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Ageism in film: Is Hollywood finally acting its age?

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Ageism in film: Is Hollywood finally acting its age?

Will this year's Oscars herald a change in film industry sexism? It seems we might be on the cusp of an age revolution in Hollywood. 

We’re now just two days away from the Oscars. Frocks are being tailored, jewels are being loaned, suits fitted and calories counted. But beneath the froth and façade of the ceremony, each year the Academy Awards offer a fascinating snapshot into the mechanisms at work beneath the surface of Hollywood.

What has changed and why, what hasn’t, what stories have been told and what landmarks have been achieved? The answer to the latter question is easy – Meryl Streep’s nomination for Into the Woods will be her nineteenth, the most ever achieved, beating runner up Jack Nicholson’s comparatively measly 12 nominations with ease. 

The good news for older women seemingly continues. Women over 40, namely Patricia Arquette, Julianne Moore and Laura Dern, dominated the Best Supporting Actress category (albeit playing two mothers and a witch!). Reese Witherspoon (38) meanwhile, is nominated for her portrayal of 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed in Wild. How refreshing to see an older woman cast as a younger one, when so often this happens the other way around, shutting older women out of even more roles in Hollywood.


Patricia Arquette, who recently won the Golden Globe for her role in Boyhood, thanked director Richard Linklater for ‘shining a light on this woman [her character Olivia] and the millions of women like her’. That a character of this caliber is so rare in the film industry, rare enough that their inclusion merited such gratitude, speaks volumes.

In an age where television is more diverse than ever, defining characters not by their ethnicity, race or social background but by their personalities and motivations, why is Hollywood still playing catch up? Arquette, who has made her own career in her later years through television roles, recently commented that the medium ‘actually allows you to make a living…and to have the luxury to make the choices of doing what it is you think matters’. Whilst television is diversifying, the film industry remains stubborn. Of the 127 nominees for the 2015 Oscars, only 25 were female and only 9 were not white.

‘I resent having witnessed in my life the survival of some very mediocre male actors and the professional demise of some very brilliant female ones.’ These words, spoken by Helen Mirren in 2010, still regrettably surmise the experience of countless women working in Hollywood.

Women over 40 are a woefully underrepresented demographic in the film industry. The few actresses still finding work after middle age, tend to do so playing mothers, wives, spinsters or decrepit hags, cliché roles for an industry that believes they can represent nothing but. Even Meryl Streep, one of those few older actresses still permitted access to interesting roles, recently told Graham Norton that following her fortieth birthday she was offered the part of a witch, that ultimate cliché, three times in the space of a year! Why does this matter? Because the women we see on our screens directly impact the way we view the women in our lives.



Mirren continued, ‘I’ve seen too many of my brilliant colleagues, who work non-stop in their 20s, their 30s, and their 40s, only to find a complete desert in their 50s, and no work means no income…’ Not only is this trend bad for actors, it is bad for the movie going public. The experiences of women past middle age, which are so complex, so multi faceted and relevant have been almost entirely erased from the art form. The stories of these generations of women are undeniably important, are a crucial part of the fabric of our society, and they need to be told.

A recent calculation cited by the Guardian, claimed that in 2014’s 20 highest-grossing films, on average 3 out of 10 actors were women, and only 8% of those actors were between 40 and 59, with a shockingly low 2% over 60.

Despite this, the 2015 award season suggests we may be on the cusp of an age revolution. The women of the film industry aren’t happy, and they’re ready to make themselves heard.

During January’s Golden Globes, hosts Tina Fey (44) and Amy Poehler (43) jibbed about Best Motion Picture winner Boyhood, saying the film proved; ‘there are still great roles for women over 40, as long as you get hired when you’re under 40.’ When Julianne Moore (54) took home the Best Actress Award for her role in Still Alice, in which she plays a woman with Alzheimer’s, she said ‘When Lisa Genova wrote this book she told me that no one wanted to make it because they said nobody wanted to see a movie about a middle aged woman.’ How wrong she has proven them to be…



It’s not just nameless figures perpetuating the absence of older women in film. Russell Crowe (50) recently told Women’s Weekly that there is no lack of roles for older women, and that complaints are down to ‘the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue and cant understand why she’s not being cast as the 21 year old.’

Crowe’s comment is particularly jarring because of its hypocrisy. Why shouldn’t women be able to play roles of the same nature as those they did in their twenties? Who says women over 40 can’t be sexy, or heroic or powerful, or any of the qualities that their younger counterparts can? Actors such as Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, Dustin Hoffman and countless others continue to act in the exact same caliber of roles they did in their youth, without so much as a raised eyebrow. The double standard is so apparent, and yet so ignored.

Online magazine Vulture have created graphs demonstrating how leading men are permitted to age, whilst their leading ladies must stay eternally young. Liam Neeson for example, was 61 when he played the lover of 29-year-old Olivia Wilde and Johnny Depp played against 24-year-old Bella Heathcote whilst pushing 50 himself. These stories are deemed believable, but when the tables were turned, and Courtney Cox played the lover of a man five years her junior, the name of the television show was depressingly, Cougar Town.

In an interview with the New York Times, Patricia Arquette seemed to directly hit back at Crowe saying; ‘This idea of the world expecting you to remain an ingénue forever – it’s a very short shelf life…I want to work in whatever way I want to work, and I don’t want it dictated to me by society.’



And the comments just kept coming. When Maggie Gyllenhaal (37) won her own Golden Globe for The Honorable Woman, she said; ‘what I see are women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, sometimes honourable, sometimes not, and what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film. That's what I think is revolutionary and evolutionary.’

Filmmaking is a serious contributor to our cultural legacy, and at present, there’s an entire generation of stories we are failing to pay homage to. If Hollywood continues to ignore women over 40, it misses out on a wealth of narratives that not only deserve to be told, but need to be told. The attitude of actresses at this year’s award season is encouraging. Let us hope that the teams who bring ideas to the screen begin to listen to women and the incredible tales they have to tell, so that we aren’t left with a cultural history that suggests all women over 40 are one dimensional mothers, wives, witches or aunts, but complex characters who can hold many identities, and carry many stories, at once.

The line up for 2015 is promising, with Suffragette, Woman in Gold, Don’t Mess With Texas, Spy, Ricki and the Flash, Sisters, Carol, The Dressmaker and Freeheld all boasting interesting plots with leading women over 40. These women are funny, or brave, or tragic, or nasty, or victims, or heroes and sometimes all of these qualities at once. Perhaps finally, Hollywood has started to grow up.