Ladies, start your engines. I’m calling bullshit on the myth that Hollywood discards women of a certain age – namely, the forty-plus set. Internet obsession over Renée Zellweger’s recent red carpet appearance and the endless dissection of her did-she-or-didn’t-she cosmetic surgery choices have dragged up another well-worn hot topic: The purported invisibility of women over 40 in Hollywood. What was once an upwardly trending reality is now nothing more than a myth used – both conveniently and erroneously – in bigger (and more important) discussions on feminist topics.
It’s an easy fallback for folks to trot out the same old adage about women over 40 in Hollywood being dead, invisible, or [insert your own adjective here] in our (largely) ageist society. But it’s an assertion with little evidence to back it up these days and an old, misleading headline that needs to be retired.
In fact, the opposite is true. Women of a certain age aren't merely enjoying greater visibility on the screen – they’re dominating the field. What’s even better is that these demographic-defying actors come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ethnicities. Some come au naturel with their marvelous character-defining lines and wrinkles intact, others nipped and tucked and plumped to varying degrees. But they’re here and ever-present – not some forgotten castoffs relegated to background scenes. These women are proving that they've got the acting chops and audience appeal to carry their own shows, and even those in supporting roles are increasingly being elevated with juicy material that renders them veritable scene stealers, in comedic and dramatic arenas alike.
In ten minutes of free association, I was able to compile the following list of over seventy-five actresses, age 40 and above, who are currently either headlining or featured as series regulars on TV shows within the past season or two: Juliana Margulies, Téa Leoni, Jessica Lange, Viola Davis, Kathy Bates, Jane Lynch, Bebe Neuwirth, Christine Baranski, Halle Berry, Linda Gray, Vera Farmiga, Margo Martindale, Octavia Spencer, Laurie Metcalf (headlining two shows), Judith Light, Susan Sullivan, Angela Bassett, CCH Pounder, Frances Conroy, Mariska Hartigay, Madeline Stowe, Julia Ormond, Gillian Anderson, Heather Locklear, Dame Maggie Smith, Famke Jensen, Melissa McCarthy, Swoosie Kurtz, Toni Collette, Tina Fey, Debra Messing, Alison Janney, Madeline Stowe, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jackie Weaver, Edie Falco, Holland Taylor, Robin Wright, Laura Linney, Laura Dern, Amy Brenneman, Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Fran Drescher, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, Connie Britton, Kate Burton, Bellamy Young, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Katey Sagal, Anna Gunn, Elizabeth McGovern, Linda Hunt, Jessica Walter, Patricia Heaton, Courtney Cox, Laura Leighton, Elisabeth Shue, Frances Fisher, Joan Cusack, Ann Dowd, Sherry Stringfield, Sophia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Susan Lucci, Rebecca Wisocky, Roselyn Sanchez, Mary McDonnell, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Stockard Channing, Marcia Gay Harden, Carrie Preston, Virginia Madsen, Mädchen Amick, Nancy Travis, Kate Walsh, Andrea Parker, Dee Wallace, Conchata Ferrell, Courtney Thorne-Smith , and Mimi Kennedy, with Alfre Woodard, Melissa Leo, and Carla Gugino slated to soon join them. And this was without trying; there are likely more.
Even vets like Shirley MacLaine, Linda Lavin, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tyne Daly, Dame Diana Rigg, Lili Taylor, Megan Mullally, Elizabeth Perkins, Margaret Colin, Veronica Cartwright, Mare Winningham, June Squibb, Carol Kane, Rita Moreno, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Morgan Fairchild, Patricia Kalember, Gail O’Grady, and the late Elizabeth Peña have shown up recently in meaty guest roles on hit TV shows.
Women in the 40+ demographic were also well-represented in the 2014-2015 pilot TV season, with Jamie Lee Curtis, Rosie Perez, Paget Brewster, Sharon Gless, Molly Shannon, Felicity Huffman, Tracy Ullman, Meg Ryan, Margaret Cho, Marcia Cross, Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Wettig, and Ellen Burstyn (who’s nonetheless been a visible TV presence in adaptations of two V.C. Andrews’ novels for Lifetime) all attached to shows vying for slots on the network’s fall and midseason schedules.
Women are faring well in feature films as well, headlining blockbusters and dominating nominations throughout awards season. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Glenn Close, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, Julia Roberts, Melissa McCarthy (again), Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman, Tilda Swinton, Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon, Diane Lane, Helena Bonham Carter, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Bette Midler, Jodie Foster, Sally Field, Diane Keaton, Joan Allen, Sela Ward, and, of course, Meryl Streep – all viable, all working.
Even in a traditionally male-oriented market like horror, women of a certain age are being afforded great reverence and opportunity. Lifetime’s recent adaptation of Stephen King’s novella BIG DRIVER featured a mostly female cast, all over the age of 40: Maria Bello (47), Joan Jett (56), Ann Dowd (58), and Olympia Dukakis (83). TALES OF POE, an anthology film by Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly, features genre vets Adrienne King, Amy Steel, Lesleh Donaldson, Desiree Gould, Debbie Rochon, and Caroline Williams – all actresses well into their 40s and 50s, some of whom have worked only intermittently since their earlier heydays. Or there’s THE SURVIVORS, a project currently in development by William Butler, which is slated to feature a veritable who’s who of final girls and femme fatales, all of whom are 40-plus.
In horror-themed series television, Ryan Murphy seems to be the pied piper of actresses over 40, creating attention-grabbing dream roles and single-handedly making last names like Lange and Bates water cooler-worthy topics of conversation. Arguably, THE WALKING DEAD’s most popular character right now is Carol Peletier, a strong, pragmatic zombie-survivalist who’s kicking ass and taking names – played by 49-year-old Melissa McBride. To note, THE WALKING DEAD is viewed by upwards of 15 million people per week.
But, admittedly, there are roles that women over the age of forty are routinely being locked out of: The ingénue. And that’s because (wait for it) they’re no longer ingénues. There’s a difference between realism and relevance that gets muddied when these misguided laments start. No, Goldie Hawn can’t pull off the ditzy ingénue anymore like she was lucky enough to do well into her early 40s in films like PROTOCOL, WILDCATS, and OVERBOARD. No filler or lifestyle lift can bring those offers back to her. Jamie Lee Curtis can’t likely perform a striptease like she did in TRUE LIES again and expect to achieve the same effect on audiences that she did at the age of 36. No amount of Activia or clean living is going to contradict that fact. But neither of these actors is less than because of those age-related realities, nor is either rendered less relevant because of them. As mentioned earlier, Curtis – at age 55 – was the lead in a CBS pilot this past year, and she remains attached to an ABC Family pilot. She guested on three episodes of FOX’s THE NEW GIRL in 2014, shot a film with George Lopez and Marisa Tomei, and showed up in a cameo role in the VERONICA MARS movie. She’s far from irrelevant.
Bringing it back full circle to the topic that started me down this road of thought, Ms. Zellweger is a seasoned Hollywood player, not a naïve ingénue. She knew exactly what she was doing when she stepped out onto that red carpet and what kind of reaction it would elicit when she did so, smiling and posing for photographers. Unless she's lived under a rock, she knew exactly the kind of scrutiny her appearance would bring and what kind of media trolls it would summon. Now she's getting more media attention and sympathy for the vitriol hurled by the Internet hobgoblins than she's had in years. Sorry, but she (and her publicist) knew exactly what they were doing and have played their hand exceptionally well. When was the last time Renée Zellweger was a top-trending topic anywhere? PEOPLE, VANITY FAIR, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER...almost every major entertainment media outlet is spinning this in a Zellweger-positive direction. You couldn't buy this kind of publicity. In our celebrity-obsessed pop culture, the haters are going to hate anyway...at least exploit that hate and gain some seriously good PR for a talented actress who stepped out of the limelight a long time ago.
It's called a silver lining.
Mark my words: There’s a new movie or TV role announcement forthcoming that will welcome yet another actress of a certain age back into the fold. Bet on it.