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The Non-Rise of the Older Actress

As women have undergone a revolution in rights, Hollywood has remained remarkably immune to cultural change—even in the era of Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and Sally Field.
Sally Field’s character in Hello My Name is Doris was exceptional in 2015, a year that was largely male- and youth-dominated at the movies.

Sally Field’s character in Hello My Name is Doris was exceptional in 2015, a year that was largely male- and youth-dominated at the movies.

Are actresses over 60 finally getting their due in Hollywood? Entertainment journalists, who have long noted that major studios do not cast women of a certain age in starring roles and yet offer ample opportunities to older men to play action heroes and love interests for their Millennial co-stars, are reading the tea leaves in recent indie releases—and seeing reason to be optimistic that the film industry is in the midst of correcting its sexist, ageist employment status quo.

“2015 seems to be the year of the older actress,” Indiewire’s Laura Berger wrote last year, following the release of several female-centric projects including The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Woman in Gold, and Ricki and the Flash. Berger’s superlative has since been tested by Elle writer Elissa Strauss, who wrote in January about “a rising enthusiasm for actress[es] in the peri- and postmenopausal set” among Hollywood gatekeepers following the nomination of several such actresses (Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda) at the 2016 Golden Globes. Meanwhile, at Vulture, Mark Harris pointed out that several of this year’s elderly woman stars had each made upwards of $10 million at the box office (The Lady in the Van, $10 million; Eye in the Sky, $18.7 million; Hello, My Name is Doris, $14.4 million). Harris is not the first to note that senior citizens are an increasingly important audience at the indie box office; but this year, he wrote, showed that elderly actresses had become “the new box-office powerhouses.”

If Hollywood is undergoing a subtle sea change, though, it’s not happening at the mainstream box office. A new report on senior citizen characters in movies by the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative finds senior female characters remain largely absent from blockbuster movies. Looking at 2015’s 100 highest-grossing films (totals starting at $23 million), the researchers found that older women comprised 11 percent of characters age 60 or over, 27.2 percent of characters overall, and 30 percent of lead characters who were senior citizens—though women over 60 make up 20.2 percent of the United States’ population.

The average age of a working male actor has consistently remained eight years above that of an actress since the era of silent cinema. A 2012 analysis of films released between 1920 and 2011 by economists at Clemson University found that the average male actor was 38 in 1920, and 45 in 2011, whereas the average female actor was 31 in 1920 and is 38 today. Age, the Clemson economists wrote, has consistently played a different role in employment opportunities for men and women: When they plotted the gender mix of roles across the 90-year time frame, the researchers found that, compared to their female cohorts, older male actors had a trove of leading roles available to them, while younger actresses were at an advantage over their 20-something male peers in nabbing starring roles.

Today’s high-earning, over-60 female stars such as Streep and Mirren are exceptions to this historical bias, rather than leaders of a new wave of glass ceiling-shattering actresses. Separately analyzing the list of “Top Ten Money Making Stars,” an annual poll asking exhibitors to list 10 stars that proved lucrative for their businesses in the past year, the Clemson researchers found that, after the 1920s and ’30s, the poll was regularly dominated by men who were much older than female actors on the list. Older women who made it on the list since then (Streep, for instance, in 2009 and 2011, when she was in her early 60s; Katherine Hepburn, 62, in 1969) were rare anomalies, rather than harbingers of an impending progressive era at the box office.

“Our analysis suggests that Meryl Streep is more likely a very talented exception than harbinger of a broader trend. There is little in the data to suggest the rise of many Meryl Streeps,” the economists wrote. Contrary to the recent journalistic rhetoric touting the rise of older actresses in Hollywood, the research demonstrated a disturbing trend in the opposite direction: As older woman have become increasingly powerful over the years as members of Western society, they have been ignored in nearly equal measure on the silver screen.

And it’s not just a numbers game; the quality of major-studio roles available to women over 60 has also remained consistently poor. In 1997, five researchers judging characters in the top 20 highest-grossing movies between 1940 and 1980 found a negative correlation between older female characters and positive character qualities like goodness, socioeconomic status, intelligence, friendliness, and physical attractiveness (physical attractiveness and goodness particularly dropped off as women aged) across all five decades. A 2005 analysis of 2002’s top 100 top-grossing films found that male characters aged 60 and older played more leadership roles than women of the same age (37 percent versus 9 percent), and, as female characters aged, they were less likely to have goals within the plot than their male counterparts—a trend the researchers noted was consistent with the way older women were depicted on television and in movies in the 1980s and ’90s.

Journalists aren’t wrong to point to promising high box office returns and surmise that Hollywood would do well to incorporate more realistic, nuanced depictions of older women in big-ticket movies: While the most frequent moviegoers are still audiences within the 18–24 and 25–39 age brackets, the share of ticket sales is shifting. The latest Motion Picture Association of America U.S. theatrical statistics, from 2014, found that tickets bought by 40- and 50-something moviegoers were at all-time highs, while theaters sold fewer tickets to the 18–24 and 25–39 crowds than in previous years. Women made up the majority of moviegoers in 2014, constituting 52 percent of all people attending American theaters, which represented a slight uptick from their overall representation in the population (51 percent).

But for now, it doesn’t appear a drop-off in young audiences will change the industry’s pre-existing strategy of tailoring blockbusters to key, youthful demographics—even if it would benefit from recognizing other audiences. With little margin for error now that the number of Americans attending a movie once a week has declined by more than 75 percent since the 1940s (and with the industry spending over 40 cents more on advertising per dollar earned at the box office than it did in 1980), Hollywood still treats America’s young moviegoers like VIPs. “The more young people’s attention is fragmented,” Derek Thompson argued in The Atlantic in June, “the more expensive it is to create an audience for each film, the more desperate studios are to find franchises that birth many fruitful sequels, the more it makes sense to create fewer films and conserve production and advertising budgets for a handful of them.”

That’s not to say that today’s high-profile actresses of a certain age, the ones who star in optimistic writing about older women in Hollywood (if not bonafide blockbusters), aren’t improving employment opportunities in the film industry—faced with a tough market, several are making their own. In 2015, Streep funded the inaugural Writers Lab, a fellowship that provides script development for women writers over 40; the first round of applications received 3,500 submissions for 12 slots. This year, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the inaugural project for We Do It Together, a non-profit (with an advisory board that includes many over-40 actresses) that finances and produces entertainment projects focused on female empowerment, would be a series of short films employing director Catherine Hardwicke (60), Juliette Binoche (52), and Robin Wright (50).

These initiatives are positive developments—but, ultimately, also necessary byproducts of a continuously medieval industry that underestimates older women’s competencies and has little incentive to change. Within this larger context, it seems that reporters could tone down on hyperbole when describing the impact of older women-starring indie movies on mainstream Hollywood in the interest of continuing to hold major studios accountable.

Case in point: Earlier this summer, following the news that Mirren, star of 2015’s Woman in Gold, will have a role in the upcoming blockbuster Fast and the Furious 8, the Guardian called the casting decision “a glimmer of hope” for senior-citizen representation in blockbuster movies. A few weeks later, though, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mirren revealed that the one condition she had put forward before agreeing to appear in the film, that she would drive a car, had not been met, though she guessed she was one of the few people on set who knew how to drive a gear shift. “I doubt the Rock knows,” she said. “But I do. I know how to double de-clutch.”