The Hollywood sell-by date
Georgia Balmer investigates the lack of middle-aged women in Hollywood productions. Is youth and beauty a necessity for stardom?
We all like shiny new things, almost as much as we like being the first to discover these shiny new things. There is a true joy in stumbling across the next ‘best thing’ before it blows up. Hollywood and the film industry thrives on finding – and then selling – this feeling of being in the know, creating a constant revolving door of talent to convince us that they are always discovering the next ‘bright young things’. Yet, where does this leave the ‘bright old things’?
We can blame Old Hollywood’s ‘Star System’ for the near constant push for new talent in the industry. The Big Five (RKO Radio Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) invested significant sums into their talent to create the next big stars. Actors were signed to strict contracts and expected to take on public personas designed for maximum market appeal. This included learning the infamous ‘Transatlantic’ accent and changing their names; apparently Norma Jean wasn’t as marketable as Marilyn Monroe!
Actors were signed to strict contracts and expected to take on public personas designed for maximum market appeal
Whilst the ‘Star System’ no longer operates formally since its decline in the 1960s, packaging contracts, in which actors are signed on for multiple projects in advance, and an echo-box effect that encourages studios to sign actors before their potential ‘big break’, have a similar effect. Current darlings include Anya Taylor Joy, Emma Corrin and Daisy Edgar-Jones; you’ll be hard pushed to find a project that they’re not involved in. Historically, most of these young promising stars were not be able to maintain their current media attention and ‘darling’ status. Why, then, is there such a frantic need to push these young actors to their limits? Why does Hollywood believe that talent has an expiry date?
For every handful of young, hyped-up stars that have slowly fallen out of favour, there is an actor who started ‘late’ in the game. Keep in mind that Hollywood considers anyone over 30 ‘late’ in the game. Fiona Shaw, critically acclaimed for West End roles and now receiving praise for her turn as Carolyn Martens in Killing Eve, asserted in a recent interview with The Guardian that casting directors seemed confused by her arrival in LA. They told her, “you’re very old”: she was 28.
The comment speaks to Hollywood’s apparent fear of ageing, as casting agents constantly turn to 20 somethings to play middle-aged women. 25 year-old Jennifer Lawrence as an unbelievable struggling mother in Joy springs to mind. As Shaw comments, there is a belief that film has “something to do with being pretty”, and pretty has an age limit. Whilst not unheard of, Shaw’s new silver screen success at 63 is unusual.
Past age 40, men claim 80 per cent of the leading roles, while women only get 20 per cent
This statement is less true for male actors. Harrison Ford famously converted from life as a carpenter to leading man in the Star Wars films at 35, Samuel L. Jackson was almost strictly a stage actor before his turn as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction at 45, and Alan Rickman didn’t find mainstream commercial success until 42 – thank you, Die Hard. As Liv Tyler explained to Moore Magazine, directors don’t know what to do with women in their 30s and 40s, casting them as “usually the wife or the girlfriend — a sort of second-class citizen”.
There is data to back up the claim that Hollywood downgrades female characters after a certain age, with a 2016 Clemson report finding that, “past age 40, men claim 80 per cent of the leading roles, while women only get 20 per cent”.
Whilst Shaw believes that female characters’ function “is not just to be mums” anymore, the data doesn’t reflect this opinion. Researcher Robert Fleck commented that as women increasingly enter the workplace, films should reflect these changes and, “as time goes on, more of those supporting roles and characters should be played by women… but the data don’t show much of a difference”.
Anomalies, such as Shaw and Meryl Streep, clearly exist; the industry is just reluctant to accept them. With films and television aiming to reflect the real world, it is a worrying truth that we are being taught to believe that women’s talents are perishable after age 40.
As waves of new actresses lineup to replace the ageing former ‘darlings’, vibrant talent and rich characters are lost in the film industry’s reverence for female youth. It might be thrilling to discover a young actor in a small indie film and watch their career grow on screen, but by the time I reach middle-age, I hope there will be equally interesting characters for women of all ages. Hollywood may have set an expiry date for actresses, but it is one we should stop abiding by.