38 and ‘second-class citizens’: How Hollywood’s ageism denies actresses their ‘Prime’

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Liv Tyler as Arwen in "The Lord of the Rings." Photo provided

Liv Tyler as Arwen in “The Lord of the Rings.” Photo provided

At 38 years old, I finally feel comfortable enough to go without makeup on a regular basis.

I am finally learning to be confident enough to express all my varied and admittedly sometimes contradictory opinions without worrying about who’s listening.

I am finally learning what it means for me to be a good journalist, a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter, a good sister, a good aunt, a good friend, a good Christian and a good person — and every so often, I even manage to be all that on the same day.

At 38, I finally feel like I’m getting at least a few things about life figured out.

So, I can’t imagine being sent the message that at age 38, I’m past my prime. I feel like I’m just getting there.

But that’s exactly the message actresses my age feel like they’re getting in Hollywood.

Liv Tyler said in an interview for the October issue of More magazine that she feels like her age makes her a “second-class citizen” in the movie business.

“38 is a crazy number,” Tyler told More (quoted via USA Today). “It’s not fun when you see things start to change. When you’re in your teens or twenties, there is an abundance of ingénue parts which are exciting to play. But at (my age), you’re usually the wife or the girlfriend, a sort of second-class citizen. There are more interesting roles for women when they get a bit older.”

If it feels like you haven’t seen much of the wide-eyed actress who played an elvish princess in The Lord of the Rings trilogy lately, it’s probably because you haven’t. Tyler’s last big-budget role was in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, although she’s been in some independent films, including one of my favorite indies in recent years, 2012’s Robot & Frank.

Tyler joins the chorus of women in Hollywood speaking out this year against ageism. Perhaps it was the spring release of Amy Schumer’s, 34, hilarious, stinging skit “The Last F–kable Day,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette, that prompted so many women to finally start speaking out against a system so ridiculous that, as Fey notes in the skit, it has Sally Field playing Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline and then six years later casts her as his mother in Forrest Gump.

Arquette at Oscars

Or maybe it was Arquette’s, 47, impassioned plea for equality and against sexism in her February Oscar acceptance speech. Whatever it was, people are talking, women are speaking out, and it seems like it’s past time for this conversation on how Hollywood’s obsession with youth affects women on the screen — and those watching the screen.

If you’ll recall, we’ve already talked on this blog this year about the huge difference six years makes in Hollywood in terms of an actress’ measure of desirability. Remember when Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed to TheWrap.com back in May that she was turned down for a role in a movie because she was too old to play the love interest for a 55-year-old man?

“There are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time,” Gyllenhaal said. “I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”

Clear Cut Agism

Gyllenhaal was apparently acceptably young at 31 to romance then-60-year-old Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. She even got an Oscar nomination for it. But a 37-year-old woman seducing a 55-year-old man? Apparently, that’s inconceivable in Hollywood.

Tyler, Gyllenhaal and I are basically the same age: I turned 38 in April, Tyler turned 38 in July, and Gyllenhaal turns 38 in November. And I still don’t see how this Hollywood standard has any basis in reality. I feel confident that if I wanted to romance a 55-year-old man – and let’s be clear that I definitely do NOT, being happily married to a 42-year-old and all – anyone who actually cared about the age difference would feel that man was too old for me rather than the other way around.

But Tyler and Gyllenhaal clearly are not the only women that are experiencing this phenomenon. Back in 2013, Vulture examined the careers of 10 A-list actors, from Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise to Liam Neeson and Tom Hanks, and the relative ages of 10 of their on-screen love interests. The analysis found that as the male stars aged, their female co-stars mostly didn’t, getting switched out for younger actresses, usually on the tender side of 40 and occasionally three decades the junior of their male counterparts.

Even if you question the statistical veracity of the Vulture analysis, it doesn’t take much honest evaluation to see that big age gaps between male stars and their female love interests are alarmingly commonplace in film. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists has included a “Most Egregious Age Difference Between The Leading Man and The Love Interest” category in its year-end film awards for years. There’s never any shortage of nominees, and the age difference is only occasionally a key part of the plot. For the record, the 2014 winner went to repeat offender Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight,” which paired Colin Firth (b. 1960) and Emma Stone (b. 1988).

Effects of Media’s Obsession with Youth

It’s also easy to see how the media’s obsession with youth affects women in that it reflects and magnifies the attitudes of our overall culture. Just look at the billion-dollar beauty, dieting and plastic surgery industries or the oceans of ink spent on magazine articles on how to look younger, which all too often is considered synonymous with “better.”

But I don’t think younger is better. I don’t even think I looked better when I was younger — although I was thinner, another superficial benchmark that often substitutes for “better,” especially where women are concerned — when I wore too much makeup and dressed according to trends even if they didn’t look good on me and styled my hair to please other people instead of fixing it (or more often, not really fixing it) as it pleased me.

And I certainly wasn’t wiser, kinder, cannier, sexier, more patient, more considerate, better spoken or better at my job — or really any of the roles I play in my life — when I was 28 versus 38. Imagine how much wisdom, knowledge and skill that these actresses in their 30s, 40s and 50s have garnered that is going to waste because roles meant for them are going to 20-somethings, who all too often aren’t believable in those parts.

In 1970, Maggie Smith won her first Oscar at age 36 for playing the title role in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Photo provided

In 1970, Maggie Smith won her first Oscar at age 36 for playing the title role in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” Photo provided

Dame Maggie Smith in Her Prime

I mean, Maggie Smith was undoubtedly smoking hot and stunningly charismatic in her Oscar-winning title role in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — she was 36 when she won her that Academy Award, which would be nearing or past her expiration date rather than “prime,” according to current showbiz wisdom — but I would argue that she’s actually a better, more effortlessly compelling actress today. In the 1969 film, Smith’s character considers herself in her prime, but beautiful, talented actresses of her age these days apparently aren’t supposed to feel that way. And I find it incredible depressing that if Hollywood actually decided to remake something as thought-provoking and adult as Miss Jean Brodie these days — admittedly, the odds are long — the title role might well be played by a 22-year-old former Victoria Secret’s model.

As for Smith, she simply gets far fewer opportunities nowadays to actually show her stuff in quality roles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Smith, 80, is still working, but let’s face it, she may have played Professor McGonagall in eight Harry Potter movies, but beyond a few acerbic quips, she didn’t get much chance to stretch her formidable acting muscles.

Maybe that’s why so many older women — by Hollywood standards anyway — are turning toward television, where all the aforementioned actresses have shifted their career focus in recent years, even if it’s not a format in which they’re most comfortable working. Tyler is on the small screen, with its ever-expanding roster of shows, channels and now streaming services, for the first time with HBO’s The Leftovers, although she noted in her More interview that it’s been an uneasy transition.

“With a film, you have the script, and you know the beginning, middle and end. With TV, they write as they go. I have no idea what my character is going to be doing … which is frustrating,” Tyler said. “Part of me loves it, and part of me hates it, having no control. Being comfortable in the unknown is hard for humans; even if we don’t really know what’s going to happen, we kind of trick ourselves into thinking we have a plan. This latest career move has been an exercise in letting go.”

Hathaway: “I Can’t Complain”

What’s frustrating for me when it comes to Hollywood’s institutional and gendered ageism is how resigned to it some women seem to be. That’s how Anne Hathaway sounded when she talked about losing roles to younger women in an interview for the October issue of Glamour magazine:

“I can’t complain about it because I benefitted from it,” she told Glamour. “When I was in my early twenties, parts would be written for women in their fifties and I would get them. And now I’m in my early thirties and I’m like, ‘Why did that 24 year old get that part?’ I was that 24 year old once, I can’t be upset about it, it’s the way things are. All I can do right now is think that thankfully you have built up perhaps a little bit of cachet and can tell stories that interest you and if people go to see them you’ll be allowed to make more.”

So, at 32, an Oscar winner is just going to base the future of her career on a hope and a wish and gratitude that she’s been considered fresh this long? Even spitfire Oscar winner Helen Mirren seemed outraged yet sort of resigned when asked about Gyllenhaal’s casting horror story at TheWrap’s first New York Power Breakfast in June.

“It’s f—-ing outrageous,” said Mirren, who turned 70 in July, to a packed room of more than 120 women representing various career fields. “It’s ridiculous. And ’twas ever thus. We all watched James Bond as he got more and more geriatric, and his girlfriends got younger and younger. It’s so annoying.”

Bellucci Takes on Bond

But just because something has always been a certain way doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Monica Bellucci, who turns 51 Sept. 30, is taking the “girl” out of “Bond girl” this fall: When Spectre opens Nov. 6 it will officially mark her debut as the oldest woman to play the legendary spy’s love interest. According to The Guardian, Bellucci is just four years older than current Bond, Daniel Craig, 46, but a full 11 years older than the previous oldest “Bond girl”: Honor Blackman was 39 when she played one of the long-running series’ most famous Bond love interests, Pussy Galore, opposite a 34-year-old Sean Connery in 1964’s Goldfinger. (Again, note that the actors in this series have been allowed to age, but not the actresses.)

Bellucci told the Sunday Times (UK) in February that she met Spectre director Sam Mendes to discuss the part and told him: “I’m not a girl, I’m a woman, I’m a mature woman. Do I have to replace Judi Dench?” (Who previously played 007’s boss “M.”)

“Why do you call me?” she asked him. “I’m 50 years old – what am I going to do in James Bond?”

According to Bellucci, Mendes laughed and said: “For the first time in history, James Bond is going to have a story with a mature woman. The concept is revolutionary.”

Good on him. I think it’s prime time for somebody to get revolutionary with Hollywood’s ageism issues. I hope that actresses keep speaking up, advocates keep writing about it, filmgoers voice their opinion with their ticket-buying habits and that women filmmakers (especially actresses who become producers) work against the status quo vigilantly. I believe that’s at least some of the ways we can join the revolution.


Emerging filmmaker receives grant for female bodybuilder movie: The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) announced last week that the recipient of the inaugural Phosphate Prize at IFP is writer/director Philiane Phang, reports AWFJ’s Jennifer Merin. The Phosphate Prize at IFP, which includes a $25,000 grant funded by Phosphate Productions, was created to recognize narrative feature film screenplays that “provide a strong and complex lead female character.” The unrestricted cash grant also encourages the recipient to continue on her or his career path of writing and making quality independent films.

A “recovering lawyer” who was born in Jamaica, Phang was selected from a diverse pool of more than 260 applicants and intends to use the grant to produce her first narrative feature, The Space Between. The Space Between features a lead character who stretches and seethes within her own skin as a professional body builder, transforming daily in a struggle to define herself as a human being, a woman, and a daughter.

Muhammad Ali honors Geena Davis’ activism: Congratulations to Geena Davis, who was honored last weekend at the Third Annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards: An Evening to Celebrate Greatness at the Louisville (Ky.) Marriott Downtown. The fundraising gala honored people from around the world who are making significant contributions toward securing peace, social justice, human rights, and/or social capital.

The four top Humanitarian Awardees included Davis, an Academy Award winner, humanitarian, and women’s advocate, who was honored as the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year; Harry Belafonte, legendary and multi-talented artist and social justice activist, who received the prestigious Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Lifetime Achievement; Dr. Andrew Moore from Lexington, Ky., founder of Surgery on Sunday, who was named the 2015 Kentucky Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year; and Rose Mapendo of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was honored with the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Gender Equality.

In addition to awards given to seasoned humanitarians, six young adults, age 30 and under, were honored with an award for each of Muhammad’s Six Core Principles — Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality — according to a news release.


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