Harvey Weinstein, the co-founder of Miramax and head of the new company The Weinstein Company, says Judi Dench was snubbed by three network talk shows because of her age while promoting Mrs. Henderson Presents. "They said she didn't fit their demographics. I told my mother; who was pretty offended," he said. "I mean, what do they think, 25-year-old people can't watch 70-year old people? The insanity of youth. It also assumes none of us like our families." New York Magazine
I never understood female ageism in Hollywood.
It starts by looking forward. Young girls yearn to be the cool teens of young adult cinema and television, with good looks, great love, and grand teenage success. As they mature, their desire turns toward the twenty-somethings and the first tastes of adult freedom. But all too quickly, there's the sudden glass wall and the forward-grasping journey stops dead in its tracks. Women begin to start reaching backward, desperately clutching to their youthful past and all the perks that came with it because, according to Hollywood, they have switched from young and yearning to just plain "old". Tinseltown lays out a long purgatory of life as wife, mother, and the very occasional high-powered executive for many years, and when that finally ends, there's the hell of old age ... where your only option is playing Grandma Maureen in a crappy teen comedy.
I cannot blame the "insanity of youth" like Weinstein does. The fault is not with the young people and their insanity, but rather the Hollywood machine -- the system that alienates certain age groups while also sending out wildly flawed ideas of what aging means. You may have caught this Emmy roundtable from The Hollywood Reporter last year:
Each actress/comedienne talks about the sort of roles they get offered now, and how their age comes into play. Amy Poehler remembers how she was only 8 years older than Rachel McAdams when she played her mother in Mean Girls (something not entirely new or gender-specific, especially when you think of a 36-year-old Anne Bancroft playing Mrs. Robinson to 30-year-old Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock in The Graduate). But then there's Christina Applegate discussing how she was refused a cover shoot because of her age: "they don't use anyone over 35," and given a script where she wasn't the ingenue, but the old hag next door that the man is repulsed to sleep with.
It's been very well documented that even with women like Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, or the late-superstar-breaking Helen Mirren in the biz, there is this point where actress' careers struggle in Hollywood and age ridiculousness steps in. Unless you're a woman like Bullock who doesn't seem to age over a 20-year span, what is there? Actresses over 30 usually don't get much to work with other than wife, mother, or grandmother, as if there is only married familial living, or maybe the hard road of the single and stern businesswoman, in life at that age. Not to mention how many actresses are aged to play ol' mom, like Winona Ryder in Star Trek, rather than getting an older actress.
There is no in-between, and that's the road that would make aging accessible for any audience -- that would rid us of this age divide.
Over the last few weeks, I've been watching a lot of Boston Legal, and the now-defunct television show could teach Hollywood a whole lot about ageism. In the David E. Kelley series, a 58-year-old Candice Bergen steps in to play Shirley Schmidt -- named partner and paramour for almost every man on the cast. No one attempts to mask her age and make her seem younger, more innocent, thinner, or highly cougar-sexualized. They simply allow her to be a dynamic woman as she is -- not desperate for a great man and settling for a cheese fiend. Shirley is the untouchable object of desire for James Spader, William Shatner, Tom Selleck, Craig Bierko... and never fetishized. Rather, Shirley is given what every younger female cast member has, most often with a whole lot more respect because of her intelligence and wit.
Thirty-one years younger than Ms. Bergen, I had no trouble relating to her. I love every minute that I see her as Ms. Schmidt -- even though I don't have a few marriages under my belt, or decades as a high-powered lawyer. She might be from an entirely different generation, but she works, she loves, she gets angry, she makes headway, she makes mistakes. It's no different than young women following the ladies of Sex and the City -- if it seems relevant to your life, age doesn't really matter.
Not every older woman is a wife and mother these days. And with life expectancies increasing, how we live out our lives continues to change. There are women we could relate to that are 20, 30, or 40 years older than us. We just need the chance to see them on the screen.
She was speaking of romance and beauty, but this quote from Emma Thompson still applies, as she talks about Last Chance Harvey on the film's DVD:
Just think about how ending ageism could cure a lot of that boredom. Every story, whether comedy or drama, action or romance, would have a myriad of new angles to tackle, and women to play them. In fact, there would be even more stories to tell. Actresses would be more professionally fulfilled and have reasons to embrace their age rather than so desperately fight it.I want to see people who I actually believe to exist, who are vaguely like me, falling in love. You know, who aren't perfect, who aren't so beautiful that anyone would go for them, even though there are difficulties inherent in that. But you don't see love stories about that. You just see very beautiful people falling in love with each other and I'm just bored. I'm bored; I don't care. And maybe that makes me a foul and dreadful old bat who ought to be put up against the wall and shot, but unfortunately, I fear that I am not alone.
But best of all, slicing away that wretched ageism would allow for a wonderful sense of reverence to be fostered amongst Hollywood's many talented leading women -- something that could begin to rival the adoration always held for actors like Peter O'Toole, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Clint Eastwood.
Unless we die young, we all have to face growing old -- so why not give us something to look forward to and let all of Hollywood's talent shine?