You may have noticed some older faces on the big screen this summer. We’ve had “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” featuring a 63-year-old Emma Thompson, as well as “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” starring Lesley Manville, 66, and “Top Gun: Maverick” showcasing Tom Cruise, who just turned 60, in a role that twins action and romance.
These films showcase older actors in action roles, sex scenes and love stories—and received positive reviews—but the bulk of Hollywood movies still fail to show seniors, particularly older women, in a positive light.
“It is relatively easy to name a few films featuring characters over 50, particularly male characters. Liam Neeson has continued to make formulaic action films well past his 50s. It is more difficult to name more than a few films featuring female characters over 50. After naming a couple of films featuring well-known actresses like Lesley Manville or Emma Thompson, the exercise becomes much more difficult,” said Martha Lauzen, founder and executive director for the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and professor of television, film and New Media at San Diego State University.
“ In ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ Gloria Swanson was portrayed as old and washed up. She was 50 years old. Now we have Tom Cruise playing a romantic story line in a blockbuster movie at 60. ”
— AARP film and TV critic Tim Appelo
“Historically and even today, the nature of portrayals are quite different depending on the gender of the character. Males pursue lives of adventure, public lives brimming with importance. In contrast, most female characters simply have disappeared or have been confined to domestic spaces, living with mental or physical limitations. ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ and ‘Mr. Skeffington’ come to mind, Lauzen said. “That’s one of the reasons why Frances McDormand’s character in ‘Nomadland’ was so refreshing and unique. She played a woman over 50 experiencing the expanse of the American West on her own.”
There were twice as many male characters as female characters over 50 in films last year, Lauzen said. In total, 24% of male characters, but only 12% of female characters were over 50.
“Female characters begin to disappear from the screen in substantial numbers around the age of 40,” Lauzen said.
Ageism is pervasive throughout all aspects of Hollywood, from the director’s chair to the writers to the actors.
“The norm is to portray older people, and older women in particular, as zombies, ghosts, evil stepmothers, senile people degraded by dementia, poor health, etc.” said Barbara Zecchi, professor of cinema at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“It is true that we have more and more exceptions to this rule, but they are so exceptional that they almost backfire and serve to confirm the norm. I’m thinking about women actors such as Jane Fonda, Sharon Stone, Lucy Liu, Glenn Close, Jennifer Lopez, Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, among many others, who are quite glamorous. They show us that we can age successfully,” Zecchi said.
A study of older actors by the retirement residence company Amica Senior Lifestyles found that only 2% of top 2021 movies featured senior lead actors. Amica defined “senior” as 60 and older.
The roles for seniors tend to be stereotyped as politicians, monarchs, and high-ranking military officials, Amica found. Also, almost 80% of senior characters were played by white actors, and seniors were more likely to be movie villains than heroes, the study found.
Yeshiva University business school professors Shu Han and S. Abraham Ravid looked at the films made through 2018 by all U.S. directors who started their careers between 1995 and 2015, and they found that the probability of hiring drops by about a half as a director ages from 40 to 55.
Meanwhile, a 2020 Writers Guild of America report found that people over 55 accounted for only 18% of screenwriters employed in 2019 and just 12% of TV writers employed in the 2019-2020 TV season.
The scarcity of older people involved in films comes even as seniors are heavy spenders on entertainment.
People aged 55 to 64 spent more than $3,520 on entertainment in 2020, making them second only to the 35 to 44 age bracket, said AARP film and TV critic Tim Appelo. Those over 65 spent about $2,300 on entertainment, he said.
“We need to change the conversation about aging. Older people are filled with potential. Hollywood would make more money if they paid attention. We like to see ourselves on screen. And it’s not just older people. People are watching cross-generationally,” Appelo said, citing the popularity of Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building,” which mixes Selena Gomez, 30, with Steve Martin, 76, and Martin Short, 72.
Appelo said while there is still progress to be made on ageism in Hollywood, the recent burst of movies with characters over 50 in lead roles makes him more hopeful than other media watchers.
“In ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ Gloria Swanson was portrayed as old and washed up. She was 50 years old. Now we have Tom Cruise playing a romantic story line in a blockbuster movie at 60,” said Appelo.
Appelo also pointed to “A Love Song,” in which the lead actors Dale Dickey, age 60, and Wes Studi, age 74, share their first romantic on-screen kiss in their careers as seniors.
“This would not happen in days gone by,” Appelo said. “Stars are having the best years of their careers older in life.”
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