Goodness me, this year is flying by, and looking back at some of my favourite films, I’m seeing a trend. A trend toward women of a certain age. Over 50, let’s say; the women who have often been ignored by Hollywood (more than half of all female characters are well under 40, which is not true of men). And yet here they are, fierce and fabulous. I’m resisting calling them “older women” (perhaps it’s time for a new word?) because they are so much more than merely older. These are terrific women giving voice to characters that are rarely seen, and heard even less (women are given less and less dialogue as they age whereas middle-aged men get more).
Aging is a sin in Hollywood. You go from playing the ingénue to someone’s mom, and then you drop off the face of the earth unless you’re Betty White. Which you’re not. Hollywood casts young women into older roles – Angelina Jolie once played Colin Farrell’s mother. She is one year older than he is. Amy Poehler played Rachel McAdams’ mother in Mean Girls despite only a 7 year age difference. Sally Field played Tom Hanks’ mother with just a decade between them – and having previously played his love interest! Toni Collette, aged 33, played Paul Dano’s mother when he was 22 (in Little Miss Sunshine). Laura Dern is just 9 years senior to her “daughter” Reese Witherspoon in Wild. Winona Ryder is just 5 years older than her Star Trek on-screen son, Zachary Quinto. That would be like Jonah Hill playing Miles Teller’s dad instead of his high school classmate. WTF?
All too many once-great actresses were abandoned by Hollywood when they hit 40. Where is Angela Bassett? Geena Davis? Joan Allen? Janet McTeer? We can’t save them all, but we vote with our dollars, by making sure that films like these find their audience:
Florence Foster Jenkins – Meryl Streep turns in an endearingly cringe-worthy performance. When she turned 40, she was offered THREE witch parts in the same year. THREE! She turned them all down. “I just had a political sort of reaction against the concept of old women being demonized and age being this horrifying, scary thing. I just didn’t like that. I didn’t like it when I was a little girl, I don’t like it now.”
Grandma – Lily Tomlin proves Grandmas come in all sorts of salty sizes. She’s as edgy and witty as ever. “I’ve been offered lots of [roles as] people’s grandmothers that are just the butt of a joke. Doddering with a track suit on. The object of humor, just as women or gay people were the object of humor through ridicule in earlier movies. That was an accepted target, use of someone of that age or that lifestyle.”
Eye in the Sky – Helen Mirren shows nerves of steel as the powerful head of a military operation. Mirren has called Hollywood’s ageist double standard “fucking outrageous.” “Even Shakespeare did that to us. As you get older, even the Shakespeare roles become [less substantial for older women] — that’s why we have to start stealing the men’s roles — doing like I did in “The Tempest,” [by changing the role of Prospero to] Prospera. And it’s great that a lot of women are doing Hamlet, doing “Henry V,” and I’m sure there will be a female Othello soon. And I love that. I think it’s absolutely great because, you know, why not?”
Youth – Jane Fonda has a small but scene-stealing role in this movie about finding meaning in your later years. “Ageism is alive and well. It is okay for men to get older, because men become more desirable by being powerful. With women, it’s all about how we look. Men are very visual, they want young women. So, for us, it’s all about trying to stay young. I need to work, so I had some plastic surgery. It’s not like it’s too much, it’s not like you can’t see my wrinkles, right? But I think it probably bought me a decade of work.”
Lady in the Van – Maggie Smith gives life and dignity to a mysterious woman living in her van. “I’m always older than God in these parts now.” She played Wendy’s 92 year old grandmother in Steven Spielberg’s Hook and “I’ve been that ever since. They don’t need to make me up any more, I’m afraid. I’ve caught up with myself.”
I’ll See You In My Dreams – Blythe Danner tackles widowhood, retirement, and loneliness. “I remember Leslie Caron years ago saying she left Hollywood when she was 30 or 35 because that’s when roles disappear. That’s not the case anymore, there are better, three-dimensional roles for women of all ages. I’m 71 and I’ve been working more now and getting better roles than I did when I was younger.”
Hello My Name Is Doris – a riotous movie starring Sally Field, her first starring role in nearly 20 years. “They don’t write roles for women… and they certainly don’t write roles for women of age and women of color,” said Field. “Since the industry is run by men, men have a tendency to want to make stories about themselves and things they identify with. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”