The double standard for movie actresses

November 3, 2011

In September, I wrote about the transition of the generations between actors and how we’re at a moment where we can see it happening.

I purposely didn’t include actresses in that analysis for one main reason: Our society as a whole has a strict double-standard when it comes to men and women in the movies.

Men can be leading men, playing the heroes in romantic comedies and dramas well into their 60s. Women, on the other hand, age out of that category by the time they’re in their early 40s – if not sooner.

I’m not saying this is fair. Nor am I saying that it’s true that women over 40 aren’t sexy. Personally, I can still get excited by Catherine Deneuve and Helen Mirren – both on the north side of 65.

No, what I’m saying is that, in the minds of Hollywood executives – and, to be honest, to the demographic that drives the sale of most movie tickets – women over 40 aren’t appealing in that way. If you’re in that 12-24-year-old demo, women in their 40s don’t look like sex objects – they look like Mom.

The only time a woman over 50 gets cast these days is as the boss (think Sigourney Weaver in “Avatar”) or the mother of adult children (if not the grandmother). The only romantic comedy roles for women of a certain age focus on the novelty of someone still finding a woman over 50 to be desirable, as if someone ought to call Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Think of Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” or Meryl Streep in “It’s Complicated.”

As it happens, we’re at a very rich moment for young actresses who are breaking out in movies. Jessica Chastain, the prime example, has leapt to the fore as the new Meryl Streep in the space of this year alone, showing an astonishing range.

But there are a number of other actresses of her age and younger who are coming into their own – at a level comparable to where Ryan Gosling and his peer group are. And I’m not talking about recent discoveries like Elizabeth Olsen (so good in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), who are breaking through this year.

No, I’m thinking of actresses like Anne Hathaway, Carey Mulligan, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, Lauren Ambrose and Michelle Williams.

Still, the closest thing to female superstars that we have are actresses like Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore – but neither of them can open a movie the way Julia Roberts once could. There are a handful of women in the comedic stable who have yet to truly break through as box-office stars: Kristen Wiig and Anna Faris, for example. Yes, Wiig had a hit with “Bridesmaids” – but that’s one movie. And Faris, for all the critic-love she seems to get, is missing one key ingredient: material (which can also be translated as taste – “What’s Your Number?”, after all, was produced by her company).

But the sad truth is that, compared to actors who achieve stardom, actresses have a shorter shelf-life. Part of it is the culture – and part of it is biology. Because even the best actresses want a normal personal life which means, in many cases, marriage and kids. As they quickly discover, however, there’s no normal family life for kids on a movie set – which is why so many actresses take a hiatus to just be moms.

And the Family Leave Act unfortunately doesn’t apply to actresses, who must rely on the fickle, ever-changing tastes of audiences to keep working.

As they quickly discover, the audience has a short memory. Critics may hail the return from a lengthy (anything more than a year) parental leave of a favorite actress – Julia Roberts, for example – when they make their first film in a while. But, as in the music business, the young audience simply moves on to the newest sensation. They have no – or not much – loyalty.

And if the star in question – whether it’s Roberts or Nicole Kidman or Julianne Moore – picks the wrong script, or picks a great script that the audience isn’t interested in, well, too bad for them. They don’t have the same margin for error that actors seem to.

Suddenly, the only things they’re being offered are either low-budget independent films or character parts. Not that you can’t maintain a career that way; look at Annette Bening.

Or else they take their careers into their own hands and decide to have the best of both worlds: a cable TV series. TV, where a lot of the best writing can be found these days, allows them strong material but also the chance to stay at home and have both a family life and a work life. It worked for Glenn Close with “Damages,” Edie Falco with “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie,” and several others.

It’s not particularly fair but those are the facts, ma’am. Strike while the iron is hot, make enough to last you – and then do what you want to do.

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