In an industry that revels in youth and sex, getting older is an issue that affects any actor working in Hollywood. Movie stars have to work extremely hard to stay on top because there are countless people below them vying for their own glimpse at the spotlight.
As a woman, it seems you have to work even harder to get roles once you hit your forties – and many just don’t make it! So what is it? What is that elusive quality needed to keep a woman working in Hollywood after 40?
Sex appeal is without a doubt one of the most important factors that keeps an actor working. While completely deplorable, we all know that in our culture women are viewed as less sexually attractive as they age. On the other hand, even when looks fade, men can still get leading roles well into their fifties and beyond: Mickey Rourke, Nick Nolte and their horribly misshapen middle aged faces immediately come to mind.
Women of the same age, meanwhile, find themselves mostly relegated to playing the mother or wisecracking cleaning lady of the young starlet cast as the romantic lead in the film (As Good as it Gets from 1997 or 1954’s Rear Window).
What a lot of young actresses do not realize is that while sex appeal is important, it is not the sole quality needed to ensure your enduring power as a star. Think about Hollywood’s most famous sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe died when she was thirty six. What kind of roles do you think she possibly could have gotten when lines appeared on her face and those fabulous breasts of hers started to sink?
Monroe had undeniable charisma on the screen, but honestly, just like Megan Fox today, she didn’t have the talent required to continue on in roles that weren’t about showcasing her sexuality. While it might be fun to play a MILF in American Pie 12, once you pass a certain age, how much can you really connect with an audience in those kinds of roles?
Think about the trajectory of the career of actresses that have passed the 40 plus curse. Beyond needing the raw talent to portray roles that aren’t all about your tits and ass, the crucial element in a long career is making sure you never get typecast. Meryl Streep is the perfect example of a beautiful and talented actress who has aged gracefully from playing a Holocaust survivor (Sophie’s Choice, 1982) to a Danish plantation owner (Out of Africa 1985) to the bitch queen of New York fashion (The Devil wears Prada, 2006); she has shown she can play a variety of different roles.
At 42, Cate Blanchett is another actress who, like Streep, has the talent and versatility to continue on for many years to come. Like Katherine Hepburn, whom Blanchett won an Oscar for playing in The Aviator (2004), she is a woman who while absolutely beautiful, backs up her talent by radiating confidence instead of sexuality. There’s just something about these women that tells you they don’t take any shit from men and you love them for it.
It would be wonderful to expect one day Hollywood will start producing an equal amount of quality roles for actresses of all shapes, sizes and ages, as they do for men, but this author won’t hold her breath for it! That’s not to say there aren’t positive signs out there these days about the future of women in the movies. One of the biggest hits so far in summer 2011 is Bridesmaids, a female-driven raunchy comedy starring 38 year old Kirsten Wiig. As with most things she’s done, Wiig is absolutely hilarious in it and after years of being a supporting character in boys’ comedies deserves to become a full fledged movie star in her own right. Let’s hope she does, and does it for a lot longer than two years!