July 18, 2009 in Opinion

Hollywood no fan of mature women

Froma Harrop
 
Tags:column

Back when the boomers were babes, the girls would strut and preen around a stylish health food restaurant in Manhattan. No one took much note of a 70ish woman in comfy shoes who would sit quietly along the wall at lunch. She was Greta Garbo.

Garbo famously enjoyed her privacy and accepted her place in cinematic history as a young beauty. She was no Norma Desmond, the demented silent-movie star clawing for a comeback in the 1950 film noir classic “Sunset Boulevard.” Still, you’d think that simply being a regular would have afforded Garbo more attention at a restaurant.

This story came to mind on reading baby boom actress Geena Davis’ interview with The Daily Beast Web site. There are no good roles for women her age, said the 53-year-old star of such iconic feminist films as “Thelma & Louise” (1991) and “A League of Their Own” (1992). Her male co-stars, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks, are still hot box office at 45 and 52, respectively.

By most any yardstick, Davis still looks superb. Furthermore, she has a brainy appeal that should transcend starlet parts. Recall her recent role as a U.S. president in the television series “Commander in Chief.” But there Davis was, in a bare office promoting an independent film that no distributor has picked up.

The lament that Hollywood drops female stars as they age is not new. But truth be told, it’s not very friendly to women actors of any age. Martha Lauzen, a professor of communications at San Diego State University, has been tracking women’s progress in the film industry for a long time. Her conclusion: Progress has not been made.

Today only 28 percent of the movie actors with speaking parts are female. In 1946, the number was 25 percent. The few actresses chosen are mostly under 40, and even the supposedly older parts are filled with women far younger than their characters.

In “Alexander” (2004), Angelina Jolie was one year older than the actor playing her son. As the mature Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” (1967), Anne Bancroft was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman, the recent college boy she was trying to seduce. Gloria Swanson had just turned 50 when she portrayed the haggard Norma Desmond.

As a result of this odd casting, “our eyes are not used to seeing older female characters when they do show up,” Lauzen tells me. “We judge them as being older than they really are.”

Younger women get the parts “because film remains the province of male fantasies,” she adds. “The majority of individuals who are making the decisions are male.”

Two decades ago, the feminist movement was supposed to change everything for actresses like Davis. “I thought, ‘This is a new era, and I won’t have to worry’ ” about getting older, she told The Daily Beast. “It will be fixed by the time I’m 40!”

If the middle-age men running Hollywood need to surround themselves with young chicks, that’s their business. But ordinary and older women buy lots of tickets. They want to see their stories told.

Television does a better job of featuring female roles because more television writers are women, according to Lauzen. But here too there’s a proviso: The actresses playing suburban mothers on the networks tend to be size zero, and they’ve had work done (on their faces and elsewhere).

Cable offers more genuine female characters of all ages. We’ve seen them in “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “In Treatment.” Women looking for their own realities on the screen might do well to save their movie money and spend it on the deluxe cable package, instead.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.

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