Getty Images; Melissa Herwitt / E! Illustration
by Natalie Finn | Fri., Jan. 12, 2018 6:00 AM
Getty Images; Melissa Herwitt / E! Illustration
Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, Hollywood can't be completely torn down and rebuilt in 24 hours, either.
While the wave of enlightenment crashed hard and fast on these shores, throttling through a certain power structure and dragging an impressive amount of garbage with it upon retreat back into the sea, there's still much work to be done.
But as the Me Too and Time's Up movements hopefully herald a better way of doing business and the new day on the horizon foreseen by Oprah Winfreycomes to pass, here's hoping that one of the oldest problems in Hollywood gets its due: namely, how men are simply allowed to get older and women, going through the exact same natural process, have to start approaching their careers entirely differently, and the work starts approaching them differently, once they reach the vicinity of 40. And that's a generous estimate.
At times it may seem as if we're out of the woods on that issue. The Golden Globes last Sunday were awash with women whose talents we've been enjoying for decades now, including Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Laura Dern, Angelina Jolie and, of course, Meryl Streep. The average age of the nominees for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama, was 49, and Frances McDormand, who's 60, won.
This summer, Sandra Bullock, 53, and Cate Blanchett, 48, will top-line the very awesome-looking Ocean's 8. Jennifer Lopezremains the hottest thing on two legs at 48. And Julia Roberts just turned 50 and she covered People's Most Beautiful issue last year for a record fifth time.
So the roles are totally there, the reverence is there...right?
Well, yes—and no.
For one thing, somehow we've gotten lucky, having happened upon the era where those who broke out in their early 20s—or, like Witherspoon, in their teens—are still glorified by the glossy magazines, have branched out into producing and other visible off-camera endeavors, and also continue to work regularly. The ever-growing prestige of television, which was not as desirable an option for movie stars 10 years ago, has ensured that there's always an "event" production on the horizon. And frankly—because to deny that aesthetics don't come into play would be silly—everyone mentioned above looks friggin' terrific.
But the fact that these women are, in fact, no longer 25 has historically meant that their age becomes a factor in the casting process, in a way that it simply doesn't become for men. Not that 35-year-olds should still be playing high school students just to prove a point, but while 65-year-old Liam Neeson is going to be saving a train full of people from certain doom in The Commuter, he doesn't have a 65-year-old wife waiting for him at home. Instead, he's got 44-year-old Vera Farmiga. (And they're just supposed to be a regular couple, not a purposeful patriarchal mismatch like 48-year-old Javier Bardem and 27-year-old Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, or a representational couple like 25-year-old Emma Stone and 53-year-old Colin Firth in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight.)
A 21-year age gap between spouses isn't the most uncommon thing ever, particularly in some industries, but Hollywood has quite the pattern of casting women barely out of their 30s, if out of them at all, as the wives or girlfriends of guys who've gloriously entered their 50s and beyond without wondering if they can still play action heroes or romantic leads, or the father of young kids.
"Everyone asks why I had never worked with Tom before—it is something that I had always hoped would happen," Streep told the Los Angeles Times recently, referring to Tom Hanks, her co-star in The Post. "But, as he is 61 and I am 68, in Hollywood that means I would only ever have been appropriately cast as his mother or his grandmother."
She was half-joking, the paper noted. Regardless, she's not too far off, as Sally Field, only 10 years older than Hanks, played his mom in Forrest Gump, while Robin Wright, 10 years his junior, played his beloved Jenny.
Interestingly, while Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was four years older than editor Ben Bradlee, they were only about 50 and 54 in 1971, when The Post takes place, so the casting really speaks to the Hollywood royalty status of Hanks, Streep and director Steven Spielberg, who had a certain vision and these were the stars he had to have. When it comes to those who will simply be in demand forever, we're talking about a relative handful of people.
Meanwhile, though everyone's asked to play younger sometimes, including young people, such as Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games series, it seems to rarely occur to the powers that be in show business to let people just be their age.
"I'm baffled that anyone might not think women get more beautiful as they get older," Kate Winslet told The Edit in 2015. "Confidence comes with age, and looking beautiful comes from the confidence someone has in themselves."
But though Winslet's still a huge star, 20 years after making a splash in Titanic, even the actresses who have no trouble being offered work are aware of the dearth of parts written for them that both make sense for them to do and are actually interesting.
Sony Pictures Classics
When she won the Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine in 2014, Cate Blanchett thanked Sony "for so bravely and intelligently distributing the film, and to the audiences who went to see it—and perhaps those of us in the industry who are perhaps foolishly still clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!"
So, that conversation—while last year, and certainly this year, seemed like a perfect time to have it—is hardly new. And it's something women have always been aware of. While there were, of course, trailblazers, female directors such as actress Ida Lupino in the 1950s and Alice Guy-Blaché, who made the first-ever narrative film, La Fée aux Choux, in 1896, in the predominantly male-led studio system there have only been varying levels of opportunities and resources at hand to try and remedy the imbalance of material.
And still to this day, when they want to make their voices heard, women often have to take matters into their own hands. That's what Witherspoon and Kidman did in helping to usher Big Little Lies into production at HBO as executive producers, along with David E. Kelley (whose own wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, is finally coming across "some really interesting opportunities" again after a drought in roles that were worth it to give up time with her kids).
"I've been acting since I was 11 years old and I think I've worked with maybe 12 women, so I just want to thank the Television Academy for honoring our show," Laura Dern, who also won an Emmy for her role on Big Little Lies as a woman who pays the social-stigma price for her choice to be a mom and a CEO, said in accepting her Golden Globe for best supporting actress last weekend, "and working with this incredible tribe of fierce women."
In her thanks, she included "Nicole and Reese's moms, for not only giving us extraordinary women but really well-read women, 'cause that's how I'm getting parts. I share this with my tribe of four ladies. I feel very proud to be reflecting fierce women and mothers, finding their voice."
If the parade of women—both in art and in real life—currently demonstrating that the magnitude of the human experience doesn't stop at 40, that love and sex and heartbreak, work and struggles and saving the world (or at least your little piece of it), can still resonate just as acutely at 50 haven't yet proved their point to the skeptics out there, at least it's become quite apparent that women are done waiting for men to get it.
"Looking one's age" has always been an entirely useless phrase, so it's not as if roles shouldn't go to older actors who "look younger"—or, on the flip side, to younger actors (again, like Jennifer Lawrence) who are asked to play older. It's about this tired mindset that, while any man can step into any role within reason, women "age out" of roles that they're still playing in their real lives.
Realistically, as time goes on, all actors age out of certain parts and age into others. Meryl Streep wasn't ready to play Margaret Thatcher at 21, after all, just as Gary Oldman wasn't getting the call to play Winston Churchill until he was almost 60. The whole "first you're Hamlet, then you're Lear" thing. But seeing as so many of the most glamorous women in the world are in their 40s and older now, there's no reason why movies shouldn't better reflect just how vibrant they are in life.
On the eve of her first Emmy win in 2015 for How to Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis (who also won an Oscar for Fences last year), told the Los Angeles Times that putting herself out there for a role was always a terrifying experience, but she had grown more confident with age, which in turn has made her a better actress.
"Turning 50 helped, you know, to just not be so afraid of failure that it stops you from taking risks. That's how I feel now," she said. "Still afraid, but definitely more confident in that fear—if that makes sense?" HTGAWM creator Shonda Rhimes can also be credited with bringing some of TV's most complicated, compelling female characters to the screen, starring in stories that, much to ABC's benefit (and soon to Netflix's), audiences have wanted to see.
"I want to tell all the women out there—it is not over at 40. It is not even over at 50," Kidman said while accepting the award for Best Film Actress at the 14th Annual British Glamour Awards last June. And in November, she said that she could sense a progressive shift in the attitude toward aging in Hollywood.
"I think it's also women who are supporting other women, you know, by saying, 'Gosh, you look great. Gosh, I support you,'" Kidman told Flare. "Let's go and let's shift the needle on everything."
Even in its more pedestrian stories, Hollywood can at least try to work on its older-guy, automatically-much-younger-wife conundrum. Maybe they're trying to make the men seem more convincingly young by casting much younger women as their partners, but if Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga's characters in The Commuter have been married for, let's say, 20 years, they got married when she was 24 and he was 45.
In 2015 Maggie Gyllenhaal told a story about being deemed "too old," at 37, to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. "There are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time," she told The Wrap. "It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh."
Since then, count the veteran actress among those, like Kidman and Witherspoon, who want a bigger say in how they're represented in the finished product, to ensure that the woman's point of view is done right.
Before Gyllenhaal accepted the role of a prostitute who ventures into the porn industry in '70s-era New York on HBO's gritty, graphic drama The Deuce, she asked to be a producer on the series as well, "because," she explained to The Hollywood Reporter, "I thought it would be that kind of guarantee that my mind would be included in the storytelling process, not just my body."
And while we've mentioned only a tiny fraction of the entertainment universe when compared to the number of working actresses and artists out there, just as with the other initiatives the women of Hollywood have taken it upon themselves to spearhead this year, the idea is that the progress will lend itself to every level of the game.
Tackling ageism should be a part of the overall goal of leveling the playing field, extending more opportunities to women, treating them with respect and, by all means, listening to their stories. Luckily, there's still time for that.
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