Women in the public eye face tremendous pressure to look beautiful and sexy. You’d think that by the time they reach their 80s, this demand would relent, but I just read a newspaper article critiquing 89-year-old Angela Lansbury’s appearance. If actresses turn to plastic surgery to look eternally youthful, they run the risk of having it backfire and being ridiculed.
Iris Apfel, the subject of the late Albert Maysles’ documentary “Iris,” doesn’t play the beauty game at all. In fact, she frankly says, “I don’t like pretty.” The 90-year-old, who’s had a long career as an interior decorator and now exists as a freelance “rare bird of fashion,” may not be conventionally beautiful, but she has a remarkable sense of style.
Iris and her husband Carl, whose 100th birthday is celebrated during the film, founded a company called Old World Weavers, which reproduced fabrics and designs from the 1600s through the 1800s. Although the company was successful, Iris didn’t become a minor celebrity until a 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition launched by curator Harold Koda. Afterwards, she became an “octogenarian starlet,” as she puts it.
Maysles is best known for three documentary features: “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Grey Gardens.” That last, from 1975, recently revived by Film Forum and probably bound for a Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray, pioneered the “non-fiction melodrama.” Although its influence wouldn’t be felt immediately, it can be seen in recent films like Robert Greene’s “Actress.”
“Iris” departs from Maysles’ classic trio in a number of ways — for one, it was directed by him alone, while his earlier films were collaborative productions. The result is a thoughtful character study. In her own way, Iris is just as enthralling a person to watch as Big Edie and Little Edie of “Grey Gardens,” and she’s much more self-aware and in control of her own persona. No one is likely to accuse this film of being a freak show.
“Feminist” is not a word ever used in “Iris.” Apfel talks about her curiosity regarding politics and history and how these forces manifest themselves in a humble dress, but she doesn’t discuss her own political views. Nevertheless, “Iris” locates an unconventional woman following her own stylistic guidelines on the margins of the fashion industry, a field that many have written off as hopelessly exploitative and sexist.
Iris is the exact opposite of a vacant, anorexic supermodel. While she’s reliant on designers for her source material, she combines their clothes and accessories in a way that reflects her own creativity, rather than simply copying their dictates. Her sense of style has proven popular enough to get her museum shows, department store windows, and even a teaching position.
“Iris” follows its subject around New York and Palm Bach as she shops and sorts through her collection. Maysles appears on camera a few times — he managed to complete another film, “In Transit,” before passing away in March — but a woman, who’s never identified, conducts most of the interviews with Iris. This isn’t the kind of documentary that introduces fictional elements or self-consciously breaks the fourth wall. The camera tends to efface its presence — no doubt, plenty of work went into creating that illusion — but one gets the sense that Iris, like many Maysles protagonists, is performing for it. She doesn’t seem to leave the house without a spiked necklace and African bracelets.
“Iris” doesn’t dodge the question of the old age’s aches and pains or the inevitability of death, but it’s clear that Iris would rather go shopping in Harlem than think about her dwindling energy level. In some respects, “Iris” seems remarkably modern for the work of an 88-year-old filmmaker. It finds common ground with “Actress” in suggesting that we — especially the 51 percent of us who happen to be female — are constantly performing.