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Good news! According to Hollywood, it’s okay for actresses to look like they are over 40 years old—as long as they are actually old enough to be eligible for Medicare.
Over the past few years, there seems to have been a slight uptick in the number of women over 50 in movies and on television. It’s nice to see them getting meaty roles; however, something is not quite right. Mainstream producers are casting substantially older women to play characters in their forties and fifties. What’s going on?
When I watched Lincoln, I wondered what Sally Field was doing in the movie. I didn’t remember Mary Todd Lincoln being significantly older than Abe.
Today, many women look younger in midlife than women of previous generations, but that isn’t reflected in most Hollywood productions. I first noticed this about five years ago. As a longtime Daniel Day-Lewis fan, I saw Spielberg’s Lincoln in the theater and suddenly it hit me. There she was on the screen: The Flying Nun. What the hell? I don’t remember Mary Todd Lincoln being significantly older than Abe. Was she? What is Sally Field doing in this movie? It bothered me the entire two-and-a-half hours.
The credits had barely started rolling, and I began Googling “Mary Todd Lincoln, age relative to Abe.” In fact, Mary Todd was not older than Abraham Lincoln. She was 10 years his junior. Sally Field at age 66 was playing 46-year-old Mary Todd Lincoln.
I’ve got no problem with Sally Fields’ acting ability. I like her. I really like her!
Still, it got under my skin.
The Hollywood Shuffle
And there it simmered, until I watched A&E’s recent series Feud starring Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis. Sarandon, 70, and Lange, 67, were portraying women in their mid-fifties. The acting was superb—both women were nominated for Emmy Awards—and the series was nominated for an Emmy in the category Outstanding Casting in a Limited Series. That’s the nomination that irked me. Seriously? There were no female actors in their 50s who could have brought these roles to life?
I did a quick IMDB search for female actors in their fifties. There are some amazing women in this category, but they are playing women 10 to 15 years younger.
You might wonder, what’s wrong with an older woman playing a significantly younger woman?
You might wonder, what’s wrong with an older woman playing a significantly younger woman? On the surface: Nothing. I get it. It’s acting. If you’re cast as a doctor, you don’t have to have your MD framed on the wall. What difference does it make how old you are? From that perspective, it doesn’t, but from a messaging standpoint it certainly does. Hollywood is telling us, if a woman is over 50, she might as well be over 70. It’s like once you are past a half century, you are simply part of a gaggle of interchangeable “old ladies.”
Susan Sarandon was 41 when she got the part of Annie Savoy the baseball/sex guru in Bull Durham. A studio executive thought she was too old, and she had to meet with him in person. In a 2012 interview with Sports Illustrated, she said she was told to “go to his office in a tight dress and lean over his desk for half an hour.”
Leaving aside the #metoo issue, we are stuck with a message that continues to pervade our popular culture. Woman in their 40s and 50s are assumed to be very unsexy. Here we are 30 years later, and Susan Sarandon is just now portraying a 54-year-old Bette Davis, who at that moment in her life was being sidelined from her acting career.
What Casting Could Look Like
Would Julianne Moore have played a convincing Mary Todd Lincoln? She was 51 when the movie was made. That’s in the ballpark. She could easily have been made to look less glamorous. However, then she would have been deemed, as Amy Schumer would say, past her last fuckable day. A sexless role like Mary Todd Lincoln could only be played by a woman who has already crossed the abyss.
Even when Hollywood gets it right, they get it wrong. Older women everywhere lauded the arrival of Grace and Frankie: the story of two septuagenarian housemates (Jane Fonda, 80, and Lily Tomlin, 78) and their personal trials. Like many others, I applaud the show for portraying these retirees as sexual and multidimensional.
However, the second-generation of characters are all in their early to mid-30s: more than 40 years younger than their supposed parents. Former model Brooklyn Decker is 50 years younger than Jane Fonda. Fifty! Fonda’s real-life children are in their late 40s and early 50s. Why couldn’t a still sexy 58-year-old Catherine Keener have played Jane’s daughter? Biologically it is far more plausible that Fonda was a mother at 22 than at 50. I wasn’t in the writers’ room, but I can practically hear the conversation. “Make the kids younger! This isn’t Golden Girls. We need some eye candy!” Grr.
Let’s Get Real
So where are the sexy 50-year-olds? Take Nicole Kidman for example. She just turned 50 and is regularly celebrated for her beauty and sex appeal. Last year, she appeared in both HBO’s Pretty Little Lies as a gorgeous mom (one with a dark secret) of six-year-old twins, and BBC’s Top of the Lake: China Girl, in which she’s a somewhat grizzled mother of a 17-year old.
My takeaway: In the mainstream media, there is no middle ground: You are either under 45 and hot, or over 45 and wizened.
Indulge me in a little maternal math: If we assume both characters became pregnant at the same biological age (36 for the sake of argument), the 50-year-old actress is playing a hot 42-year-old and a weathered 53-year-old. Would she have been any less believable as the mother of a 17-year-old, minus the sun damage and the gray hair?
My takeaway: In the mainstream media, there is no middle ground: You are either under 45 and hot, or over 45 and wizened. Off-screen, Kidman has a 24-year-old daughter, and her looks don’t seem to be suffering for it. Why can’t Hollywood show that as a possibility?
How we choose to age is a personal decision. My best friends and I are all in our early to mid-50s. We all take care of ourselves. Some have dabbled with Botox and fillers, some of us dye our hair, and we all try to exercise and eat right. As a result, it is possible we appear younger than our mothers did at the same age. More importantly, we are all sexy, smart and industrious women. Look around you; I’m sure your friends are the same. Just don’t look to see this Tribe on television or at the movies. Because, chances are, you’ll see someone your mother’s age on screen instead.