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Over the Hill and Out of Luck?

August 17, 2010

In 2005, Teri Hatcher scored a highly coveted and lucrative contract to hawk Clairol’s Nice and Easy hair color and suddenly media wonks began questioning whether or not 40 was the new 30. Five years later, with fortysomething Julia Roberts holding her own at the box office in Eat Pray Love, it seems like a good enough time to give the matter of Hollywood’s ageist double standard a closer examination.

Last weekend while screening The Expendables I was grateful to see the ageing faux boxers Drago and Rocky have their own Heat moment. (That would have been the best way to market that film. See Drag and Rock actually have a conversation!) That said, with the average age of the cast hovering around 729, I was bit cheesed to observe the love interests – as ornamental as they were – played by actors younger than me. Now, I love my Balboasarus, but c’mon. I’m sure Sela Ward, Ashley Judd (come back, Ash!) or Angela Bassett were available! What really annoyed me was Sly has never rolled this way before. Adrian was age appropriate. John Rambo didn’t have time for the ladies and hell, even Sharon Stone in The Specialists was age appropriate and had gravitas. So what the hell was he doing with this college freshman playing his love interest?

The discourse around resisting ageist conventions in casting is largely concerned with its effects on white female actors. Much has been made of the enduring beauty that is Helen Mirren, (for the record, these conversations focus on her high nudity quotient, without regard as to how race and class enable her to be positioned as both sultry and classy) but have you seen Diahann Carroll? Where’s her parade? What about accomplished character actor and director Jacqueline Kim? Nevertheless, there was a brief period of time where I found films with some age appropriate pairings.

1. Robert Redford and Helen Mirren in The Clearing

2. Robert Deniro and Angela Basset in The Score

3. Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in Shall We Dance

4. Anjelica Huston and Danny Glover in The Royal Tenenbaums

While these are all fine examples, what I have noticed in pairings of on screen partnerships is for the most part, age appropriateness is often code for bland, comfortable, mo-jo deficit relationships with the notable exception here being Robert and Angela, whose on screen relationship was fresh, interesting, but complicated by the fact she was a flight attendant and he was a cat burglar. With some reflection, perhaps these age appropriate pairings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Oh sure, Dustin Hoffman is occasionally paired with someone close to his age and by close, I mean within twenty years. I see you, Moonlight Mile. In his defense, he’s terminally youthful appearing. In researching the topic I found some interesting conversation regarding the women often paired with Will Smith. Unfortunately, the math didn’t add up: Sallie Richardson – on screen wife in I Am Legend – is a year younger than Will and his on screen wife in The Pursuit of Happyness, Thandie Newton is four years younger. Hardly a Sela Ward/Harrison Ford moment.

There is a stable of vaguely age appropriate 35+ female character/lead actors tasked with playing wives and girlfriends on film and television to older male actors: Diane Lane, Parminder Nagra, Diane Venora, Sallie Richardson, Ming-Na, Rosanna DeSoto, Laura Dern, Regina King, Ami Brabson, Lynn Whitfield and the criminally underused Joan Chen. Nevertheless the conversation remains largely focused on the barriers faced by white female actors as they suddenly find themselves aged out of roles previously available to them. Discussions from such a framework favor concerns regarding cosmetic surgery, the worship of youth vs. talent while erasing the issues affecting female actors on the margins as though they too aren’t burdened by beauty standards, which are not only sexist in nature, but also encompass the constellation of -ism experienced.

So while it’s wonderful that Julia Roberts has managed to strike another blow in Hollywood’s ageist battle for screen dominance, one exception doesn’t make the rule and the rules still don’t apply to everyone.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 6:07 pm

    I love those exceptions! Here are a few others I like:

    – Robert Forster and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown
    – Joan Allen and John Travolta in Face/Off
    – Clive Owen and Julianne Moore in Children of Men

    But the fact that way we can name probably ALL of them in this post shows how few there are in cinematic history!

  2. hsofia permalink
    August 17, 2010 8:57 pm

    Even rarer still is the woman older than the man. Forget about it! I’m older than my husband, so I pay attention to these things. The first time I recall noticing this among actors my age was also in Moonlight Mile. Jake Gyllenhaal was all into Ellen Pompeo, who is 10+ years older. In fact, when I was watching the movie, I was thinking, “Uhh, how OLD is she?” Because I couldn’t tell if she was supposed to be younger than she is, or if she was supposed to be her own age but it just wasn’t being mentioned.

    Whereas, I can watch a movie where the female romantic interest is a full 15-20 years younger than the leading man and it barely registers, if a tall. That’s just how used to it I’ve become.

    In general, I think if the leading (or co-leading) lady is well known, her age typically approximates the age of the leading man. But if they cast a nobody female against an older male star, then they cast a much younger woman. I’ve also noticed that older black male actors are almost always matched with women who are in their age range (Morgan Freeman is the exception, I think, because no one wants to believe he is in his 70s).

  3. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:12 pm

    Cheers on the criminal undercasting of Joan Chen and Angela Bassett (I boycotted the X-men movies when she was not cast as Storm). One age-appropriate pairing that got a lot of fanfare in the day was Rene Russo with Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair in 1999. They were both about 45 (gasp!) and there was a steamy sex scene.

    As for older women and younger men, I’d love to see that not depicted as some sort of weirdness. There was a lovely scene in the underrated Roger Dodger with the leading man’s 20-year-old foil being gently flirted with by nearly-30 Elizabeth Berkeley and Jennifer Beals. Roger Dodger had some flaws but in my opinion it didn’t go in the direction of gross cougar-fetish movies like Tadpole and Igby Goes Down, where the dudes are clearly too young and the women are clearly damaged in choosing them.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Judi Dench as M manifesting a sexually aware and mature but ultimately pragmatic and uncharmed, totally challenging foil to Mr. Bond.

  4. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:13 pm

    Also, is it just me, or do we never get to see Morgan Freeman paired with ANY women in a romantic or erotic dynamic???

  5. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:16 pm

    @hsofia, thanks for the mention of Moonlight Mile. I will have to check it out.

  6. August 17, 2010 10:36 pm

    @raymond – you know when I saw Face/Off in the theater the pairing of Allen and Travolta threw me for a loop. It was shocking and amazing. Obviously, my initial resistance was merely cultural instruction. Thanks for mentioning that one. Good call on Jackie Brown too! You also realize the only real exception to this age rule is Julianne Moore. She’s been playing 39-42 for nearly a decade!

    @hsofia and citizen – I think Pompeo was supposed to be a little bit older than Gyllenhaal’s character, but not by much. Also, aces for mention of the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair! Russo was the go to wife/girlfriend of the geezer set for much of the 90s!

    re: Morgan Freeman! I don’t recall ever seeing him paired on screen with ladyfriend, unless you count Ashley Judd!

    re: black actors! It’s true. I think perhaps that’s where all the confusion about Will Smith comes in. For the most part, his on screen mates are pretty close to his age. Maybe Eve Mendes is the only one who wasn’t.

  7. hsofia permalink
    August 17, 2010 10:52 pm

    Morgan Freeman is usually a loner or widower (or God) in the movies, but in Gone, Baby, Gone, he had a white wife (never seen the actress before) who looked like she might barely qualify for AARP. He had another white wife in Feast of Love, who actually had WHITE HAIR – ALL OF IT. But it was a terrible movie, don’t see it, please. He also had a black wife in The Bucket List, and they looked about the same age.

  8. August 18, 2010 12:17 am

    @hsofia: Thomas Crown Affair!! yes. damn, I still remember Rene Russo in that see-through dress. I was sad that she made a couple family movies then disappeared. She has a small part in Thor coming out next year, so maybe that will be the beginning of seeing her more. Where’s her TNT drama star vehicle?

  9. August 18, 2010 1:21 am

    @raymond – SERIOUSLY. It should be here soon, hopefully! She’d make a great cop or lawyer.

  10. August 18, 2010 8:17 am

    Even rarer still is the woman older than the man.

    @hsofia, One of the few popular films that I think gets this is also one of my favorites, Moonstruck. I don’t think the movie makes any effort to hide the actual age difference between Cage’s Ronny and Cher’s Loretta — her dye job is a key part of her Cinderella transformation. And there’s also the flirtation between Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney after he gets yet another drink thrown in his face by a younger woman.

  11. Citizen Taqueau permalink
    August 18, 2010 9:28 am

    @redlami — NICE! I’m so glad to remember Moonstruck. You’re totally right, Cher is almonst 20 years (!!!) older than Nic. I forgot all about the hairdye scene.

  12. August 18, 2010 10:15 am

    I always figured the younger woman in the role was just so the producers/directors/leading actor could have some fun. I mean, keep in mind, there is the business of casting whomever they wanted and they wanted the girl with the sweet face and the killer bod. Unless she just made a lot of trouble on set(*coughmeganfoxcough*) So there’s that element that you really didn’t focus on, and I would say that’s more than 50% of the reason this happens.

    Solution: Better variety of producers/directors + better B.O. for those types of films = Hollywood changing policies.

    If you have a gripe about the casting, look at who is doing it. Chances are it’s going to be the typical hetero white male production crew. Getting women, gays, ethnics in on it? That instantly changes everything.

    But it also relies on people supporting films that portray that kind of thing, since, when Monday morning comes around, the only thing Hollywood wants to know about are the Weekend Grosses. So if you see a film in the theater that works that way, get the word of mouth going! I think it could happen.

  13. IrishUp permalink
    August 18, 2010 10:18 am

    Love this post!
    I loved that “Julie & Julia” portrayed the steamy – and apparently true! nature of Julia & Paul’s relationship. Older normal people having teh sexay sex – HAWT!

    “Robin and Marian” paired a 47yo Sean Connery with a 48yo Audrey Hepburn. And if anything, they are played as even a bit OLDER – late middle age. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s a kind of reboot unlikely to be made today. It’s about grown-ups, and so of course doesn’t intrest the dudebro-industrial complex.

    “Bull Durham” makes a point of Annie/Susan Saradon’s preference for and success with younger men generally, and Nuke/Tim Robbins specifically, before Annie winds up with Crash/Kevin Costner.

  14. August 18, 2010 10:19 am


  15. August 18, 2010 12:27 pm

    Dean, as always you provide a thoughtful counterpoint to my posts. I definitely hear you on the Monday morning numbers game. Of course, it seems like now they don’t even bother waiting! They release Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s numbers too!

    More diversity within the ranks of casting agents can’t hurt either. I mean I love Janet & Jane, Mary Jo and the likes, but let’s get a bit more diversity among their ranks.

  16. August 18, 2010 12:28 pm

    Irish Up: LOL @ “Dudebro industrial complex”. Definitely going to check out Robin and Marion. It sounds like a winner.

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