several areas. I became a performer and a writer largely due to exposure to her films and recording career. As I matured and learned more, I came to appreciate her real-life tribulations. When I read that her late third husband had stolen her $20 million fortune leaving her in debt to the IRS, I wondered how the woman I had so admired would cope with that.

            She had been habitually dependent on strong men, including, toward the end, her own son. She was married four times with an assemblage of short assignations. But she and this husband had been together nearly 20 years. How did she miss the signs, the warnings? Did her fame blind her to his perverse conniving? How did she find out? It seemed a natural set-up for a short story, which eventually became “Deconstructing Doris.” In this fictionalized version, she tries to piece together the betrayal, the depth of the violation, but we can see she is ill-equipped for the task. We feel for her, want to comfort her, but also to warn her it could happen again. After years of reading about the “real” Doris Day, I thought I knew her as well as one can from a distance. I discovered that inserting my knowledge into a fictionalized story led to further vicarious insight, understanding the juxtaposition of fame with violation at the most vulnerable levels.

            The female characters in Fading Fame are each faced with a set of formidable issues, confronting them with an insufficient supply of psychological tools. When one spends a lifetime seeking fame as a primary source of identity, it’s easy to let other, critical developmental tasks slide. Reinvention is much easier when one has a strong sense of self, not one created by external appraisal.

Some of the women in Fading Fame cope with the displacement better than others; some slip into chemical dependency; one can’t handle it at all. Even though the stories and the outcomes are diverse, each of these journeys resonates with us as women. We can learn from these stories and empathize. The female protagonists here may be from another era, but their plights are not so different from the issues we will all face eventually.