Try to imagine the most haggard and decrepit old actress you can think of. Who comes to mind? That’s right, it’s Olivia Wilde. The almost-objectively stunning Wilde recently revealed that she had been rejected for a role playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in the The Wolf of Wall Street because she was too old. At the time, she was 28 and Leo was 37. The part ended up going to Australian actress Margot Robbie, who was 21 at the time. The role in question involved portraying a real-life woman, who was 29 during the time the movie was set.
I am no mathematics expert (or ‘mathologist’ as I believe they are called), but these numbers don’t seem to add up. Neither do the numbers in a story that Maggie Gyllenhaal told last year when she revealed that she had been told she was too old to play the lover of a male actor in a film. At the time Maggie was 37 years old, and the actor? Fifty-five. Years. Of age. Again, not a mathologist, but according to my extensive calculations, this makes Maggie 18 years younger than that actor. And yet still too old to play his love interest.
Of course, this is nothing new. It’s been shown over and over again that male actors can comfortably age into their 40s, 50s and 60s, while their love interests remain in their 20s and 30s, in some kind of actress cryogenic recycling system. Almost none of these male actors are paired with women their own age, or even within shouting distance of women their own age – which is actually lucky because some of the men are so old that they wouldn’t hear the shout.
Last year Vulture published a breakdown of the film careers of some of the biggest female stars in the world, including Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence. Besides the Spider-Man movies, Emma Stone is consistently paired with men much older than her, including recent movies with Sean Penn and Colin Firth (both 30 years her senior). Jennifer Lawrence is the same, almost exclusively (outside of Hunger Games) playing opposite actors at least 15 years older than her.
Because they are starring in big movies, with big-name established male leads, and because these movies are usually written and directed by middle-aged men about their own stories, this also means that someone like Jennifer Lawrence will often have to ‘age up’ in her roles. As a 25-year-old, she is playing roles that, in an ideal world, would be suitable for actresses in their 30s or 40s. Not only does this mean that we don’t get to see actresses like Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence literally acting their age, but more importantly, it also means that older actresses that could play those roles in really interesting ways are passed over.
Male actors can comfortably age into their 40s, 50s and 60s, while their love interests remain in their 20s and 30s.
Of course, Hollywood doesn’t give us enough women’s stories in general. In 2014, only 12 per cent of movies featured a female protagonist, a number that dropped from the previous two years. And when it does show us women onscreen, it’s often only an extremely narrow type of woman. Hollywood’s idea of diversity is movie after movie starring 25-year-old beautiful thin white women, as well as the occasional ‘gift’ movie starring 60–70-year-old beautiful thin white women like Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep. The young women are the whores; the older women are the crones. Often all that is left for those in-between is to play someone’s mother, in a movie probably not about the mother. A mother, or a witch. Meryl Streep has told the story that the year after she turned 40, she was offered three different roles as a witch. How are there even that many movies about witches? Is there some kind of mother-witch combination character we could let them play to increase diversity?
So what happens when they are too old to be considered fuckable by 55-year-old men, but too young to be considered for the roles given to 60-year-old women? If it feels like they just disappear from the face of the earth, it’s because they practically do. A study carried out by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that in a single year, across more than 400 scripted movies, TV shows and digital series from ten major media companies, almost 80 per cent of characters aged 40 or over were men. Eighty. Per. Cent. Not even 80 per cent of people love Beyoncé (which is wrong by the way, it should be 100 per cent).
And of course, most of those men will be paired off with actresses in their 20s. For women, no such luck. The roles begin to dry up, they begin to be told they are too old to play a viable romantic role, and then if they do come back into the public eye after time away, they are ridiculed for ageing, like Renee Zellweger. “What happened to her face?” people scream. Um, she aged like a normal human? Shocking, I know.
When we don’t get to see women on film aging out of their 20s, and we don’t get to see their faces developing laugh lines, experience, age and character, this is what happens. We are the ones who miss out. We are missing out because there aren’t enough women making movies portraying their own lives. We still have to rely on men to make the decisions about the stories and faces that we get to see. They’ve proven again and again that they are not up to the job. They have proven that what they care most about is the standard definition of youthful beauty to the exclusion of everything else.
And that everything else is what we should be allowed to see. We all miss out when such a large group is shoved to the side. We all miss out when we toss women aside once they pass the age of 35. There is so much untapped potential, so many interesting and diverse and amazing and beautiful women we could be witnessing play out their lives on screen. As the number of women behind the scenes grows, we will see this happen more and more.
But I wish it would happen faster – I’m getting old.