Filmmaker extraordinaire Ida Lupino can be seen early on in Rod Serling's famous series The Twilight Zone. At 41 years old, she starred as former actress and recluse Barbara Jean Stanton in the fourth episode of the first season, "Sixteen Millimeter Shrine."
It's a hard one to forget. Fed up with the modern world, Barbara sits alone in her parlor drinking as she watches her old movies, longing for the good old days of Hollywood. After being lured to the studio with the impression that her onscreen return is underway, Barbara discovers that the role she's being fitted for is that of a mother, and even worse, it's a role offered out of pity. Barbara gets the last laugh, though, when her celluloid dream becomes reality.
The role wasn't a new one for her. Prior to "Sixteen Millimeter Shrine," Lupino had worked on several stories, both behind and in front of the camera, that captured the life of a middle-aged actress. Lupino was keenly aware of the consequences of aging in Hollywood, the superficiality of the industry, and the confining gender roles that made her career behind the camera all the more challenging. It's this cognizance that inspired so much of Lupino's work and what ultimately made her the perfect candidate for directing the 25th episode of the fifth season of The Twilight Zone, "The Masks." But how, as a woman and an actress, did she achieve so much success behind the camera during the male-dominated Golden Age of Hollywood?
Lupino was nicknamed "the English Jean Harlow" by Paramount when she was a teenager in the early 1930s. A decade later, with a steadily growing filmography, Lupino dubbed herself "the poor man's Bette Davis" for snagging the roles that Davis discarded. She starred alongside Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1941), Olivia de Havilland in Devotion (1946), and Cornel Wilde in Road House (1948). But despite her growing success, Lupino felt uncertain about being in front of the camera — not because of a lack of interest in acting but because of the industry's expectations.
During the height of the studio system and the rise of celebrity tabloids, actors were required to work both on and off screen for two reasons: to increase box-office sales and to create a moral front that appeased the Hayes Code and public. When it came down to it, Lupino wasn't all that interested in playing along. Instead of focusing on her acting, a career from which she was often suspended because of her refusal to play by the rules, she began taking note of the people behind the scenes, becoming friendly with filmmakers and observing their craft.
In an era of Hollywood that dismissed female creativity, Lupino's achievements were astronomical. In 1949, alongside her then-husband Collier Young and writer Malvin Wald, Lupino created The Filmakers, an independent production company that allowed her to explore her artistry and tackle taboo topics like rape and bigamy. It was with The Filmakers that she became the first woman to direct a studio-backed film noir; The Hitch-Hiker (1953) was picked for preservation in 1998 by the National Film Registry. Lupino directed stars like Claire Trevor in Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), Joan Fontaine in The Bigamist (1953), and Rosalind Russell in The Trouble With Angels (1966).
Lupino climbed the ranks through careful manipulation. Behind the camera, she exuded enough femininity to put men at ease, thus guaranteeing cooperation on the set. Her director's chair was labeled "Mother of Us All," and she approached her male actors and filmmakers with a tenderness that was rarely offered to the women, in order to make the men believe they were the ones coming up with the ideas. Work was Lupino's priority. Had her ego been on the line, she would have been stuck playing blonde tramps in B pictures and not making history.
After her success in film, Lupino scooted over to television, where she thrived on its structure and creative freedom. She took to the director's chair for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, The Donna Reed Show, Four Star Playhouse, and, as mentioned above, The Twilight Zone. It's not clear how Lupino got the role. It may have been a combination of factors: her early participation in the series, her achievement in the industry, or her knack for tackling traditionally unfeminine genres like noir, suspense, and thriller. A closer look shows that Serling and Lupino's interests overlapped. Their stories centered on morality and the gray area between right and wrong.
"The Masks" was one of the 92 episodes Serling wrote himself. It centers on a wealthy but dying man, Jason Foster, who calls on his family on the night of Mardi Gras. When they arrive, though – Wilfred, Paula, Emily, and Wilfred Jr. – it's obvious that they didn't make the journey out of love. Jason informs them that their inheritance is still written in the will but on one condition, that they each wear a peculiar, grotesque mask until the clock strikes midnight. Unbeknownst to them, each mask reflects their ugliest, but most prominent characteristic.
They take their masks uneasily, but abide for the sake of their eventual small fortune. When the time comes to take off the masks, though, what was hidden underneath is no longer there. In the end, like Barbara Jean Stanton, Jason gets the last laugh. "The Masks" is a story about the consequences of greed and false appearances. It's a story that Lupino, who navigated an industry that undermined her value and created facades for financial gain, knew all too well.